An Uncommon Delicacy
By: Ly Vanna. Pictures by : Nathan Dexter ( February, 2002 Volume 2 No.2 )

In a country without one international fast food outlet, where can you go for a taste of fried chicken? When Khmers go looking for this sort of food, they often by-pass chicken altogether and go for chab chien tiny birds deep-fried to a rich red or golden brown perfection. Along the riverfront at night, hawkers sit with piles of these tiny delicacies heaped temptingly in front of them. It is the same across the bridge at Chhbar Ampou, and by the river in Neak Loeung town and further along the road in Prey Veng town. The smell of frying birds makes the mouth water, but some are put off by the size of these usually tiny creatures, still with heads and feet attached. For Khmers, they are a treat to be enjoyed while relaxing with friends in the evening. "I've been selling chab chien for four years," said Mrs Nary, 45, a hawker on Phnom Penh's riverfront.
"I sell at least 20 and sometimes up to 50 birds a day. I usually start at about 4pm and go through to late evening. Ten birds cost 4500 riel so they are a very affordable snack." There are several species of small bird included on the menu. Tror cheak kam, or swallows, and chab pouk or chab porpech (the common sparrow munia siamensis) are the species most often sold.

Prey Veng province is famous for the number of small birds, especially sparrows, it supports. Without controls, they can ruin a rice crop, so chab Prey Veng are also commonly sold. Chab l'ngor, or sesame sparrows, are smaller than their cousins. Then there are chab s'rok (house sparrows) and chab prey (forest sparrows), both of which are less often offered for consumption. The Prey Veng "sparrows" have traveled a long way to become a late night snack. "I've heard that these birds migrate from Siberia every winter," Mrs Nary said. All birds are deep fried after being marinated in a mixture of oil, salt, garlic and bicheng (the ubiquitous MSG). Sometimes, a red dye is added to the marinade to make them more appealing to the eye, and the birds might be rolled in flour to make their skin crisper. Chab chien must be eaten hot and fresh to truly appreciate their crisp skin and tender breast meat, according to connoisseurs.

The meat of the birds is succulent and sweet not gamy like larger wild birds. Eaten with lemon, herbs, vegetables and a mixture of salt and pepper, Khmers believe they are a great snack, high in proteins and fats. "Khmers buy them by the bagful, but I rarely sell to foreigners. They don't seem to like the look of them so much," said one hawker who wished to remain anonymous. "I've heard the Ministry of Agriculture doesn't like us cooking these birds and we will get into trouble if they find us," he explained. But other hawkers don't seem to have this reservation. And Mr Tan Sitha, a technical officer with the Forest and Wildlife Research Institute of the Ministry of Forestry and Fisheries, confirms there is no restriction on the hunting of common species of small birds-yet. "Numbers (among small birds species) are down on what they were in 1995 and 96," he said. "The greater the market for birds as food, the more hunters will capture the birds. If we eat one, he'll catch one, eat two, he'll kill two. "The eating of several more endangered species like some water fowl has been banned for many, many years. You don't see egrets, for instance, on sale in the street in Phnom Penh. The problem is enforcing these bans, but in the capital, at least, the street hawkers are selling common birds like sparrows."