Wednesday, November 27, 2013

A Brief History Of Turkeys In Cambodia

Image courtesy of papaija2008 at

I don't exactly know when the first turkey arrived in Cambodia, but when my family arrived here 13 years ago, frozen turkeys cost $70 to $80. Missionaries would gather in large groups for Thanksgiving and pool their resources to buy a turkey. The amount each family paid depended on the size of their family. The host had the unenviable task of collecting from his friends and blocking people's cars in so they couldn't leave without paying. Even for those who opted not to eat, there was usually a $5 surcharge just for sniffing. Every bone was licked clean. Leftovers were out of the question. Those were some dark days.

After learning the Khmer language, we came to the realization that a very important word had been overlooked in our lessons. That word was "turkey." I decided to show a picture of a turkey to some people and discover what the Khmer word for turkey was. After polling numerous Cambodians, they all said the same thing..."moen barang." Moen is chicken; barang is foreigner. And as in many languages, the adjective follows the noun. So...a turkey is a foreigner chicken. Foreigner chicken? Oh, brother! Such a miscarriage of literary justice! But old habits die hard, so "foreigner chicken" it remained.

One day I was driving in a semi-rural area across the river from our church and as I drove by an empty field, I did a double-take. There were about a dozen decent-sized turkeys running around in that field! As I sat on the side of the road on my idling moped, gazing across that field, it was as if I could see an end to the Thanksgiving Day turkey rationing. I could see a day when one man would have a turkey drumstick all to himself. I could see turkey soup, turkey sandwiches, turkey pot pies! I felt like the guy on Chicken Run, only with turkeys. I went home that night with a new life purpose. I had to have one of those turkeys! But over the next few days, before I made the time to try to track down the owner and "talk turkey," the thought occurred to me that while I do love eating turkey, I have no clue how to raise, care for, and fatten up a turkey. Not to mention the butchering part. So (sigh) I gave up my dream.

A few years later I saw another one. This time it wasn't in some random neighborhood. It was in our village...right across the street from our church! There was just one, but it was a big one. When I saw it, I pulled the van over and told the people I was with to "watch this." Then I gave my best turkey gobble out the window. That turkey straightened up instantly and started gobbling back at me while everyone in the van started laughing hysterically. They had no idea that I knew how to talk to foreigner chickens. For the next several weeks, every time we drove by, everyone would quite down and wait for the turkey and me to commence to conversate. I would talk...the turkey would answer. It was hilarious. But alas, all good things must come to an end. One day I drove up to see my buddy, and he was gone. I assume he had taken that journey to the Happy Gobbling Grounds. (sniff)

But some good did come from that short-lived friendship. It opened up many conversations about foreigner chickens. I shared with my Cambodian friends how that on Christmas and Thanksgiving, we love to eat turkey. I told them what a special treat it was to us. And of course, they wanted to know what it tastes like. One of my closest Cambodian friends, a man named Ta, told me in no uncertain terms that regardless of how good it was purported to taste, he most certainly would NOT like to try it. His reason? "That little red dangly thing on it's head looks really gross!" His words. Even after I told him that we don't eat that part, he remained unconvinced. One year he happened to come by our house on Thanksgiving Day, so I made him up a plate of some of our foreigner food, complete with a taste of foreigner chicken. He ate it. But to this very day he claims it was "not good."

Recently, turkey HAS made some inroads here, albeit in some surprising places. A few years ago, a very good pizza place here in Cambodia (Pizza Company) came out with a turkey and cranberry pizza for Christmas. And you know what? It was good!

Thankfully, the price on frozen turkeys has dropped by nearly half in recent years. I was looking at turkeys in the store the other day, and most are $40. These days we usually manage at least a pot of turkey soup after Thanksgiving is over. The curiosity factor is still pretty high among the Cambodians though. Last year when I picked up our turkey, a couple of store employees whom I have known for a long time, followed me all through the store asking some of the funniest questions about what was, to them, a gigantic beast in my shopping cart. They were both enthralled and amused at the same time. They also seemed to think it was pretty cool that they were friends with a guy who knew so much about foreigner chickens.

There was a time in a bygone era when I would have counseled any tribe of turkeys looking to live in peace to come and start a new colony here in Cambodia. But times change. The turkey pizza was an early indicator of these changing times, and today I ran across something that may have permanently sealed the fate of turkeys in Cambodia for all time. Lucky Burger (Cambodia's wildly popular burger franchise) has just introduced a new burger to celebrate Christmas and the New Year. It is a fried turkey burger...with cranberry mayo. And yes, I plan to try it. It may turn out to be a real blessing. If the price of turkeys never goes down any further, then instead of turkey sandwiches and turkey pot pies after Thanksgiving, we can just run to Lucky Burger!

Happy Thanksgiving! And may your foreigner chicken delight your culinary senses!


  1. Oh I enjoyed this so much...brought back so many happy memories of Thanksgiving Days spent in Cambodia!! And to make you jealous...I paid 15.50 this year for my 19 pound turkey!!

  2. I love turkey and I love your post also. :) Thanks for sharing it. tfi the family international