Short History of Cambodian Pepper

Cambodian pepper has long been known internationally for its high quality and exceptional flavour. The oldest written reference to pepper in Cambodia is found in The Customs of Cambodia (真臘風土記) by Zhou Daguan (周達観), a Chinese diplomat who spent a year in Angkor from 1296 to 1297. In the chapter on Products of Cambodia, he noted:

“Pepper is occasionally found. It grows twisted around the stems of the rattan, fastening on like a hop vine. Pepper that is fresh and blue-green has the most savour.”
(English translation)

Cambodia’s first sea port, Kampot, became in the mid-1800s the hub of commerce with European sailors and merchants who traded in pepper, rice and other products. Intensive pepper production took off in Kampot around the time of the Aceh war in Indonesia, (1873-1908). The sultan of Aceh burned down his island’s pepper plantations in 1873-1874 to deny the Dutch access to this lucrative income source. Part of the production then moved to Kampot. Over time, a booming trade was developed with France, which in 1867 became the colonial power in Cambodia. At the beginning of the 20th century, Cambodia was exporting around 8000 tonnes of pepper. Almost all the pepper consumed in France during the colonial period came from Indochina (e.g. 2600 tonnes in 1928). Pepper was by far the main export crop of the colony.

After independence in 1953, Cambodia’s pepper industry continued to grow, but it was nearly wiped out in the 1970s by the outbreak of civil war and the Khmer Rouge coming to power. Farmers abandoned pepper plantations due to the focus on growing rice and other crops, and the challenge of even meeting basic nutritional needs. Only a small number of people who knew how to farm the crop survived.

It was only in the early 2000s that pepper began to be revived as a commercial crop. Pepper is now enjoying a renaissance, with new plantations being established in many parts of the country every year. Cambodia’s annual production volumes have reached and now probably surpassed those achieved during the colonial period.

While Kampot achieved GI status in 2009, annual production in that region is still only in the tens of tonnes. The vast majority of Cambodia’s pepper is produced in Tboung Khmum province, in central Cambodia. Some of the best pepper  comes from the highland regions in the north and northeast of the country.

Mondulkiri province, in the northeast, is a fairly recently established area for growing pepper. It is also host to avocado, rubber, coffee and cacao plantations. The high elevation, cooler tropical climate, and rich volcanic soils all combine to create pepper that is truly among the best in the country.