Feb 19, 2014

Kampot Pepper

On my last day in Cambodia I arrived at the airport a few hours before my departing flight to Bangkok. Hungry, I headed towards a cluster of restaurants to find some lunch. My choices were as follows: Dairy Queen, Burger King, or a chain called "BBQ Chicken." After traveling throughout the country and enjoying an incredible bunch of meals flavored with spices like lemongrass, wild ginger, kaffir lime leaves, fresh green pepper or the delicate black Kampot pepper (my reason for traveling to Cambodia) I chose the only restaurant whose name I didn't recognize: "BBQ Chicken," which looked to be a sort of Cambodian-style fast food joint. My hope was that despite the name, I could avoid the dreaded monoculture of tastes that accompany a fast food establishment dependent on industrialized processed food products and factory farms (DQ & BK). But despite the promising look of chili sauce bottles adorning plastic tables, I was out of luck.

I sunk into a familiar ennui that comes with traveling. While the purpose of traveling (at least for me) is to experience new exotic tastes and places, sometimes I find myself faced with the reality that industrialization and food processing has allowed a lot of the worlds food to taste the same. While I sat and chewed my tasteless and placeless fried chicken and rice, I wondered what the consequences of this food crisis would be on future generations. OK, I wasn't wondering about future generations and food crises right then (I was thinking, "this chicken sucks.") but I am now. And I am also wondering: how can spices help?

One way they can help is by traveling long distances without using a lot of resources. Spices are small, lightweight, and pack a lot of flavor into a small little botanical space. Most spices are just seeds after all - designed by nature to be spread by wind, ants or birds. So if they were the only things in our diet - maybe other than chocolate and coffee, that traveled to us from far away, maybe we wouldn't be doing as much damage in the way of world resource consumption, which, we all know is startlingly skewed:
The United States, with less than 5% of the global population, uses about a quarter of the world’s fossil fuel resources—burning up nearly 25% of the coal, 26% of the oil, and 27% of the world’s natural gas. From the World Watch Institute 
Are spices going to change the world?

Probably not. But it's an idea worth considering.

In Michael Pollan's 2009 book Food Rules: An Eater's Manual, he lists (and explains) over sixty "Rules" to eating healthfully and mindfully. Here are a couple good ones: "If it came from a plant, eat it; if it was made in a plant, don’t." or "Eat all the junk food you want as long as you cook it yourself." Other rules emphasize the importance of eating at the table (instead of on the run) or avoiding foods with long, unpronouncible ingredients. As part of the book project, Michael Pollan and the organization Slow Food paired up and asked for submissions from Americans: "What is your "food rule?" Pollan picked just 3 of the entries to include in the book, including one of my own! My rule was inspired by my former boss, chef Ana Sortun. Guess what the rule is?

Eat more spices!

Ok, so I'm in Phnom Penh, Cambodia at the airport BBQ chicken joint experiencing this ennui about bad food that breaks all the "Food Rules" and generally makes a person feel sick and maybe a little depressed. But let's not forget I had traveled to Cambodia specifically to taste a pepper that had it's own terroir.

And taste it I did. This pepper grows in a region of southern Cambodia called Kampot Province. The pepper in this region indeed has its own incredible flavor profile that tastes like no other black pepper I've tried. It has a menthol-eucalyptus flavor with an edge of spruce. And it has all the familiar pepper qualities too - piquant heat, fruity depth, floral aroma. Kampot was the first product in Cambodia to receive it's own Geographical Indication of Origin (or Designation of Origin) - a label that protects the product from other peppers (not grown organically in Kampot) trying to masquerade as the good stuff.

Other products that have this status and protective label include things like Port wine, Feta cheese, Champagne and even Čvarci, a kind of Serbian pork rind. Cheeses, wines and meats are the most common products to have distinct terroir and therefore a protective label, but in the past ten years coffee and chocolate have joined the ranks too. Special dirt, rocks and climatic conditions are not the only parties responsible for giving something a unique terroir. There are also specific methods and distinct people (often with a lot of history in a particular place) that contribute to a product having a delicious and distinct taste.

Kampot pepper only gained it's protected status in 2009. Before that, pepper had been growing in Cambodia since the 13th century, when Zhou Daguan, a Chinese Emissary, reported on it while visiting Angkor Wat in 1296. He also made note of the Khmer's use of coconut shells for soup ladles, woven leaves for bowls.

Certainly the French colonization of Cambodia contributed to the increased use of this poivre, as the French are known to love their food and flavors. But following the Khmer Rouge, Kampot pepper was all but wiped out as pepper farms were razed for rice. Only now, some thirty years since the end of that terrible war have the pepper farmers gained a new foothold. And they've done so lovingly, producing a Piper nigrum with wild flavor.

Even my niece, Mirabelle had to try it! Seen here helping me crush a few peppercorns before dinner:

My favorite of the pepper produced in Kampot is the red pepper, of which I was unaware existed on earth. (No relation to the "red pepper" we sprinkle on pizza in the States. That's another story of misnomers.)

As far as I knew, pepper was either black, green or white. The "red" pepper we see mixed into colorful peppercorn blends is from another plant—one in the sumac family. But the red peppercorns I tasted in Kampot are a special grade of peppercorn not unlike the Tellicherry peppercorns I wrote about previously. When the peppercorns ripen, they go from green to yellow to red, but not all at once. Farmers painstakingly pick off the ripe or red peppercorns to produce this unique product of "red pepper" which has an altogether different flavor than the black peppercorns. The aroma is reminiscent of molasses, and the flavor sweeter and mellower than the black peppercorn. It pairs well with chocolate, so I mixed it into some vanilla ice cream on Valentines day and served it with chocolate cake.

And though I am still sad that places like airports, rest stops and malls are laden with bad, flavorless food, I am ecstatic at the discovery of new spices that invigorate my taste buds and remind me that the world is a dynamic and delicious place. But all gustatory joy aside, the best part is knowing that spices like these can add so much richness and flavor without the steep resource costs involved with imported meat, cheese, or vegetables flown from across the globe.

So perhaps i'll propose a couple new Food Rules: Decrease carbon emissions by eating local. Increase tastiness with spices. What do you say?

Lok lak ~ Cambodian Style Beef with Pepper & Lime

This dish of marinated beef served with lime-pepper dipping sauce is one of the famous traditional dishes of Cambodia. It is actually a French-Cambodian fusion (given that Khmers didn't eat beef before the French arrived), but the lime and pepper flavors give it a perky tropical taste that is truly Cambodian. I first had this dish in the village of Kampot, at a restaurant overlooking the Preaek Tuek Chhu, the river that runs through the town. And while it's more traditional to cut the beef into cubes, I prefer thin strips, as it makes for a more delicate flavor. Find some good local beef and tropical peppercorns and go to it!

For 2 people (plus leftovers!)

1/2 lb (about 200 g) flank steak cut into thin strips

For the marinade:
2 garlic cloves, crushed and chopped
1 TB oyster sauce
1 TB soy sauce
1 TB white vinegar
1/2 TB sugar
1 tsp lime zest

For the dipping sauce:
juice of 2 limes
1 TB crushed Kampot pepper (or your best quality black peppercorns!)

For serving:
2 ripe tomatoes, sliced
lettuce, such as Romaine
1 small purple onion, sliced thin
rice (optional)

Slice your beef into 1/2" thin slices and place in a bowl with the crushed garlic, oyster sauce, soy sauce, vinegar, sugar and lime zest. Toss to coat all the pieces and place in the fridge to marinate for a few hours. (At least 1 hour.)

Meanwhile get the dipping sauce ready by combining fresh lime juice (remove those pesky seeds!) and crushed black pepper. Put in separate little bowls so each person has their own dipping sauce.

To cook the beef, heat a large skillet on high with a drizzle of olive oil. You can also use a chunk of butter, but it's not necessary (the French would say it is.) Once the oil begins to shimmer, toss in the meat and flatten out the pieces so they begin to sear. Work quickly so as not to overcook the meat! Cook for about a minute then toss the meat so it cooks again for about 45 seconds on the other side. It's ok if the meat still looks a little pink. Pour in the rest of the marinade to coat the meat and turn off the heat.

Serve with fresh slices of tomatoes, onions and crunchy lettuce such as romaine (or in our case, asparagus!) Rice is also a traditional accompaniment. Instruct guests to dip each piece of meat in the lime-pepper sauce before biting into the succulent goodness.


  1. The must is green Kampot pepper but if you havent the chance to stay in Cambodia, I recommend you to use red Kampot pepper, an explosion of taste!