Inside a Cambodian Restaurant Specializing in Dog Meat
Restaurant 999 specializes in three canine classics: Coconut dog curry, dog meat sour soup with red ants, and flame-grilled dog.
This article originally appeared on VICE US
On the northwestern edge of the Cambodian capital in Phnom Penh Thmey, or New Phnom Penh, they still do some things the old fashioned way.
Every evening people from all walks of life come to Restaurant 999 for the mystical signature dishes that are said to hold various medicinal powers. Some come with open wounds, others come to treat skin irritations or soothe backache. And some come simply because they like eating dog.
"We go through 40 to 80 dogs a day," the chef said while working a rack of ribs over his streetside charcoal grill.
On a dusty industrial thoroughfare, Restaurant 999 specializes in three canine classics: Coconut dog curry, dog meat sour soup with red ants, and flame-grilled dog—each dish complimented by a banana flower salad and a dipping sauce made primarily of a pungent paste of fermented fish.
Children eat dog fat to treat rashes. Wounds are said to heal faster in those who eat the meat. And, according to staff, seven straight days of rare dog flesh will loosen any stiff back, or strengthen a weak one.
"Doctors acknowledge that dog meat is a healer," said one young waitress. "It truly is ancient medicine."
At less than $2 a plate—or about $5 per kilogram for a whole roasted dog—the dishes attract local laborers, men in suits, expats from Vietnam, Korea, and China, teachers, students, sick families, the odd curious westerner, and, occasionally, the country's business and political elite.
"Rich people are shy to sit and eat at places like this, but sometimes, we do have people in Lexus cars stop here to eat dog meat," said the restaurant's Chinese-Cambodian matriarch, who did not want to be photographed or named due to the intermittent outcry—locally and globally—over the consumption of man's best friend.
"Even if you buy a whole dog, I do not permit you to take my photo," she said. "Nowadays, many foreigners look down on those who serve dog meat."
The Western world was up in arms in June, venting its distaste at reports of thousands of pet dogs stolen and killed ahead of the Dog Meat Festival in Yulin, China (which VICE has covered before). But the canines that turn up in the stews and steaks at Restaurant 999 are the same strays that roam the streets in gangs at night barking at strangers and making rabies shots an absolute necessity.
British MPs, Chinese pop stars, and animal activists around the world condemned the Yulin festival as barbaric and cruel, calling for it to be outlawed. But the international outrage isn't likely to register with Cambodia's decision makers.
When a few dozen mostly expats attempted in April to demonstrate against eating dog meat by walking with their leashed pets through a Phnom Penh park, armed military police and security guards swiftly shut them down. City Hall later said that foreigners conducting a dog parade was "strange" and "not proper."
In 2003, the Phnom Penh governor urged citizens to help rid the city of its plague of feral dogs—by eating them, according to The Cambodia Daily. "Come on, dog meat is so delicious," he said. "The Vietnamese and Koreans love to eat dog meat."
Regardless, the market for dog meat has mostly been pushed to the backblocks and fringes of a rapidly modernizing Phnom Penh; an age-old tradition somehow usurped by the stigma emanating from the West. But for Restaurant 999, every dog meat restaurant that goes under means more customers for them.
And business, which peaks around midnight as wannabe-crooners stumble drunk out of nearby karaoke clubs, is booming. With sorrowful Cambodian pop tunes blasting from a stack of crackling speakers, two men in their late 20s sat down to a platter of freshly roasted canine.
"After drinking beer, dog meat helps us sleep," said one, picking meat from a rib and eyeing the waitress fetching two plastic bottles of Sra Tinam, or "medicine wine," a potent home-brewed concoction of fermented rice, ginseng, and a personalized assortment of roots, spices, leaves, and insects.
"The dog meat relaxes our bodies and the wine relaxes our minds," he added, a sigh of satisfaction following his first swig of the tonic. "Foreign people don't understand; they think these things are just for Cambodians, but they should just try it and see."
Buzzing around the restaurant taking orders sans notepad and pen, the matriarch—who in 2009 quit her job as a wedding hall waitress to open Restaurant 999—had one parting shot for anyone of the belief that dogs should only be pets, and never protein.
"What, are you really worried about the lives of dogs?" she asked provocatively, nodding toward the grill, her own pet canine—called Tor, or "Lion"—relaxing beneath it. "If you are worried about the lives of dogs, maybe you should think about that every time you go to the market to buy pork or beef."