When the British celebrity chef Gordon Ramsay visited Cambodia in 2011 to film an episode of his television programme Gordon Ramsay’s Great Escape, many of the Kingdom’s unusual street food offerings featured in the show – from deep fried tarantulas, to frogs and fertilised duck eggs.
A snack that most Western people would consider a step too far, it was a surprise for many Cambodians when they watched Ramsey calmly tuck in to a fertilised duck egg, eat a spoonful and declare that it “actually tastes quite nice”.
But at one fertilised duck egg vendor’s street food stall in the capital, it remains only the most adventurous visitors who sample her goods.
In front of a dilapidated house on street 51, just a few minute’s walk from bustling Central Market, Sok Pheap’s street side eatery sells fertilised duck eggs to hungry customers seated on low tables and plastic chairs under a parasol.
The young street food vendor is attending to tens of eggs simmering away in a big metal cooking pot, heated by a traditional clay kiln with burning coal and wood below.
This is a scene that has changed little since her mother began selling porng tea kon, the Cambodia name for fertilised duck eggs, more than 30 decades ago.
“My mother was a widow who depended on selling eggs to support three children in 1987,” Pheap says.
In those years, Cambodia was still struggling to recover from the devastating events of the 1970s, and was also hit by a series of droughts and bad harvests that hurt the country’s poorest.
With poverty and malnutrition rife, many people preferred high protein, cheap and simple food like porng tea kon, ensuring that her mother’s business was given a solid start to trading.
“In my mother’s day, she was able to sell anywhere between 100 and 200 eggs per day, which was just enough to support our family,” she recalls.
But her family business is not without controversy.
Cambodia is a country in which 95 per cent of people identify as Theravada Buddhist, generally considered the more conservative strand of the religion as compared to Mahayana.
This has resulted in criticism of consuming porng tea kon from some of the religion’s strictest adherents, as they say eating things that are cooked alive – as fertilised duck eggs are – is antithetical to the Buddha’s teachings.
But to Pheap and her many Buddhist customers, the local delicacy is far from sinful, but merely a cheap and nutritious form of sustenance.
In 1997, Pheap’s mother passed on the fruits of her labour to her daughter, and she says the business has continued to grow ever since.
“She ran this small business for 10 years before passing it on to me. When you talk about porng tea kon in Phnom Penh, the run-down house place near near Central Market will come up right away. Many people know us and the run-down house we are situated in front of is sort of our signature,” she says.
Her customers are generally people who have been frequenting her place for years. In fact, as almost everything has remained the same since her mother’s day, many people refer to Pheap’s place as ‘the old broken house of porng tea kon’.
“Some people first tried my duck eggs when they were still in elementary school. Now they’re all grown up and working here and there, but they still come for the duck eggs,” she says.
“One of the secrets to our success is the sweet and sour sauce that we mix with ground pepper and lime juice. When you pour the mixture into the eggs, it is clear how much more delicious our place is from others.”
The duck eggs need to incubate for between 14 and 21 days before they are fertilised and ready to cook.
Some customers ask Pheap to select the young eggs, where the baby duck is not yet fully developed and does not have visible feathers.
Incredibly, Pheap estimates that she earns approximately $350 a day, a fact that has earned her the nickname the ‘rich porng tea kon seller’.
“I have a supplier deliver the eggs right to my door. I carefully choose the best ones that produce the best taste after cooking. I can sell about 700 eggs a day at 2,000 riel [$0.50] for each,” she says, a sum that equates to some $10,000 a month if she sells every day.
Porng Tea Kon Psar Tapang is located on Street 51, between streets 144 and 154 near Central Market. Pheap can be contacted by phone on 098977017.