Kep, a quiet fishing town on the southern coast of Cambodia, sprawls out lazily along the shore over a few kilometers, nestled in the low places between steep green hills. The town's seawater is a little murky, and the beach isn't terribly inviting compared to Sihanoukville's golden sands.
The town holds other appeal however, as it stands out for two culinary delights. First, there's the delicious crab caught daily on its shores, and second, some of the finest pepper in the world is billed to grow on plantations just outside of town.
Today, we indulge in both.
First comes a visit to a pepper farm, about twenty five kilometers away from Kep. For this excursion, Natasha, Tyler, and I hire a tuk-tuk. (Unfortunately, Pete isn't feeling well, so he stays tucked in bed at our hotel.)
Though Natasha and Pete have ridden on dozens of these colorful carts pulled by motorbikes, this is our very first one in Southeast Asia. On such a hot, sunny afternoon, it feels lovely to simply sit in the shade, being carried towards our destination. I do have to admit, though, that I've never noticed Cambodian roads being so bumpy until today!
After a half an hour of bouncing through the countryside, we turn off the main road. Soon, we're cutting through scrubby, dusty, sun-drenched land, trundling over a red dirt road. Our tuk-tuk, weighted down by the three of us, struggles as it chugs up a small hill.
There, at the top, is a pepper farm. Upon reflection, we're not sure what we were expecting, but what we find is just that, a pepper farm, plain and simple.
There are no signs telling us about what we're seeing, and there's no guide waiting to escort us around. It's simply a quiet, small farm boasting prolific green vines growing up slanted wooden poles. So, we hop out of the tuk-tuk and look around for ourselves.
Surprisingly, it is our tuk-tuk driver who pipes up to tell us about the plants. Apparently, on these vines grow clusters of
berries drupes. Currently green, the drupes will mature to a bright red before being harvested and dried into shriveled black peppercorns. White pepper is made from the same little drupes, except that black skin is removed, so just the white seed remains.
Once he's done with his brief explanation about regular old black pepper as we know it, he motions for us to try the unripe drupes fresh off the vine. I pluck a plump green one and pop it into my mouth; the skin cracks open and I begin to chew, and suddenly I am dumbstruck.
This berry, this fresh pepper thing, is an absolute revelation. It's so bright and fresh, piquant and zesty, and well, peppery. It's about as similar to ground black pepper as a fresh chili pepper is to crushed chili flakes from a shaker.
I'm delighted and surprised, and almost upset with myself. Why have I never had this before? And then I realize that I have tasted it before. This was that delicious mystery ingredient in my first Bankokian pad kee mao.
Though our visit is simple and short (there's not much to do, really), my mind is blown. I feel silly for never questioning something so basic as where pepper comes from, never delving beneath the surface of the ubiquitous grey/black powdered condiment.
Like so many things in life (or, err, everything), there's always more to learn, and in the case of today, more to taste! And like so many things in life, the more I learn the more I realize how little I know. I already knew there was a whole world beyond plain old table salt (pink himalayan salt, smoked salt, and fleur de sel for example), but pepper? How did I not know about real fresh pepper?
Stuffing a few clusters of green pepper spikes into our pockets, we hop back on the tuk-tuk and drive away. We stop shortly after at a roadside gift shop to pick up a few edible souvenirs.
Hours later, as the sun is setting over Kep's gray waters, it is time for our second culinary excursion of the day. This time, Natasha, Tyler, and I bike down Kep's quiet coastal road, stopping to photograph the view as the sun sets on the horizon. Our destination is the local crab market. Time for dinner!
The crab market is lined with restaurant after restaurant after restaurant boasting the local specialty. They all seem about the same, and they all have gorgeous ocean views, so it's hard to pick which one we want. Natasha eventually makes the decision, drawing a distinction on the reasonably comfy chairs and cool lighting of her selection.
Natasha orders the crab in pepper sauce; Tyler and I get squid. A young boy is our waiter, and he speaks remarkably good English. He's polite and professional, making it seem like we're at a fine dining establishment. This illusion is only shattered by the bargain prices of our seafood, and the swarms of bugs flying everywhere. Before our meal is served, someone sticks a length of packing tape near a light as a fly strip. It does the job really well!
Our child prodigy waiter gracefully brings our food, presents the dishes to us proudly, and wishes us a good appetite. We thank him, toast our glasses of Angkor beer, and ravenously dig in. All of the food is fantastic.
While I decided I loved squid and mussels on the beach-side grills of Sihanoukville, tonight's meal finally prompts Tyler to declare that he likes seafood! Natasha's finger-licking mess of freshly caught crab is delicious, and she's generous enough to let Tyler and I tear into a peppery leg or two.
Back at our hotel, a mama dog is trying in vain to corral her new litter. The little pups have been flopping up and down our hallway every since we arrived yesterday. The cuteness of these precious little balls of fur is unbearable! Here are some pictures from the very beginning and end of our day: