Cambodia’s Lost Gold Grows on Pepper Plantations

Germans season with salt and pepper. This seems rather boring at first, unless we’re talking about the best pepper in the world: Kampot pepper from Cambodia.

Pepper was once anything but commonplace. It was so special and coveted that it prompted a certain Christopher Columbus to search for a new trade route to India, there “where pepper grows.” What ended up happening is well known. He landed in America, called its population Indians and chilies peppers, which still today is cause for some confusion (see cayenne pepper). For the record: chili and pepper are two different plants.

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Pepper doesn’t have it easy. Especially in Cambodia, where it had glorious beginnings. From the writings of Zhou Daguan, sent by the Chinese emperor in the 13th century to Angkor in Cambodia, we know that pepper was being cultivated at that time. The book that immortalized him is called Zhenla fengtu ji, or A Record of Cambodia: A Land and Its People. In it he writes, “Pepper is occasionally found. It grows twisted around the stems of the rattan, fastening on like a hop vine. Pepper that is fresh and blue-green has the most savor.”

The region of Angkor, the center of the historic Khmer empire at that time, was the first south Asian region with a strong Indian influence. It’s hardly surprising that pepper, indigenous to India, found its way to Cambodia.

Zhou Daguan was in Angkor at just the right time. The Khmer empire was flourishing. In business, culture and architecture its people were true pioneers. They built incredible temple complexes, such as the tourist magnet, Angkor Wat, and with one million inhabitants the capital, Angkor, was the largest city in the world – yes, the world.

50 years later Zhou Daguan would have had to watch the empire’s takeover and subsequent perish.

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Centuries of occupations, civil wars and battles against the Thai and Vietnamese ensued. At the end of the 19th century the French got involved. Cambodia became a French colony.

France invested a great deal in Cambodia: railroads, urban development, and yes, in pepper. It was moved to the southern region of Kampot when the Indonesian Sultan of Aceh burned all pepper plantations to prevent Dutch invaders from capitalizing on them.

The French discovered southeast Asia for themselves and with it Cambodian pepper. Haute cuisine was so enamored by the pepper’s special flavor that the French imported more than half of the national crop yield to France. Trade boomed with poivre de Kampot.

Then came the Khmer Rouge. Lasting three and a half years, the dictatorship left approximately three million dead and obliterated all Cambodian cultures. Books were burned, schools closed, temples demolished, people slayed en masse, all industry except for agriculture halted. The Maoist-nationalist guerrilla movement came into power in 1975 under Pol Pot with the intention of steering the country by force into agricultural communism, building it overnight and forgetting its former history. The Khmer Rouge era is a black hole in Cambodia’s history.

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Ironically, Pol Pot, a native Cambodian, had studied in Paris where he made important acquaintances who nurtured the ideological communist in him and turned him into a monster. Even more cynical is the fact that the West long supported the regime and was too blind to see the truth.

Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge were paranoid and relentless. Almost every Cambodian family has a story of a victim in the family. In agriculture everything gave way to the cultivation of rice and vegetables. Cambodia would become an autarchic agricultural state – and the elitist gourmet pepper disappeared and faded into oblivion. A centuries-old tradition, as so much in Cambodia, was lost.

Since the 1990s there has been a Kampot pepper renaissance. It does not approximate the boom of French colonial times. With Khmer Rouge guerrillas hiding in the jungle, the Kampot region was deemed unsafe. Similar to earlier times most of the pepper is exported abroad, primarily to the EU, US and Japan.

The region of Kampot (not to be confused with the city of Kampot) just begs to be discovered by moped. On the coast and very close to the Vietnamese border, rice fields and salt flats abound, punctuated by water buffalo and limestone caves. In the middle of it all is the small pepper farm, Sothy.

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Covered by dried bamboo leaves, pepper plants wind around wooden stakes in rows at Sothy’s Pepper Farm. Pepper needs shade. In the wild it grows on the ground protected by other jungle plants. When Sothy and her husband bought the farm three years ago there were 300 pepper plants. Today they have approximately 850, and they sell their Mrech Kampot, as it is called in Khmer, in Australia and Europe, especially France. As all registered pepper farms in Kampot, Sothy’s farm is organic. They use neem and lemongrass against pests, and cow manure and bat guano serve as fertilizer. Bat guano? Yes. Villagers collect it in the surrounding caves and sell it as fertilizer.

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A pepper plant needs three years to fruit. It lives for 20 more years and pollinates itself. Harvest time is once a year from March to May. Because peppercorns ripen on the vine at different rates they are picked by hand.

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Unripe peppercorns are green. Seafood sauteed with whole green peppercorns, slightly acidic and spicy to the taste, are a typical dish for this region. When sun-dried, green peppercorns are black and wrinkly – the image we know of black pepper. If you let green pepper ripen a bit longer it turns tomato-red. It is full in flavor, less spicy and more fruity. Peel the ripe red pepper and you get white pepper. Green, black, red and white pepper are not different varieties but different stages of ripeness.

And what makes Kampot pepper so special that it costs three times as much? Kampot, like the rainforests of India where pepper originates, has a moist, tropical climate. The ground in Kampot, however, is high in clay, rich in minerals and contains quartz. Situated on the gulf a salty breeze is always blowing. These factors make the flavor of Kampot pepper so unique: It is intensely peppery with a mildly flowery touch.

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As always Kampot pepper continues to be an exclusive, expensive spice. Vietnamese merchants sniffed that out and flooded the market with fake pepper. All the better that the EU has included Kampot pepper among the ranks of champagne and gruyère, protecting it as of March 2016 with the PGI label (protected geographical indication). Kampot pepper can only be on the packaging if the pepper inside is really from Kampot. It is the first Cambodian product to receive this label.

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80% of Cambodia’s population subsists on agriculture. The average annual income is USD $1000. Cambodia is one of the world’s Least Developed Countries. It struggles with corruption and nepotism in the government, and Chinese investors are exploiting it more and more. Not until 2005 did an international tribunal initiate conviction proceedings against the Khmer Rouge for the wrongs they committed against their own people. Far too late, as some leading figures of Khmer Rouge had long since passed.

Just as the tender pepper plant needs nurturing and care in order to bear fruit, Cambodia is a nation recovering slowly from a sad history. Today small peppercorns flourish on the land the Khmer Rouge once decimated and end up today in the finest kitchens in the world. Their growth evokes a time when Cambodia was a thriving country.

Images: Dieu-Thanh Hoang

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