Khmer BBQ Demonstrates Biological Differences

posted by Peter McDonald

Downtown Siem Reap doesn’t really feel Cambodian. Its bars and restaurants represent cuisine from every cranny of the world, ranging from pizza and spaghetti, to nachos and margaritas, to Irish beer and burgers, to Indian nan with butter paneer. In fact, due to a history of foreign involvement — Cambodia only gained independence from France in 1953, followed closely by Khmer Rouge genocide and the Vietnam War — the entire country lacks a distinct culinary identity. So on one of the first few nights of our trip, about ten of us set out to find true local food.

One of our guides, Yut, had recommended a traditional Khmer-style barbeque restaurant. Yut is an ex-monk who speaks great English, knows more group games than a camp counselor, and tells more bad jokes than the average dad. He wears aviator-style sunglasses under a wide-brim straw hat. We valued his opinion and decided to give the restaurant a try. It was a bad decision.

Our Tuk Tuk drivers dropped us off in the black night. We told them to come back in an hour and a half. The only lights discernible along the dirt road were Christmas lights around the restaurant’s perimeter. Except for an absence of any music or surrounding life, the place could have passed as a typical Mexican restaurant from the road. As we slowly crossed into the open-air patio, we felt the stare of every diner, waiter, and cook, as well as his or her relatives, neighbors and extended family. These people had never seen tourists in their restaurant. We were alien life forms.

We managed to choose a table and sit down.  A waiter placed three metal contraptions in front of us, lit flames under each one, and disappeared. We looked at each other for direction, but none of us had answers. The other diners continued to stare. We watched as a few locals walked up to a buffet area, grabbed a tray, and slopped raw meat and vegetables onto their plate. They transferred the contents of their plates to their own metal grills. No way, we thought. They can’t expect us to cook our own food? That’s not safe!

The walk from our table to the meat line was a slow one. I contemplated the safety of our situation. Every warning I had ever heard about foreign countries, especially the undeveloped kind, discouraged consumption of raw food. How would we know the meat was done? Did we even know how to work the dome-shaped grills on our table? Was it too late to just go to KFC? The Tuk Tuks had left. We were stuck.

Then came our savior in the form of a small, shy Cambodian waiter. He walked up to me as I stared blankly at trays of raw mystery meats, labeled in Khmer and sitting unrefrigerated in the heat of the night. I swatted a couple flies as we spoke.

“You American?” he asked.

“Yes! Do you speak English?”

He laughed and pinched his fingers together to show me how little he spoke. “You speak Khmer?”

I laughed and said, “No, I wish. Can you tell me the kinds of meat?” In speaking to people who don’t know much English, it always seems better to take out small words and emphasize others. I put special emphasis on “kinds” and “meat.” I don’t know why. But he understood. He was able to point me to the beef, chicken, and shrimp. We began to load up our plates with the meats we could identify, adding small portions of greens and rice noodles.

One of the girls looked up from her plate at one point and met the eyes of an old, grinning Cambodian woman, blatantly staring at her through the plastic behind the meat line. As long as we laughed awkwardly and avoided eye contact, the woman never stopped grinning, and never stopped watching. Then she was gone as quick as she came. We were so obviously clueless, and the locals loved it.

Back at our table, we dumped the meat onto the grills and prayed.

“God, I hope I don’t get sick,” somebody said.

“I don’t think this is safe.”

“I don’t feel good about this.”

“Guys, I’m scared.”

We all were, but took comfort in the fact that the waiter basically did everything for us. If anybody ever gave tips in Cambodia, he would have earned an enormous one. He flipped our meat on the grill, moved things around, told us when it was done, and even brought us some warm Angkor Beer.

After cooking our meat until it looked edible, we began to eat. Slowly, we gained confidence and most people actually went back for seconds. We found a tray of already-cooked mystery meat-on-a-stick. It had an odd, rubbery-but-juicy consistency. In mid-bite, a cat with only half a tail ran under our table. I wondered if my meat-on-a-stick was the other half.

Once our plates were somewhat clean, we decided it was time to bid the place adieu. Most of us had felt uncomfortable the entire meal, and just wanted the whole experience to come to a close. We tipped the waiter about four dollars, which made his eyes light up like a toddler on Christmas morning. He wasn’t used to tips, but he earned that one. After all, his help was probably the reason none of us got sick.

Just kidding, a couple of us did get sick, which is no surprise whatsoever. We cooked and ate unrefrigerated meat in a foreign country. We consumed bacteria that simply don’t exist in our sheltered home environment. We exposed ourselves to germs and parasites, against which our bodies had no chance. That experience taught us to be more careful and less adventuresome, but it also offered an interesting perspective on cultural differences.

While developed countries like the United States have the technology, medicine, and infrastructure to keep citizens healthy, their people simultaneously become weak. Growing up, our bodies are not exposed to many of the world’s bacteria and sicknesses, and therefore react violently when we finally meet.

In undeveloped countries like Cambodia, due to limited medical care, people tend to build natural resistance to illnesses and bacteria over the course of their lives. For that reason, their immune systems seem to be far stronger than those in developed nations.

The locals at the barbeque restaurant ate that food every night. They never got sick. They never thought twice. They didn’t have to. We did.

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