By Brendan Brady / Kampong Trach
There’s pepper and then there’s Cambodia’s Kampot pepper. You might think that the stuff that comes out of shakers and grinders is pretty much the same wherever you go, but to increasing numbers of chefs, restaurateurs and foodies, ordinary pepper bears as much resemblance to Kampot pepper as vin de table does to fine Bordeaux. They say that the delicacy and sweetness of Kampot pepper put it in a class of its own. “It’s got a floral dimension that’s really something special,” says food-and-travel-show host Anthony Bourdain. In New York City, Michael Laiskonis, executive pastry chef at the famed Le Bernardin restaurant, says Kampot pepper has “a certain sweetness to it rather than straightforward heat.” Laiskonis has used it to flavor everything from ice cream to goat-cheese mousse.
This newfound appreciation is great news to producers like Nguon Lay, head of the Kampot Pepper Farmers’ Association. Nguon Lay’s family has raised pepper vines on Cambodia’s southern coast since the crop’s early to mid — 20th century heyday, when vast quantities of Kampot pepper were shipped to the pantries of Europe.
As with every other enterprise in Cambodia, production of the white, red and black berries collapsed in the late 1970s, under the ruinous rule of the Maoist-inspired Khmer Rouge. Nguon Lay was forced into a rural collective. Pepper farms were destroyed or haphazardly converted into rice fields. When the Khmer Rouge fell from political power, Nguon Lay’s travails still weren’t over. He became a soldier in the campaign to eradicate militias remaining loyal to the genocidal regime. Only by the 1990s, with the Khmer Rouge insurgency finally contained, were Nguon Lay and many of his neighbors at last free to “return to doing what generations before me did, to what we know best” — farming “the world’s best pepper.”
The origins of commercial pepper cultivation in Cambodia lie in the late 19th century turmoil gripping nearby Aceh, part of today’s Indonesia. So prolific were Aceh’s vast pepper fields — then producing, by some estimates, over half of the world’s supply — that its sultans ordered the destruction of vines in an attempt to ward off foreign powers greedily eyeing the immense riches the crop was generating. Cambodian producers were not only able to fill the gap in the market caused by these drastic policies, they did so with a pepper that astonished gourmands with its flavor. By the early 1900s, they were exporting millions of kilograms annually.
One of the reasons why Kampot pepper is so delicious is the local climate. The ingredient is only produced in half a dozen districts of the Cambodian provinces of Kampot and Kep, and it is the first Cambodian product to enjoy the E.U.’s protected geographical status, which certifies the origin of regional foods. Nestled between mountains and the sea, the local area’s pepper-perfect microclimate offers mineral-rich soil and frequent rainfall. Traditional farming methods — knowledge of which, thankfully, survived the horror of the Khmer Rouge years — do the rest. “The techniques have passed down,” Nguon Lay explains, “learned from children watching their parents.”
The dogged determination to revive a once threatened crop is now starting to pay dividends. “It has a lot of cachet, something from the past,” says Bourdain. A full renaissance is a long way off: Cambodia exported only a few thousand kilograms last year. But awareness is growing fast, and as Laiskonis points out, Kampot pepper offers that all-important element of romance. “It has been rescued from time and events,” he says. “Ingredients that tell a story are a special thing you can offer people.”
[Published in the January 16, 2012 edition of TIME magazine]