Kampot and Kep in Southern Cambodia are known respectively, for two things: the famous Kampot pepper (which has no doubt made its way onto your dinner plate at some point) and the Kep crab market, where they bring in the local catch of fresh crab.
The crab statue which sits on the beach in Kep gives it away, but I don’t think you quite appreciate how prominent the crab industry is here, until you visit the local fish market.
I’m not exaggerating when I say I was completely awe-struck by the scene here. Women dressed in hats and scarves – in the traditional checkered Krama fabric – are huddled around baskets of electric-blue crustaceans. And men and women haul in bucket after bucket of freshly caught crabs from traditional longboats.
In the market, other men and women stoke fires and market stall holders stand beside mountains of cooked prawns, grilled fish and mounds of fresh green Kampot peppercorns. Meanwhile, children play between the market stalls and vendors sell bundles of fresh herbs and spices.
Since my visit to Cambodia, I have read blogs claiming that the fishing of crab here has had a damaging effect on the crab populations and the state of the coral reefs in the Gulf of Thailand. I’m not sure if this is true – and we didn’t eat crab during our visit – but if you are keen to eat fish during your stay, I hear there are many more sustainable options to go for. This includes tuna, calamari, snapper, barramundi and prawns, which I saw sizzling on skewers during our trip to Kep crab market.
Either way, Kep crab market is a hive of activity and is the beating heart of Cambodia’s southern coastal region. I could have walked round and round this place for hours.
I would have, had we not had an appointment with one of Kampot’s key peppercorn plantations, where the famous Kampot peppercorns are grown.
It’s believed that Kampot’s pepper growing industry dates back to the 13th Century, but the modern peppercorn cultivation you see today was brought over from Indonesia in the late 1800s and it covers six districts between Kampot and Kep.
Between the mountains and sea, the high-elevation ‘terroir’ in Kampot is claimed to be packed with all the right minerals for peppercorn vines and the ‘fruity’ and long-lingering qualities of this spice are heralded by chefs all around the culinary world. So it’s no wonder it’s one of Cambodia’s key exports!
There are hundreds of plantations located in Kampot, but if you plan ahead, it is possible to visit one and see first-hand how the spice is grown.
During our visit, we met a volunteer who had learnt all about the cultivation of pepper within the space of a few weeks. And she explained how there are three types of peppercorn – black, red and white – which all have their own qualities and differ based on the way they are harvested.
Some of the plantations have onsite shops where you can buy peppercorn products and try out the flavours yourself. So you can take it home, and cook up your own Cambodian food.
Or if you can’t wait until then, you are sure to find a restaurant in Kampot or Kep along the coast, or even Phnom Penh, that will serve you a seafood dish using the best Kampot pepper. Ask for Kdam chaa (fried crab) or another fresh fish and it will be accompanied with the fresh green peppercorns that are picked from the vine early and add a ‘fruity’ spice to your meal.
Fresh, tasty and as authentic as it gets!