Mixed Peppercorns
Cooking History, Cooking Knowledge, Non Recipes

Let’s talk about pepper – Part 1: Cambodia and Vietnam

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Germans are among the biggest pepper consumers in Europe. In 2017, the average German ate 205 grams of pepper. That’s much more than our French neighbors where one person on average only consumes 75 grams of pepper a year. The average European eats 120 grams of pepper a year.

Yet despite our high consumption levels, most Germans don’t have much knowledge about pepper. They neither know how it is grown and produced nor how to differentiate different types of peppercorns. Therefore, I want to spend some time to publish some posts about pepper that cover:

  • How it is produced
  • The history of pepper cultivation
  • How to differentiate different kinds of peppercorns and confirm authenticity.

When it comes to spices, we are not very knowledgable in Europe. We have conquered the world to acquire them yet most people don’t even know where the pepper they grind on their food was grown. Obviously, the pepper you buy in a German supermarket doesn’t indicate its origin on the packaging. It’s often mass-produced in Brazil or Vietnam and not very flavorful. That’s why producers don’t put it prominently on the label.

Only a few people in the Western world know how and where pepper is grown.

In the first part of this series, I want to talk about pepper from Vietnam and Cambodia. That is because some of the best and worst pepper comes from these two countries. So before I introduce you to the birthplace of pepper, the Malabar coast of India, I want to tell you a few things about the world’s biggest (Vietnam) and the world’s best (Southern Cambodia) pepper producer.

But before I talk about pepper, I want to share with you some old French wisdom.

Le vietnamien plante le riz,

le cambodgien le regarde pousser,

le lao l’écoute pousser,

le thaïlandais le coupe,

le chinois le vend!

The Vietnamese plant the rice,

the Cambodians watch it grow,

the Laotians listen to it grow,

the Thais harvest it,

and the Chinese sell it!

Old French saying dating back to the colonial times

There is a lot of truth in this saying. While Vietnam is the biggest pepper producer nowadays accounting for roughly one-third of the world’s production, one of the world’s finest pepper varieties is grown in the south of Cambodia: Kampot pepper.

Why you should avoid Vietnamese pepper

But let’s start with Vietnam. As the French had already realized very early, Vietnamese people are more similar to the Chinese than the other Southeast Asian countries. Vietnam had been under Chinese control from 111 BC until 1427. That’s more than a thousand years. Vietnamese are thus very capable when it comes to doing business.

Vietnamese culture was strongly influenced by Chinese culture.

They are not as laid as back as the Cambodians or Laotians where the world moves a bit more slowly. Even after the Vietnam war, the Vietnamese were able to quickly rebuild their country. Nowadays, they are not only the biggest pepper producer worldwide but also the second biggest coffee producer and the fifth-biggest rice producer. Of course, a big part of the reason for Vietnam’s success, besides its people, is that the Mekong Delta region has one of the most fertile soils in the world.

If you’re buying cheap pepper in the grocery store, then it was probably produced in Vietnam or Brazil. The traditional pepper producers India and Indonesia nowadays mostly produce pepper only for domestic consumption. They still serve the international premium market but Vietnam and Brasil ensure the supply for the mass market. The huge overproduction of pepper in Vietnam has actually led to a severe price decline over the last years so that the mass market is not very profitable for growers anymore.

Where pepper in Europe comes from. Source: CBI

https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/documents/4187653/9451024/Trade+in+spices/91a3fe62-425f-f68d-5058-6dfd18fbcbac?t=1576745031975
Where our spices come from: Contrary to popular belief, paprika powder sold in Europe is mostly from China and not from Hungary. Source: Eurostat

The reasons why Vietnamese pepper is often not of good quality

The problem with Vietnamese pepper is that it is often not of good quality. Vietnam was historically no major pepper producer. The country just recently turned its focus to pepper cultivation because the coffee prices deteriorated over the years. The farming communities in Vietnam thus lack process knowledge, cleanliness standards, and advanced production technology. They have limited technical knowledge and under-invest in modern production technology to ensure a consistently high pepper quality.

It is not uncommon for Vietnamese farmers to pick the pepper berries too early to make cash from the plant as soon as possible. Overall, they are mostly driven by obtaining a financial profit as quickly as possible without a second thought about quality. And Vietnamese farmers are also very reluctant to invest in modern machinery.

The Vietnamese island Phu Quoc is a major pepper producer.

If that is not enough to keep you away from Vietnamese pepper then I have another good reason for you as to why you shouldn’t buy it. Pepper from Vietnam that is exported to the EU and US often contains excessive amounts of the pesticide metalaxyl.

The European Spice Association (ESA) had informed the Vietnam Pepper Association (VPA) and the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MARD) last month that it had analyzed 799 samples of black pepper imported by the EU market from Vietnam in 2016. Only 17 percent had the permitted maximum residue levels (MRL) of under 0.05 ppm.

A majority of farmers use unnecessary amounts of fertilizers and pesticides, weakening natural resistance and requiring even higher doses of the chemicals for subsequent crops, resulting in diminishing returns.

Until farmers recognize the severity of the problem and change their cultivation methods, more hardship and loss lie ahead.

Vietnam Economic News, 2017

Although Vietnam is still the main supplier of pepper to Europe, European spice importers desperately search for new suppliers. The pepper produced in Vietnam to a large extent doesn’t comply with European legislation pesticide residue levels. The situation in Vietnam is very intransparent. The pepper is mostly grown on small farms and there are many middlemen who make a profit in the supply chain.

It’s often impossible to trace Vietnamese pepper back to the origin where it was grown. Adding to that, Vietnamese suppliers are smart businessmen. They are very well organized and have the power to keep hold of pepper stocks to increase their profit margins. Over the last years, pepper suppliers from Brazil and India have made new plantings to decrease the European dependency on Vietnam.

The top sources for pepper in the US are shown in the table below. As you can see, the US is also highly dependent on Vietnam and China. Both countries are not known for their superior pepper quality standards.

The major pepper suppliers for the US market. Source: USTradeNumbers

The geographical origin of the world’s best pepper

Kampot pepper is the world’s finest pepper variety. The French were not the first ones to grow pepper in Southern Cambodia during colonial times. However, they intensified the production because they realized that the soil in the Cambodian provinces Kampot and Kep produced pepper with an incredible fragrance and aroma. This pepper was exported to Europe and sold under the name “Poivre Indochine”. During French colonial times, almost all pepper sold in France was “Poivre Indochine”. Until today, the European Union remains by far the biggest importer of Kampot pepper.

Europe’s love for Kampot pepper is so big that in the European Union, the name Kampot pepper is legally protected. Only peppercorns that have been grown in the Cambodian provinces of Kampot or Kep, that meet a certain quality standard, and that have been processed the traditional way are allowed to be sold under the name Kampot pepper. This helps growers in Southern Cambodia achieve a higher market price because the EU recognizes Kampot pepper as a product of the highest quality.

The beach in Kep, a Southern Cambodia town close to Kampot that is famous for its pepper and seafood.

The geographical origin and processing of many exclusive food products are protected by EU law. Black forest ham sold in Europe has to be produced in the Black forest using only traditional methods. The same applies to gruyère cheese to name a further example. Cheese that is sold as gruèyere cheese has to be produced in Switzerland in the traditional way.

Outside of Europe, there is no EU protection for these products in place. What is sold as Black forest ham or gruyère cheese in the United States and Canada often has nothing to do with the original. To cite the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office:

The existence of seven U.S. cheese manufacturers of gruyère cheese and the widespread generic internet and dictionary usage . . . clearly demonstrate that gruyère has lost its geographical significance and is now viewed as a genus of cheese.

Source: Lexology

I think this statement deserves no further comments. The ignorance of the US when it comes to recognizing food quality and geographical heritage is appalling.

Luckily for US consumers, the geographical heritage of Kampot pepper is also protected by the World Trade Organization (WTO). The WTO is actively working on extending the protection for geographical indications. Almost all states outside of the American continent strongly agree with this policy. Yet, the big agricultural product exporters such as the USA, Canada, Argentina, Chile, and Australia fiercely oppose this effort.

Yet every country in this world produces products of extraordinary quality and with certain characteristics which are due to their geographical origin. Geographical indications protect and value the work of farmers and artisans in developing and developed nations. They create employment, guarantee a fair market price, and encourage diversification of production. Therefore cultural heritage and natural treasures are protected and maintained.

The US policy of neglecting the special role of geographical heritage harms producers and consumers:

  • Small producers can’t achieve a sufficient price for their product. They lose market share to big industrial producers who offer a lower-quality product for a cheaper price. Because of the cheap low-quality products of the big producers, the reputation of the original product gets damaged.
  • Consumers get misled because they are led to believe they are buying an authentic product of high quality, whereas, they just bought an inferior imitation that was mass-produced from some other corner of the world.

The history of Kampot pepper

The first known record of pepper production in Cambodia dates back to records of the Chinese explorer Tchéou Ta Kouan in the early 13th century. However, intensive pepper production in Cambodia didn’t start until the early 20th century.

Pepper plants in Kampot, Cambodia.

The main reason why the French colonialists intensified the pepper production in Cambodia was that a shortage of pepper appeared in the late 19th century.

At that time, the Dutch tried to consolidate their rule over modern-day Indonesia. In a war against the Aceh Sultanate, the Kingdom of the Netherlands fought to get the Indonesian province of Aceh under their control to exploit its natural resources. The Sultanate of Aceh was a major regional power that had acquired its wealth with the export of pepper, nutmeg, cloves, and betel nuts.

The Dutch won the war and thus Aceh was annexed into the Dutch East Indies colony. However, the Sultan of Aceh didn’t want his wealth to fall into the hands of the Dutch so that he burned down his pepper plantations in 1873-1874. The European colonial powers thus shifted their pepper production from Indonesia to Kampot which was under the colonial rule of France.

Until the 1960s, Kampot remained one of the major pepper producers worldwide. However, in a devastating civil war between 1967 to 1975, the Khmer Rouge rose to power. They turned the Kingdom of Cambodia into the Khmer Republic that was governed by the dictator Pol Pot. The Khmer Rouge turned Cambodia into an agrarian peasant state. The goal of the government was to make Cambodia independent from the outside world.

The pepper plantations were torn down in favor of rice plantations. For one part, pepper was seen as a product that was closely linked to the French colonial heritage of Cambodia. On the other hand, thanks to the pepper trade, the South of Cambodia was a wealthy region prior to the civil war. Yet the Khmer Rouge aimed to eliminate anyone they considered as bourgeois. Cambodian teachers, physicians, traders, and pepper farmers were all killed. Overall, the Khmer Rouge killed about 25 % of the Cambodian population during their rule.

They followed a very brutal, yet simple principle: To keep you is no benefit, to destroy you is no loss. Any opposition, minorities, or elite members of society were killed. Luckily, the Vietnamese ended the rule of the Khmer Rouge by invading Cambodia in 1979. Nowadays, the Kingdom of Cambodia is a monarchy again that is governed by non-royal leader Hun Sen since 1985.

The Khmer Rouge hid in the mountains close to Kampot after their regime was overthrown in 1979. Prior to the rule of the Khmer Rouge, this was a holiday home for the Cambodian king.

Kampot pepper was not available on the world market until the late 1990s. That’s when local farmers started to revive the tradition of growing pepper in Kampot. Of the 20 000 tons of pepper produced in Cambodia, only about 130 tons are Kampot pepper that meets the quality standards for the European Union’s Geographical Indication Standard. Half of the Kampot pepper is exported to Europe. 30 % is domestically consumed and the remaining 20 % are sold to the rest of the world.

The reason for the high quality of Kampot pepper

The product specification book for authentic Kampot pepper is 27 pages long. It states that the term Kampot pepper refers to the berries of two varieties of the pepper plant Piper nigrum L.:

  • Kamchay
  • Lampong (or Belantoeung)

The four different types of Kampot pepper are:

  • Green pepper, which is the unripe fruit of the pepper plant. It can be eaten fresh or it can be preserved in brine or vinegar.
  • Black pepper, which is harvested when the berries start to turn from green to yellow. Black pepper is sold as a dried product.
  • Red pepper, which is the dried product of fully ripe berries.
  • White pepper, which is produced from ripe pepper berries that have been soaked in water which causes the outer skin to decay and loosen from the core fruit.
Green pepper is harvested unripe and tastes citrusy with only a mild spiciness.

Only pepper that was grown in specified areas in the Cambodian provinces Kampot and Kep can be sold as Kampot pepper. To ensure the highest possible quality, the production needs to follow traditional methods:

  • Replication of the pepper plant can only be done by cuttings of the local Kamchay and Lampong (or Belantoeung) varieties.
  • The use of chemical fertilizers is strictly prohibited. To fertilize the soil either new soil (“virgin soil”) or cow dung and bat dung can be applied.
  • The pepper plants get irrigated during the dry season. Every vine needs about 15 liters of water every 3 days. Most plantations in Kampot still irrigate manually using water from local ponds.
  • Only natural pesticides obtained from local plants should be used. However, shall natural treatment prove inefficient class 2 and 3 pesticides (only moderate or slightly hazardous according to WHO classification) are allowed in the production of Kampot pepper.

Certified Kampot pepper is labeled with two kinds of logos to indicate its authenticity:

Always look for these logos when you purchase Kampot pepper. If they are not on the packaging, the pepper is not certified and doesn’t fulfill the high-quality standards required by the Kampot Pepper Promotion Association (KPPA).

How does Kampot pepper taste?

Let’s get to the most important part: The taste of Kampot pepper. What makes Kampot pepper special is its strong but not burning pungency. It is spicy but not in an aggressive way. Instead, the pungency develops progressively in the mouth without overwhelming the palate. Besides its spiciness, the aroma of Kampot pepper is very intense. The perceived flavor characteristics depend on the type of Kampot pepper consumed:

  • Green Kampot pepper has a fresh citrus flavor and is less spicy than dried varieties.
  • Black Kampot pepper has a vaguely floral flavor with hints of flower, eucalyptus, and mint. It can range from mildly sweet to intensely spicy.
  • Red Kampot pepper delivers a powerful fruity aroma. It is less spicy and sweeter than the black variety. Thus the flavor profile is more rounded.
  • White Kampot pepper carries notes of fresh grass and lime.

The aroma of dried Kampot pepper lasts for about 3 years. If you consume the dried peppercorns any later, the unique flavor intensity might be lost.

I still have Kampot pepper at home from the last time I visited Kampot but I also bought some black Kampot pepper from a German retailer. Kampot pepper is one of the best peppers that I have ever tasted. I just want to give you a brief description of my flavor impressions and provide you some information on how to perform a sensory analysis to confirm authenticity. It’s not as hard as it seems to distinguish Kampot pepper from other pepper varieties. The look, smell, and taste are quite distinct.

The first thing you do in the sensory analysis is to judge the appearance of the peppercorns. Black and red Kampot peppercorns should have a diameter of at least 4 millimeters and a density of 570 grams per liter. So 60 milliliters (1/4 cup) should have a weight of at least 34.2 grams. White peppercorns need to have a diameter larger than 3 milliliters and a density higher than 600 grams per liter.

So, let’s take a look at the black peppercorns that I have purchased here in Germany:

The peppercorns have a diameter of roughly 4 millimeters.
The Kampot peppercorns are darker than Malabar (Indian) and Sarawak (Malaysian) peppercorns.
60 milliliters (1/4 cup) of Kampot pepper weigh 36 grams which translates to a density of 600 grams per liter.

So far the Kampot pepper fulfills all the size, density, and color attributes which are defined in the official product specification book. The dark black or black brown color is a key characteristic of Kampot pepper. As you can see in the picture above, the Malabar peppercorns and Sarawak peppercorns have a brown color. They also have a different diameter than the Kampot peppercorns.

How to describe the flavor and aroma of pepper

To describe the smell and taste of food can be a tricky task for untrained people. A big help for the sensory description of food items is a flavor wheel. This is a great tool because it helps you to put the sensation you experience in your nose or on your tongue into words. The American company McCormick has created a flavor wheel with vocabulary for the description of dried spices and herbs.

The McCormick Spice wheel. Source: Journal of Sensory Studies.

In the food industry, spice lexicons are used to guide people on what kind of flavors are to be expected from a certain spice. According to the McCormick spice lexicon, black pepper has the following attributes:

  • Bitter: Taste on tongue stimulated by solutions of caffeine, quinine, and other alkaloids
  • Cardboard: Aromatic associated with slightly oxidized fats and oils, reminiscent of wet cardboard packaging
  • Cedar/ woody: A woody aromatic associated with cedar
  • Heat: Chemical burning sensation in the mouth and throat
  • Musty: Aromatic associated with closed air spaces such as attics and closets (dry) and basements (wet)
  • Oxidized lime: Reminiscent of oxidized lime flavors
  • Pine: Aromatic reminiscent of pine needles
  • Soapy: Aromatic associated with Ivory soap
  • Terpene: Aromatic associated with pine volatiles

A special characteristic of black Kampot pepper is that it is known to have the following flavor attributes:

  • Minty: The aromatic associated with the mint family (sweet, green, and menthol). Peppermint, spearmint, wintergreen
  • Eucalyptol: An aromatic associated with fresh eucalyptus leaves
  • Floral: A sweet fragrant aromatic associated with flowers
  • Fruity: The aromatic associated with a mixture of non‐specific fruits: berries, apples/pears, tropical, melons, but usually not citrus fruits

So now that we know what we look for it becomes easier to describe the flavor of our sample. Ground your peppercorns and place them in a small cup. Cover that cup with a lid and wait for 10 minutes. Then open the lid and smell (sniff) the peppercorns. After the smelling test is complete you can take the peppercorns in your mouth and taste them. Make sure to inhale a lot of air (slurping) while you taste them. That way it becomes easier to identify aromas. Also, pay attention to the aftertaste and more subtle flavors.

In the following table you can find the results of my sensory analysis:

Diameter of the peppercorns 4 mm
Density of the peppercorns600 g/L
Color of the peppercornsDark black/ brown black
Smell of the peppercornsThe smell of the peppercorns is very intense. It is warm and reminds me of Christmas. It has very pronounced herbal notes to it. Especially the eucalyptol, mint, and pine flavor are very pronounced. It smells a bit like the forest.

Main flavors observed:
Heat/ Pungency
Sweet/ Aromatic
Eucalyptol
Minty
Terpene
Pine
Taste of the peppercornsThe peppercorns are spicy. The spiciness builds up over time and travels from the front of the mouth to the back. It is a slightly burning spice sensation yet it is not overwhelming. The peppercorns taste woody, floral, and earthy/ musty. The aftertaste is slightly herbal (minty), floral, and refreshing. The heat and flavor of the peppercorns linger in the mouth for a long time. The floral and earthy flavor of the peppercorns gets especially pronounced in the aftertaste. There’s also a little fruitiness to the peppercorns.

Main flavors observed:
Heat/ Pungency
Woody
Earthy/ Musty
Floral
Minty
Fruity

As you can see, my sensory analysis comes pretty close to the description provided by the Kampot Pepper Promotion Association. The pepper that I have purchased here in Germany is probably authentic Kampot pepper. If I taste it side by side with the pepper I had purchased in Kampot the flavor profile is very similar. So I’m fairly certain I didn’t buy a counterfeit product.

You will love black Kampot pepper if you appreciate earthy, woody, and floral flavors. The smell is very herbal and minty but it’s harder to identify the minty and eucalyptus notes on the tongue. On the other hand, black Kampot pepper is a pepper variety that is not very citrusy or fruity. It adds depth to dishes and flavor complexity. The thing that makes black Kampot pepper stand out is the herbal/minty notes which are not as pronounced in other types of pepper.

Kampot pepper is a product I can highly recommend over Vietnamese pepper. But Kampot pepper isn’t by far the only tasty pepper variety in this world. In my next post of this series, I’m going to introduce you to pepper from the Indian Malabar coast that is also very flavorful albeit with a slightly different aroma profile.

Resources:

Pepper from Viet Nam: Quality Makes a Difference

Vietnam’s pepper faces stern quality challenge

Exporting pepper to Europe

When gruyère cheese is not made in Gruyère, is it still gruyère cheese?

Geographical indications: Background and the current situation

From Rice Fields to Killing Fields: Nature, Life, and Labor under the Khmer Rouge. James A. Tyner; Landscape, Memory, and Post-Violence in Cambodia. James A. Tyner

Kampot Pepper Promotion Association

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