‘I told her it was chicken, and she said it was delicious’

Rabbit meat on the grill
Rabbit meat on the grill Eli Meixler

‘I told her it was chicken, and she said it was delicious’

Rabbit farmers Keo Malen and Sreng Sovannarin hope to break into the meat business with their high-protein offering

On an idyllic farm on Phnom Penh’s southern outskirts earlier this week, rabbit farmers Keo Malen and her husband Sreng Sovannarin marinated lunch. It was a simple recipe, the couple said – just garlic, fish sauce, chilli, sugar and salt – as Sovannarin fried half the meat while Malen grilled the rest.

“Rabbit is low in cholesterol and high in protein compared to cow meat or pig meat,” Malen said proudly as I dug into the plate.

Nicely charred and seasoned with garlicky fish sauce, the meat tasted similar to chicken, but with a firmness that recalled Cambodian buffalo.

It was something of a rare treat.

Although Cambodian cuisine incorporates many creatures – from pigs to spiders to amphibians – rabbits are not often found on dinner tables in the Kingdom.

There’s a cultural reason for this, Malen explained: rabbits are portrayed in local folklore as the wisest of all animals.

Keo Malen and Sreng Sovannarin
Keo Malen and Sreng Sovannarin Eli Meixler

But the rabbit farmer is hoping that once people have a go, taste will trump tradition.

“I think it tastes much better than pork or chicken,” she said between bites.

Malen and Sovannarin, who opened the Cambofarm Rabbitry in 2012 to cater to the capital’s pet trade, have long hoped to break into the meat business.

In December last year, they purchased a litter of New Zealand whites, one of the world’s most commonly consumed rabbits, and now have 60.

However, apart from cultural reservations, Malen concedes that they face another hurdle: the cuteness factor. Even Malen’s sister initially refused to eat one.

“I . . . told her it was chicken, and she said it was delicious,” Malen said.

Leng Vireak, senior program manager of World Vision’s Economic Agriculture Development team, said that rabbits were particularly well suited to Phnom Penh’s urban environment.

“[Rabbits] don’t need much space,” he said.

But he said previous attempts to get locals to raise rabbits in Preah Vihear had not worked well because they preferred capturing wild rabbits.

Malen said she also hopes to tap into the Western restaurant market, which she expects will be more amenable.

Rolf Lanzinger, owner of the Dan Meats butchery, said his foreign customers often asked him for rabbit meat. The problem, he said, was that he had yet to find a reliable local partner who produces rabbits up to his standards.

“If the quality is good and it’s in the right style, I am very interested in this, of course,” he said.

The meat is marinated in garlic, fish sauce, chilli, sugar and salt
The meat is marinated in garlic, fish sauce, chilli, sugar and salt Eli Meixler

Before leaving the rabbitry, Malen gave me the remaining half-kilo of raw meat. It had the texture and colour of chicken, though was much tougher to cut. I took it home and made a Northeastern Thai-style curry, substituting chicken for rabbit.

After smothering the diced bits in curry paste, I sautéed it on the stove with butter and palm oil until thoroughly cooked – having never prepared rabbit before, I was taking no chances in undercooking it.

Clichéd as it may be to say it tastes like chicken, rabbit, like many other lean meats, acts as something of a blank canvas for cooks to paint flavours on.

The difference with rabbit, however, is that it packs the protein with nary a piece of fat. A bit tough on the jaw, perhaps, but a worthy alternative to more common meats.

Although the Cambofarm Rabbitry’s meat farm will not officially open for business until it has developed a more sustainable breeding population, Malen said she would part with a butchered rabbit for $25 a kilo. Call 016-635-367 to place an order.

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