I was a little reluctant, not because I like dogs, but because I don’t. Having cultivated a reputation as one of the shock troops of experimental cuisine, however, I was left with little choice. “I‘m off to lunch,” I announced airily one day to my colleagues at the newspaper where I worked. “Anyone care to join me for a bite of dog?” I had no takers among my Western colleagues.
Nor were my Cambodian friends more enthusiastic, insisting that only Vietnamese people have a taste for it. (Then again, in neighboring Vietnam they say the same of Cambodians.) And in fact, Phnom Penh’s restaurant scene is not lacking in cuisine of canine provenance. Without much trouble I found two establishments serving dog.
The one I chose was nothing fancy — no menus, no tablecloths, no candles, not even a roof, for that matter — just a rough wooden table by the side of the road and, sitting next to it over a fire, a big, bubbling pot of fragrant dog stew. In lieu of a tuxedoed maitre d‘, a couple of piglets snuffled around under the table, eating scraps that I decided not to try to identify.
I took a seat, and pointed meaningfully at the pot. I was famished, really. A motorcycle-taxi driver soon pulled in and bellied up to the table next to me. Definitely Cambodian — not Vietnamese — but perhaps he was expanding his cultural horizons.
Penthoeun, the proprietor of the unnamed bistro, dug energetically around in the pot, looking for a good piece. He figures that he personally has killed about seven dogs a day on average since he opened up in 1980, not long after the Khmer Rouge regime fell. That’s more than 50,000 Fidos, but who‘s counting? His suppliers bring them in from the countryside alive, in sacks, and sell them for up to 20,000 riel ($5) apiece. Black ones, supposed to be the tastiest, fetch the best price.
After tying a cord around the animal’s neck, Penthoeun delivers a sharp blow with a stick just below the ear. Then, without further ado, Rover is ready for cleaning — and the pot.
The result, chien au gingembre, has an unsubtle yet engaging piquancy that sat right up and begged for attention. Each morsel was bathed in an oily sauce that fortunately does not conceal the dangerously sharp and irregular bones, reminiscent of goat. On the side I had sliced pup liver, a surprisingly delicate, smooth-textured treat without the overbearing richness that makes most internal-organ dishes a bit heavy.
For 10,000 riel ($2.50), Penthoeun said, he would happily kill and clean any dog brought to him. His offer called to mind a particularly relentless barker in Philadelphia that used to keep me up all night. And if one were to ask for cat? “We will find a cat and prepare it,” Penthoeun said helpfully.
In case you‘re wondering, no, Penthoeun does not have a dog of his own.
“If I had a dog as a pet and someone came and took it, to use as food,” he explained, “I would be embarrassed.” Indeed, Penthoeun’s career choice has done nothing for his public image. “I keep a low profile with my neighbors,” he said. “Killing and cooking dogs, it gives me a bad reputation, but what can I do? It‘s just my kind of business.”
One other thing about the flavor. You know how sometimes you pet a dog, and hours later you can still smell dog on your hands? The same thing happens when you eat them, although of course the stench is in your mouth, not on your hands. This is something I probably should not have mentioned to my girlfriend — a vegetarian — as I gave her a ride out to the airport later that day. A goodbye kiss was out of the question. But that’s culinary adventure for you. If you can‘t take the heat, stay out of the kitchen.