I had my first real taste of Cambodian food right behind the border. Our day had started at 5.30 when we drove to Mochit Station in Bangkok to get tickets for the bus to Siem Reap. It all worked out perfectly, but the food options at the station were very limited. And while the bus company provided all travelers with food, it was not compatible with my food allergies. In the afternoon, having crossed the border as one of the first, we decided to search for a restaurant. In a sea of casinos and stalls selling cigarettes and liquor, we found a single, small restaurant. A young girl offered us a menu with a shy smile, and I picked the option that sounded safest to me: chicken, tomatoes and onion with rice. Valentin asked the girl if he could come with her to the kitchen, located behind the service area, to watch the women prepare the food. With lots of smiles, she finally understood his request, and indicted him to follow her. With hands and feet he explained the women not to put any egg into my food, and that way I had the first out of many fantastic experiences of Cambodian cuisine. It’s a flavor rich cuisine – hot from the peppers and chili, sweet and thick from the use of coconut milk, and sometimes smoky from the meat that is prepared on open fires or a grill.
We were most intrigued by the lemon-pepper sauce that comes with Lok Lak. Lok Lak is made with fish, beef, pork or chicken, which are prepared with tomatoes and onion. In its original version, it is served an omelette on top of the meat and rice as a side.
We wanted to learn more about the pepper and decided to make a stop at Kampot. Cramped into a minibus with seats for 13 that transported 21 people and their luggage, we arrived at Kampot in the early afternoon. Tuck-tucks are rare in this area of the country, but we were picked up by a local legend. Once we left the big street, our journey lead us through small villages. We drove through a beautiful rural area that offered a glimpse at a life long lost in our part of the world. Located at the sockets of a mountain, we found Starling Farm, well-known for producing the famous Kampot pepper in the traditional way. We learnt that black and red pepper actually grow at the same plant, before we walked around the fields and enjoyed the view over the valley and farm from the top of a hill. It's differences in drying that lead to white pepper.
Eventually, we followed the pepper trail to Vietnam. On the back of a moto, the peculiar smell of pepper hit my nose as we drove through the mountains on Phu Quoc, an islands located 30km off the Vietnamese coast. We stopped at Jenny’s Pepper farm. The plants here carry pepper for about 15 years. While the young pepper plants were hidden under dark nets, we could walk freely around fields of older pepper plants. In the absence of machines, the pepper is hand-picked individually, which makes pepper cultivation extremely time-intensive. We also found that in Vietnam, the pepper-lemon sauce is served with most dishes as well as alongside plates of grilled meat and fish.
1 teaspoon of finely grained pepper
1 teaspoon of fine salt
In a small bowl, mix pepper and salt. Squeeze lime juice on top and mix well. Serve with grilled chicken, beef or seafood.