Cambodia’s croc carts cater to curious

Normally sold as skewers, the Nice Cow cart vendors have elevated the spectacle to another level by roasting the whole reptile on display.

Roth Sochieata

Roth Sochieata

The Phnom Penh


Nice Cow only serves crocodiles that are from 5-10kg in size because larger crocs have lower quality meat. Heng Chivoan

January 20, 2022

PHNOM PENH – Crocodile meat has long been consumed by Cambodians and travellers alike, who particularly enjoy the reptilian protein in the restaurants of tourism hub Siem Reap.

It is normally sold as a barbequed crocodile skewer, but the Nice Cow cart vendors of Phnom Penh have elevated the spectacle to another level by roasting the whole reptile on display, putting crocodile meat back in the spotlight and attracting Cambodians and curious foreign foodies.

The turmeric coloured crocodiles, cut open and headless, are left hanging on the cart causing a sensation for passing pedestrians. Some can’t help but stop by and ask for photos while some get goose bumps and act afraid, but it’s so unusual that most people are still keen to give it a go.

At first, Nice Cow’s cart vendor Hak Virat kicked off his business with one of Cambodia’s classic street foods – grilled beef dipped in fermented fish sauce. As the business grew rapidly, he and his cousin wanted to add something different to their original menu.

After investigating ideas through various platforms, they noticed that crocodile is one of the latest meats people are discovering globally and how popular it is when barbequed on skewers. Taking the idea further, Virat somehow came up with the unique plan of selling the raw meat and grilling it to order for the customers.

“We tested a few cuts of crocodile by grilling it, and discovered that it cooks beautifully. It turned out nice and tender and so we decided to add it to our menu. It has been more than a month now, and the feedback we are getting is great,” the chef and manager tells The Post.

The experienced chef – who has worked his whole life in the restaurant trade – began working with his brother and sister in Kampot before moving to the capital. Virat says that the crocodiles are taken from farms in Siem Reap province, so they are neither endangered nor protected as a species.

Nice Cow has taken its marketing to another level by displaying the roasting of the whole reptile. Heng Chivoan

Nice Cow has taken its marketing to another level by displaying the roasting of the whole reptile. Heng Chivoan

When asked if he had ever run into any trouble with the authorities while picking up supplies from his butcher due to his unusual cargo, he said that he has never had an issue as his business is completely registered and legal. The police in Siem Reap are aware of the croc farms that dot the province and so he has never had any difficulty.

“However, it is not a typical meat that you can just find anywhere. We try to reduce the risk of running out of croc by using two suppliers in Siem Reap, just in case. Sometimes we sell more than 100kg in just three days!”

“We only take crocodiles between five and ten kilos because bigger than that the meat will not be as nice. If one place cannot supply the exact weight we want, we go to another,” Virat says.

As an experienced crocodile chef, he can easily tell the best size animals to take the meat from. He says that when a crocodile weighs five or six kilos the meat and skin is tender, while at seven to ten kilos the meat begins to have a heavier texture and tougher skin.

“Anything above ten kilos and the tastiness just isn’t there”, Virat says.

The 29-year-old vendor briefly explains the process from delivery to the Nice Cow cart. When he orders from the crocodile farms he asks for the crocs to be beheaded and split open to ensure ease of cleaning and preparation.

Once the meat arrives his staff clean the animals, before oiling them with a turmeric infused oil. This makes the skin appear a much darker yellow, which adds to the attractiveness of the crocs.

“The original colour is a dull, pale white colour,” he explains.

The croc is then hung and a gas torch is applied for seven or eight minutes, to lightly dry the skin out. The whole carcasses are then packed in ice to preserve them for the evening of sales.

At around 4pm they will take the crocs out and hang them on the carts before heading out. Currently the Nice Cow carts operate in three locations around Phnom Penh in Toul Tom Poung, Chbar Ampov and Beoung Trabek. Each cart heads out with two crocs aboard and each delicious kilo sells for $20.

The business is doing great so far but Virat says “I believe without Covid-19, we could do so much better. I have awakened the interest of many crocodile meat enthusiasts. Even though some of them start out feeling apprehensive they usually end up coming back for more. They say it’s delicious, tender as fish meat, but also tastier. Also, there is no nasty smell, which some associate with the older ways of preparing crocodile.”

Additionally, the customers say that the way the raw meat is hung and grilled to order means the meat is fresher and far superior to the traditional skewers. The special sauce that the croc meat is dipped into before being grilled adds another layer of flavour. People really enjoy this new style of cooking and help promote his business by recommending it to friends and family.

Virat thinks his dipping sauces may be the real stars of the show.

Nice Cow serves the crocs with dipping sauces and vegetables similar to how they serve beef. Heng Chivoan

“Customers can choose from many flavours, depending on what their palate demands. They have the tofu sauce – which is the crowd favourite so far – the fermented fish sauce, the spicy red sauce, shrimp paste or a pepper sauce,” he says

The crocodile is served alongside the same vegetables that escort the grilled beef options: Cucumbers, cabbage, green bananas, carrots, water mimosa and herbs.

“Some customers have asked for recipes they could use with this meat and actually, apart from grilling, people could deep fry it, use it in Cambodian stir-fry or a hot sour soup or other options. Some of them have bought one or two kilos to try at home. They have come back and told me that it’s really delicious and it gives a unique taste to their meals,” Virat says.

These days it takes Virat seven or eight minutes to grill croc for a customer but he and his cousin are working on a technique that might allow them to pre-cook the meat. This would save waiting time for the customers and facilitate more efficient sales for the vendors.

“In the future I believe it will continue to grow because I have regular customers now. I see old and new faces every day, which is a great sign. I am planning to import more types of meat such as goat and sheep from Kampong Cham to add to my business.”

“I am always looking for ways to innovate with my business. Apart from the new meats, I want to open a restaurant and we’ve been looking for a strategic site for that. There are also plans afoot to sell franchises. We would share the carts with someone who wants to partner with us and sell under our name,” he says.

Virat says he also accepts catering requests and if someone would like him to grill crocodile at their home he can arrange it. If they would prefer a cow or sheep? He can do that as well, no problem.

scroll to top