Rovieng district, Preah Vihear province – Kin Vannak Sophea, 40, has a half dozen pots on the serving table before her. The pot at the end, on her right, is the largest, its size telling of its popularity.
She lifts its lid to reveal the offal of a small deer floating in a verdant broth. Steam rises, as does an unmistakable stench.
The concoction is called pia pia, and its defining ingredient is the intestinal content of browsers and grazers usually a species of deer that must be killed within a day’s walk of the soup pot.
Pia pia has been the signature dish of Romany commune’s Phnom Dek village since Kin Vannak Sophea began serving it at her restaurant in 1998.
Since then, two competitors have cropped up across the road, and they too serve pia pia. Farmers, in particular, favor the soup for its rejuvenating powers, while city dwellers passing through treat it with curiosity, humor and, sometimes, revulsion, Kin Vannak Sophea said.
But pia pia no longer makes the menu everyday. “One problem,” she said. “It is difficult for us to find the fresh deer. If we do not have the fresh deer, we cannot use the [excrement] to cook.”
A growing scarcity of game means hunters must pursue their quarry deeper into neighboring Boeungper Wildlife Sanctuary. And, if farther than a day’s travel to market, a hunter will usually disembowel his kill on the spot to slow putrefaction.
Hunters have also taken to butchering their kills in the field, so to better conceal the meat from wildlife rangers who would confiscate it, Kin Vannak Sophea said.
Again, the guts are abandoned, disappointing Phnom Dek’s pia pia enthusiasts.
Kin Vannak Sophea said she has known the simple recipe for many years, as her neighbors, members of the Kuy minority, have been eating it since she moved into the area in 1980.
But in the mid-1990s, her husband Kao Vunheng returned from Laos with tales of money being made there in dung soup. Shortly after, Kin Vannak Sophea opened her business, serving pia pia.
Since then, the dish has evolved. “Before, pia pia looked bad because the [digested vegetation] was not green,” Kin Vannak Sophea said.
To enhance the soup’s appeal to the uninitiated, she began using more silage from the small intestine and less from the large, which some might consider too pungent, too far along in the process.
Kin Vannak Sophea then decided to thicken the broth by adding chopped stomach and intestines. Her competitors followed suit.
But her husband Kao Vunheng, who brought the business plan from Laos, is dismissive of pia pia.
“It smells like [excrement],” he said. “But the people still like it.” Lounging drunkenly in his wife’s restaurant, Kao Vunheng extols a superior use of intestinal content: Making home-brew. “The [excrement] smells sweet with the wine, like the juice of the jack fruit,” he said.
Catching a hint of something in the air, a reporter asked if pia pia was being made at that moment.
“No,” Kao Vunheng responded, making it apparent his breath was the offender.
Other than a dwindling supply of fresh ingredients, encroaching sensibilities also threaten this localized culinary tradition.
The young girl at the restaurant across the road from Kin Vannak Sophea was visibly embarrassed when asked about the contents of her largest pot.
At first she declined to discuss pia pia, and then she gave curt, evasive answers. The younger generation, villagers said, has not embraced the soup, which tastes less septic than it smells. When choked down hastily, it’s without flavor.