From my desk, as I write this, in a lofty room in a soaring new hotel in Phnom Penh, I can look down at the bustling streets and see the concrete, mosque-meets-spaceship dome of the Cambodian capital’s famous Central Market. Which also happens to be the place where, twenty years ago, I ate the single most disgusting thing in my life. A dried frog.
This thing, this whole dried frog, was so repulsive in taste and texture — like eating a tiny, desiccated alien made of poisonously rancid rubber — that I seldom choose to recall it. But today I am forced to, because of the intriguing news from South Korea that the Seoul government is going to ban the eating of dogs. This has got me thinking about the weird attitudes we all have to the consumption of unusual foodstuffs, from frogs to algae to golden retrievers.
Dog restaurants used to spit roast the whole hound out front; now the pooch is prepped out the back
It has also made me determined to eat a dog, here in Phnom Penh, where I am told they are still quietly available. And I’m going to do this because one of the leitmotifs of my traveling life has been: try everything. Especially when it comes to food. And the more unusual the better — because daring culinary experimentation, like going to remote and difficult places, broadens the mind. To understand a culture, a people, a civilization, it helps to know what they prohibit and what they eagerly poach and serve with pak choi.
For instance, the reason I ended up eating dried frog is because I was on a journalistic tour of South-East Asia, from China to Indonesia and all stops in between, to sample the most exotic or disgusting (delete as you feel) edibles. And this odyssey of gastro-oddities was properly educational.
In Skuon, Cambodia, I ate a tarantula roasted in soup powder, a local speciality served by nice ladies who carry the spiders on tin trays balanced on their heads. Locals proclaim to love them. I hated mine and got through barely half of it (the mere word “thorax” can still make me gag), before I guiltily and discreetly dropped it on the ground and kicked it under a car, scared that someone might notice and say: “Oh my God look he’s just wasted half a tarantula.”
More profoundly, I learned why Cambodians in Skuon eat tarantulas. It is because during the Khmer Rouge days they were so hungry they had no choice, so they turned to the spiders, big and black and fat, and transformed them into a delicacy. I wonder if the French did the same with snails — ran out of food, then some bright spark said: “Mon Dieu, let’s eat the snails!” Bingo: escargots. I also wonder if we have all done the same to oysters. Because, as Jonathan Swift wrote, it was a brave man who first tried an oyster.
I have encountered the same principle — strange foods arising from privation — elsewhere in the world. In Iceland, for example, they don’t have much to eat apart from fish so they eat any old bollocks, especially old ram’s bollocks preserved in sour fat. They also eat whale, which is not so bad (like a kind of fishy beef) and puffin (which is really quite bad: think fishy, gamey liver).
Particularly notorious is hakarl, which is shark meat buried underground for months at a time to purge the urinous ammonia which soaks the meat. It is pungent and rubbery, and tastes like compressed, cheesy tofu. It’s not nice (wash it down with Brennivin, the local schnapps) but it’s not quite as horrific as the legend claims. In terms of appalling smell, it is easily outdone by the tin of fermented silkworm larvae I once opened in Seoul. The instant stench was so bad I had to wrap the whole thing in two plastic laundry bags then go outside the hotel and dump it all in a municipal bin.
Then there are the many weird, shocking, surprising or horrible meats that turn out to be OK. Bear is nice in small doses (had it in Finland). Elk is yum. Alligator can be pleasant enough. Kangaroo is tough but acceptable. Snake tastes like — yes — chicken. Guinea pig is a little gamey but agreeable if well cooked. As for balut, which is a half-formed duck embryo eaten when it is still inside the carefully boiled egg, that is positively delicious — eggy duck meat! — if you can get over the concept of eating an embryo, and the crunch as you get through the tiny skull and feathery bones. Sorry if you are eating your breakfast as you read this.
And so to dog. It was my Khmer friend Chann who told me that cooked dog can be found in Phnom Penh if you search hard enough. It is not illegal, but it is increasingly frowned upon. Whereas dog restaurants used to spit roast the whole hound out front, nowadays it is generally flamed in parts, or the pooch is prepped out the back. Generally it is referred to by euphemisms — “special meat” or “tiny cow,” the same way the Cornish, these days, market pilchards (ugh) as Cornish sardines (mmm!).
After half an hour’s tuk-tuk ride, we rock up. And there it is. A whole dog head is roasting on the barbie, so there’s no denying what we’re eating. As we sit down, the sexy leather — skirted roast-dog lady serves us a plate of the meat with green salad, herbs and a dipping sauce. Trying to forget my lifetime of seeing dogs as pets, almost as members of the family, I tuck in. And… it’s alright. Like a kind of chewy goose. I wouldn’t choose it in a restaurant, but it is far from repellent.
My conclusion? Meat is meat. If you are prepared to eat meat, there really isn’t any form you should morally abhor, unless it presents a health threat, or you reject particular husbandry techniques (and this roast dog in Phnom Penh probably had a far better life than most battery chickens in the US). Also, it is surely wrong if effete, fastidious, hypocritical and generally western attitudes to unusual foods are going to dominate the world. If we let this childish absurdity prevail, the gastronomic variety of the planet will diminish. And we will all miss out on those yummy duck embryos.
Finally, eating dogs strikes me as the perfect solution to the UK’s XL Bully problem. As the new prohibition comes into effect, it is said hundreds may have to be put down. Time to whip out the old barbie and conjure up a nice peanut dipping sauce.