A Change of Guard

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Friday, 31 December 2010

He brings home a suitcase full of pepper [from Cambodia]

Traditionally, pepper is grown on wooden stakes. Starling Farm built these brick towers which last longer than the wood and support more vines.
Kampot pepper ripned on the vine. COURTESY HIM ANNA, STARLING FARM

Kampot pepper is organically grown and the farmers use many of the same techniques as their ancestors.
Dec. 30, 2010

EDITOR'S NOTE: Tom Gordon, an editor at The Register, is starting a nonprofit that will sell Cambodian pepper in the United States. The money raised will help a group that works to help retrain former sex workers in Cambodia This is the last of a three-part story.

Pol Pot killed one, maybe two million people back in the 1970s. Pol Pot liked killing people.

But evidently he didn't like pepper. Pol Pot ordered acres of pepper vines in the Kampot province of western Cambodia ripped out and rice planted in its place.

History has not been kind to Pol Pot.

On the other hand, Chef Oge Dalken, who is creating the menu for the soon-to-open Chapter One: the modern local restaurant in downtown Santa Ana, is a big fan of Kampot pepper.

"The pepper is damn good – and you can say damn good because that's the way I feel about. I am using it as the basic seasoning in all my dishes," says Chef Dalken. He has plans to use Cambodian pepper on duck, New York steaks and possibly in a martini.

Haley Nguyen, who owns the Xanh Bistro at Brookhurst and Edinger in Fountain Valley, tasted Kampot pepper and pronounced it "spicy." Chef Nguyen knows pepper. She teaches cooking at Saddleback and Cypress colleges and hosts culinary tours of Vietnam and Cambodia every year.

"The Kampot pepper has an intense peppery flavor that others lack. I prefer using it whole or cracked in my shrimp paste wrap sugar cane, the sweetness of shrimp with a sudden crunch of the whole pepper corn adds texture and more life to this traditional Vietnamese dish," she says.

In the coming months there will receptions at Xanh and Chapter One to introduce Kampot pepper to Orange County.

For centuries, Kampot pepper has been grown in the hills of western Cambodia. Much of it was exported to the finest restaurants in France. To this day, the French are the biggest foreign users of Kampot pepper.

A few years ago, my wife Cris and I visited a pepper farm. They call them plantations but they are really just small patches of cleared jungle with a few dozen vines and a wooden shack where the family lives. The roots of Kampot pepper farming go back for centuries and little has changed over the years.

It's not an easy life.

There's the heat, the lack of infrastructure in Cambodia, and the isolation. Most of the farms lack even basic conveniences. Much of their cooking is done by creating gas from a mixture of cow dung and water. The lighting comes from small solar lanterns. Bed is a hammock in the corner.

Only 118 families grow Kampot pepper today.


Like Champagne, which is only produced in a designated region of France, Kampot pepper can only come from a small area. The Kampot Pepper Promotion Association, a small group of farmers and marketers, makes sure the crop is organic and only from the Kampot/Kep region. This geographic designation took years to establish. The farmers are very proud of their product.

What makes Kampot pepper different from the pepper at your local supermarket?

Cheh Luu Meng of the upscale Malis restaurant in the Cambodia capital of Phnom Penh, is downright poetic: "The aroma releases fresh, minty, elements... reminiscent of heavy wood and wet forest... (it) lingers on the palate and remains in the minds of my guests."

To me it's just really tasty and very peppery. It's different.

Kampot pepper had quite a history. It was first noted by Chinese explorers in the 13th Century. By 1900, Kampot pepper was exported by the ton to France, where it was used in the finest restaurants.

Then along came Pol Pot.

The industry is just starting to make a comeback.

In November, with Cris recuperating from an auto accident, I traveled to Phnom Penh, and on to Cambodia's west coast to buy some Kampot pepper.

It was our goal to start selling the pepper in the U.S, secure a steady future supply and help former workers in Cambodia's sex trade.

I had help.

Hin Pidour, of the Kampot Pepper Association, arranged a meeting with local officials and farmers in the organizations bare-bones office. I got a tour of Ngon Proeung's farm and bought 30 pounds of Kampot pepper from him to carry home in my suitcase. That would get things started.

Pidour knows some English but most of the others only spoke Khmer. My Khmer consists of about eight words (and I often refer to my cheat sheet to recall those).

Enter Phary. His business cards list him as "Phary the Tuk Tuk driver."

In Cambodia, a tuk tuk is a small motorbike with a covered trailer attached to haul people on short trips. Cris and I knew Phary from a previous visit and consider him a friend. He's a hustling businessman with plans for his family and the future. Besides getting me where I needed to go, Phary acted as my interpreter.

The Pepper Association put me in contact with Him Anna back in Phnom Penh who operates Starling Farm on the border of Kep and Kampot provinces. Just the week before, Anna had received her official Kampot pepper designation. I was her first customer.

After 12 days of meetings, several five-hour bus rides between Phnom Penh and Kampot, many hot, dusty tuk tuk rides, visits with farmers, and securing some Cambodian-made packaging, I was ready to return home – my suitcase filled with Kampot pepper. All I had to look forward to was 17-hour flight and a date with U.S. Customs.



Ross Meador, an international trade lawyer from Chino Hills who has lived all over Asia, volunteered his time to try and help clear the way for me.

He contacted U.S. Customs, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and state officials. "Declare it" was his advice, as long as it's dried there should be no problem. "It's all part of the adventure," were his parting words.

If I didn't declare it, he warned, I faced a $300-$1,000 fine and they would likely confiscate the pepper. "Not good,' he warned.

So much for sneaking 30 pounds of Kampot pepper through Customs.

On the declaration form I checked "yes" to carrying food and plants, to being on a farm recently and having goods destined for business purposes. I was a marked man.

It actually went pretty smooth. I did get singled out and my bags were directed to a huge X-ray machine. The Customs agent thought it odd that someone would be carrying 30 pounds of pepper but waved me through.

I was now the proud owner of 30 pounds of red, white and black Kampot pepper and had a partner who could send me more when I needed it.

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