On many dining tables, the salt and pepper containers draw attention, not the contents – perhaps because they’re novelty pots designed to “hug” each other, or because the dispensers operate in an impressive fashion, or indeed, because they work at all! Rarely, does the seasoning itself elicit comment – unless it’s Kampot pepper, that is…
What is Kampot pepper?
Put simply, it’s pepper that is grown in the Kampot province in the southwest of Cambodia. Known as the King of Peppers, this particular variety has gained favor with chefs around the world who champion its distinctive taste.
It’s particularly popular amongst French chefs – a legacy of the days of French Indochina, when almost all the “Poivre de Kampot” produced was shipped over to the country’s best eating establishments. By the 1960s, approximately 100,000 tons of the stuff was being exported, most of it to France. With the advent of the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s, the industry was all but decimated. Nowadays, around 20 tons of Kampot pepper is produced each year, and the figure is once again increasing.
The hidden depths of Kampot pepper…
One person who spent several years importing the famous spice is Yannick Dubrunfaut, who’s now the proud owner and chef of Kampot’s gourmet French restaurant, Chez Aline. He says the thing that makes it so special is the soft taste you get from it when it first enters your mouth, which then becomes stronger and more noticeable as you continue to eat.
Depending on which type of Kampot pepper you use (black, red, or white), you’ll get a slightly different flavor – black being the spiciest, red the sweetest, and white the most subtle. Chez Aline’s Yannick says this is really helpful in the kitchen, as he can use the black variety in a classic pepper sauce, the red peppercorns with fish, and the white ones in chocolate mousse.
Okay, so we know it has a special taste – but why?
Just as champagne can only ever taste like the real deal if it’s made with grapes harvested in the Champagne region of France, there’s only one Kampot Pepper – a fact recognized by the European Union, which recently awarded the product Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) status.
The reason why there can only be one Kampot pepper is the location of this sleepy province, which sits between the Thai and Vietnamese borders (to the West and the East respectively), and beneath the mountains of Bokor National Park, which look onto the Gulf of Thailand – factors which combine to create a special climate and soil type. This, along with the expertise of generations of farmers and the processes used to prepare and store the peppercorns, gives Kampot pepper its unique taste.
How is it used?
In Kampot itself, you can’t get far without seeing restaurant blackboards advertising various dishes whose star ingredient is this locally produced delicacy. It’s used in everything from peppercorn sauces accompanying chicken, green veg, and mash, to the more traditional local dish, fried squid with fresh Kampot pepper – though the latter tends to be made using fresh Kampot pepper, which is readily available close to the source, but not so easily found elsewhere.
Where can you find it outside of Kampot?
These days, you don’t need to work at a famous Parisian restaurant to get your hands on Kampot pepper. Thanks to companies like FarmLink, which was set up to “build the link between the farmers and international buyers and purveyors” and works with 120 local producers, it’s widely available online and in shops throughout Europe, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and the USA.
Because of the high value of Kampot pepper (which is sold for anything between $7 and $100 per kilo, depending on the specific variety), it’s important to make sure you’re getting the real stuff and not a counterfeit or substandard product. Thankfully, since becoming the first Cambodian product to be given PGI status, consumers need only look for the PGI Quality logo. Aside from that, you’ll find all the proof you need in the taste!