Snips and snails and puppy dog tails used to be jokingly
referred to as the stuff little boys were made of, but with inflation running
at 22 per cent, some Cambodians say that for them, these are increasingly
constituting the basics of a meal, dpa
In fact the only animals which may find themselves somewhat safer are more traditional staples like cattle and buffalos, as farmers increasingly turn to them over petrol-fuelled machinery for field work.
Petrol is currently around 1.25 dollars a litre in a country where the majority of people earn less than a dollar a day.
"We need to turn our direction from tractors and other engines to buffalos as fuel prices rise," Long Rasmei, director-general of agriculture in northern Siem Reap province, 300 kilometres from the capital, told a group of journalists last week.
A kilogram of beef now costs around 5 dollars, and pork 3 dollars - double the price of a few years ago.
And although consumers complain that exotic protein foods like rats, dogs and insects have also felt the jolt of inflation - rat meat prices have quadrupled in a year and a juicy rice paddy rodent can now cost up to 75 cents - they remain cheaper, and therefore increasingly more appetizing, alternatives.
In Battambang, 300 kilometres north-west of Phnom Penh, Heiy Pha, 42, says her "special meat" restaurant is doing a roaring trade.
Roasted and spiced dog and rat are drawing customers in droves. Her famous sour fermented rice and ant juice sauce also gets rave reviews.
"The only drawback for me is that I can't go anywhere without every dog in the street going crazy - they seem to know instinctively what I do and what I eat, but it's a small price to pay," she says.
"My sons can catch 20 to 30 rats per day in the wet season, and they sell for around 60 cents each, while I get busy slaughtering and dressing the dogs for the pot, and each dog makes me a 7.50 dollars profit per carcass," she says.
Snails, a snip at just 12 cents a kilogram fresh, make a popular drinking snack and go for 25 cents a kilogram stir fried in sauce.
Cambodians seldom drink on an empty stomach, but rather than barbecued beef, some now opt for cheaper snacks like skewered water snakes or dried puffer fish, apparently undeterred by regular reports of sickness or even death from eating improperly prepared and therefore poison-laced puffers.
Many Cambodians would starve rather than eat traditionally unclean meat such as dog, but Khmers have accepted creepy crawlies as cuisine for centuries, and eating bugs, known more scientifically as entomophagy, is also making a comeback.
In a tiny eatery in downtown Phnom Penh, chef Om Ra does brisk trade with a signature dish which packs a distinctive bite.
The 23-year-old sautés tender, garlicky fillet beef before adding a generous scoop of the crucial ingredient; red weaver ants, coating the meat in a crunchy flurry of tiny legs and wings.
It's a dish which had once become hard to find in the capital but is coming back into fashion amid the global food crisis.
"It's one of the most popular dishes, but before I started here, I didn't know how to cook it. An old man from the provinces taught me," he says. "The ants add a piquancy that is similar to lemon or tamarind but completely distinctive. There is no real substitute."
"I buy ants by the kilo at the market every morning for around 12,000 riel (3 dollars). It's amazing how many ants fit into a kilo, and the customers come from miles around."
In the city's sprawling Central Market, vendors clamour to sell an array of tasty morsels including roasted giant water beetles, fried cricket and whole tarantulas.
"When I am short of beef I throw a handful of steamed silkworms into the stir fry with vegetables," vendor Srey Nha tells a shopper new to the joys of bugs but no stranger to rising food prices.
"It makes the meat go so much further, and it gives the dish a delicious nutty flavour that is much cheaper than using cashews."
The craze for "special meats" as the sellers euphemistically refer to them, shows no sign of abating, according to fans.
Indeed, the Khmer-language Rasmei Kampuchea daily recently ran a front page story quoting a Health Ministry official as saying the capital alone needs 500 dogs per day to supply market demand.
Phnom Penh governor Kep Chuktema once famously urged Cambodians to eat more dog to rid the streets of strays, but that is the least of the city's problems now, and dog-napping of loved pets is rampant.
"Dogs go for 20 dollars each now for the table, which is double two years ago," said one man who says he now specifically breeds pooches for the restaurant trade but declined to be named.
"And you know the way of inflation - once the price of something goes up, it very rarely ever comes back down."