In the United States, for most of my life, I’ve enjoyed a plant-based diet. Some years I was a lacto-ovo vegetarian, went through of short phase of macrobiotics (too austere), followed by longer periods of eating mostly vegetables, fruit, grains, dairy products, some fish, occasionally chicken. However, for the last forty years to the best of my knowledge, I have not eaten meat, no beef, pork or other four-legged critters. Knowing that Cambodians are omnivores, I decided to adapt my life-long eating habits to that of my hosts. I would say yes please to whatever was offered. After all, I’m here to experience a new culture and cuisine.
First up, pork. Pork with rice for breakfast, pork in soup for lunch, pork stuffed tubular vegetables for dinner. Pork is much cheaper than chicken in this part of the world, in fact a bit of chicken with your morning rice at the local breakfast café cost three times as much as the same thing with pork. In addition to pork, I have been offered little fried crabs, grilled snails big and small, deep fried snake, and crispy grubs. I’ve seen piles of fried tarantulas at roadside stands, but they did not look fresh. At first, I tried a bit of whatever was offered. But my heart—and my stomach was not into it.
Prahoc, a fermented fish paste that is an integral part of many Cambodian dishes, created an involuntary gag reaction in me. Truly the worst taste I have ever experienced. Imagine a salty, blue-cheesy tangy sour taste blooming on your tongue. That lingers. To be fair, prahoc in tiny homeopathic doses adds a flavor boost to soups or dipping sauces, and is so enjoyed across the land. However, this wary traveler must say no to prahoc. I am not alone in my opinion. Prahoc is banned on international flights as a corrosive substance.
I never wanted to be a Ms. Princess Pea, all precious about too much salt or MSG or sugar. But there certainly is a lot of that—handfuls in every bowl of curry. One has to choose: be a good sport or remain in an upright position. I got sick. This old digestive system of mine did not know what to do with pork products and fermented fish paste. For about a month my body said, “Sorry pal, everything must go.” I’ll spare you the details. The Peace Corps' term for it is The Double Dragon.
I arrived at my new permanent site with a note from the Peace Corps Medical Officer telling my family that I cannot eat meat. This still causes much discussion at dinner, where usually nothing much is discussed. My host mother will say in a high coy voice, try some of this—offering something submerged and greenish. I will say, as I have been for the past month, does it have pork in it? Is it beef? Prahoc? To which she will smile and say, yes pork, try it. Thanks so much, but I can’t eat meat, I will reply. She will shake her head in wonder, never hard that before. Then one of the kids will jump up and bring me a bowl of fruit and everyone looks pleased that I am eating. Happy to oblige.