Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Taking Cambodia's Banned Street Food To The UK

An article I wrote for the British Street Food Awards 2012...

At the British Street Food Awards, we like to think that we know our business. Check out our knowledge of world street food HERE. But we don’t know everything. Alex Watts does. The travelling journalist, and sometime chef, writes the food blog CHEF SANDWICH – and we’re huge fans. So when he offered to write us an atmospheric piece about a side to world street food we hadn’t seen first hand, we jumped at the chance.

WALK DOWN any road in Cambodia, and you’ll see street food – sometimes an ingenious bicycle-driven cart hooked up to a car battery, sometimes a stall with a few plastic chairs to perch on.

There are old women pushing barrows of freshwater clams that are slowly ‘cooked’ on a metal tray in the morning sun for an hour or two, baguette stalls (a hangover from French imperialists) serving Cambodia’s version of the banh mi, and sometimes hawkers flogging local delicacies like fried tarantula, bugs, snakes and duck foetuses.

But the most memorable – and easily the best for my money – has to be the spit-roast cows (koo dut) you see being slowly cooked in the street next to crowds of tooting mopeds. The hunks of grilled veal are always served the same way, with a tray of crudités, salt, pepper and lime dip, and Cambodia’s fermented fish ‘cheese’ prahok.

I’m so impressed with the dish, I’ve been toying with the idea of setting up a ‘koo dut’ street food stall when I get back to the UK. I’m not sure how it would take off, and I know I’ll have more chance of getting hold of a Dodo egg in Blighty than prahok. But I reckon hunks of spit-roast calf would go down well on an English common with the sound of leather on willow and the chink of warm beer glasses.

In readiness, I’ve worked on a couple of koo dut stalls to watch how they do it – starting the day by butchering and washing the carcass, and then filling the belly with lemon grass, lime leaves and rice paddy herbs before sewing up the cavity. And then constantly feeding the coals as the beast slowly spit-roasts for hours.

Of course, I know I’ll be facing far more stringent street food regulations in the UK, and will have to fill out forms giving details of everything from my inside leg measurement to the name of the calf before the council offers me a pitch. But there’s one ludicrous law that recently came in over here that I won’t have to worry about.

The Cambodian government, in its wisdom, has banned restaurants and stalls from spit-roasting cows in public – over claims they incite violence and are bad for the image of Cambodia. It follows a meeting by the Supreme Council of the Mohanikaya Buddhist order, which decided the sight of roasting carcasses glorifies the killing of animals.

Other officials cited hygiene concerns about cooking in the street, which is ridiculous when you see the state of many indoor kitchens here, and the dozens of busy food stalls perched on every corner.

I’m delighted to say that so far the ban has been widely ignored with barbecued cows still on display in the capital Phnom Penh and in the tourist hub of Siem Reap.

But however much it is against Buddhist sensibilities, I think it’s a shame if the government does enforce the ban. It would undoubtedly lead to a lot of restaurants and stalls closing, and a lot of families being plunged on to the bread line.

The government should be showcasing these dishes, and promoting the country’s badly-marketed cuisine, rather than ordering them to be swept off the streets. Perhaps if there is a major crackdown, a koo dut stall in England wouldn’t be such a bad idea after all…

UPDATE: Sadly, the Cambodian government got tough with restaurants flouting the ban, and threatened to close them down. Now you won't see a spit-roast calf on display anywhere in Cambodia (they're being cooked in kitchens and yards at the back). The only koo dut advertising allowed is on beer signs like the one below. Mmmm beer. Now that never causes violence does it.

MORE: Ten Days In Cambodia: Street Food, Spit Roasts And Freshly Boiled Crabs

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