Friday, May 25, 2012

Pepper Crab

Pepper Crab with Steamed Rice

Black, Brown and White Kampot Pepper for sale in Kep, Cambodia

The bottles in the centre contain green Kampot pepper in salt water.  
A recent post by David Lebovitz reminded me that I need to write about possibly the most delicious crab dish I have had in my life. The Pepper Crab on the coast of Cambodia. 

I was in Cambodia for about three months in the summer of 2011, and visited Kep, on the coast of Cambodia, three of four times during that time. I discovered pepper crab only on my second visit. 

There are a series of little shops along the coast for perhaps half a mile, where you find little restaurants tucked away selling all kinds of sea food deliciousness. While I will talk about another delicious seafood find on another day in another post, the pepper crab is one of these. 

The views from these restaurants are spectacular. They are built literally jutting out into the sea itself, like piers, and as you eat, the sea is swishing beneath you under the floor boards. 

When we ordered crab, we saw the owner cum chef cum maid of all work, go out into the sea, and literally pick out our crab from rattan baskets that were floating in the sea. The freshness of our crab was beyond compare. To say we were excited is to understate things by a mile. 

By the time the crab reached our table, it had been sauteed with garlic, salt, pepper, and a first for me, young pepper corns, still attached to the stem. I had never been confronted with these before on a plate. I ventured to tentatively taste these, and whoa, explosion of taste. They were peppery but so mild, and they imparted such a delicious flavour to the crab. Really, that crab deserves a michelin star, all on its own-some. 

Before we left, I bought a bottle of "preserved" green pepper from the vendors that dot the street. And they actually stayed fresh and green for quite a while, though they were only preserved in plain old salt water. The ones kept out of salt water turned black pretty quickly. 

They were also selling a garlic-soy sauce-chilli reduction which they use for grilling fish (which will be my next post), which I should have bought, in retrospect. Anyhow, I found a few culinary geniuses under those thatched roofs, and though we kept going back to the same restaurant in our subsequent visits, I think all of these Cambodian chefs are equally adept a producing this type of truly delicious, juicy pepper crab. 

The shops in Kep, where you find delicious fresh, Pepper Crab

Prawns and garlic, I think preserved in salt water. I was not brave enough to try these
I used the pepper in scrambled eggs (a la Sri Lankan style, which I make with diced tomatoes, onions, curry leaves and now, cambodian green pepper from Kampot) and it was delicious! Really, who would have thought. They impart a truly unique flavour that the dried black pepper does not. In fact, there are four types of pepper; the young green pepper, fresh off the wine, the brown pepper, which is medium dried, the black pepper, which is fully dried, and the white pepper which is black pepper (or brown, I'm not sure which) with the skin scrubbed off. You can see it all in the pictures.

It was inevitable that as we ate crab, we talked about pepper. My companions were from France, Spain, Italy and USA respectively, and it appears that since the French colonised Cambodia, way back when, the pepper from Kampot made it to French tables. It has apparently also received geographical indication status in 2009. Just like fine wines, for example Champagne, Kampot pepper is supposed to be unmatchable in quality and taste, which is imparted by the geography of Kampot. I have to say, I agree. And even though three decades or so of civil war had almost destroyed these plantations, it looks like the pepper is making a comeback. Its even being marketed now for its unique characteristics. All I can say is, I'm 100% behind the initiative. After years of suffering, Cambodians deserve a break. 
The beautiful coast off Rabbit island, in Kep, Cambodia

More about Cambodian food adventures on another day. Now that I am back in Sri Lanka, where we have our own pepper (in fact my husband's garden has not only pepper vines but also cinnamon trees, where the leaves are so fragrant, I'm wondering why no one ever uses it in cooking), I have high hopes of using tender green pepper in my cooking in the near future. 

And people, if you ever see Kampot pepper in a store, buy it. Its the best pepper in the world, and it helps Cambodia. You can't lose. 

No comments:

Post a Comment