September 29, 2011

Tiny peppercorns give Cambodian food a big boost



Phnom Penh – The hunt for heat is part of the lure of many Asian cuisines. China has its addictive, mouth-numbing Sichuan peppercorn. Thailand has the "do I dare" burn of the bird's eye chili.

In Cambodia, heat comes in the form of a Kampot peppercorn, tiny but bursting with spice and an additional depth that ranges from citrus to nutty.

Grown in the Kampot province in Southern Cambodia, this special pepper reached its hey-day in the mid-20th century, when chefs in Europe prized its unique strength and flavor.

The pepper disappeared off the world stage though in the 1970s, when the destructive Khmer Rouge regime isolated Cambodia from the outside world. Farmers neglected their pepper fields and exports from Cambodia were cut off.

Now the farmers of Kampot are trying to rebuild their industry.

Nguon Lay's family had grown peppers for four generations and he is now the head of Kampot Pepper Farmers' Association. He explains why Kampot pepper is different from that of other provinces.

"The location here is good," he says. "It has clay mixed with sand and the talent of the farmers who have learned from their ancestors since the 13th century."

Last year, the Government of Cambodia granted Kampot pepper geographical indication (GI) status, the same kind of trade label that goes on products like Champagne or Gorgonzola cheese. The distinction is a first for the country and it prevents peppers produced in other places from being called Kampot Pepper.

Nguon Lay says that his prices have gone up 10 to 20% since the product got GI status.

"After we got geographical indication our product got even more famous and even the European Union is recognizing it," he says.

His association is already sold out of pepper for the year, with a new harvest expected in February.

Cambodian food is often overshadowed by that of its larger neighbors Thailand and Vietnam. Kampot pepper's GI designation could help raise the profile of the nation's cuisine

The peppers feature in many of Cambodia's most famous dishes.

Hun Li Heng, a chef that teaches cooking classes in Phnom Penh, says the fresh, green peppers, still on the vine, are used in stir fries and signature dishes like Kampot pepper crab. The sun-dried black peppers are ground as a seasoning for beef or added on top of green peppers for some extra bite.

"It has much stronger smell than other peppers," he says.

If you would like to try Kampot Pepper yourself, an organization called FarmLink distributes it in Europe, Asia and Australia. You can also order from them online, but the shipping charges to the United States are high.

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