Back home in Washington DC, one of our favorite summertime treats is to head toward the Chesapeake Bay and spend a day eating Maryland blue crabs until our stomachs are stuffed. So when we learned that there was a city called Kep on the eastern end of Cambodia’s coast whose waters were teeming with crabs, our interest was piqued. Throw in some world-class pepper from neighboring Kampot, and the deserted beaches of Rabbit Island just minutes off the coast, and our fate was sealed. Off to Kep!
Crabs-wise, we weren’t disappointed. The crabs themselves were about the same size as the Chesapeake ones, and the meat was just as tender and delicious, but the shells were the big difference, being much thinner and softer than we’re used to, enabling us to crack them open with our teeth (the minor dental problems Claudia is having didn’t even deter her!). I think we had six servings of crab in three days, in nearly every possible preparation: steamed crabs, grilled crabs, crab curry, tiny deep-fried crabs served as a beer snack…but the best was the simple preparation in a spicy, syrupy sauce featuring fresh green peppercorns still on the stem. And the pepper itself was a revelation. We didn’t realize we’d been eating only average ground pepper our whole lives until we tried something a step up; fresh, flavorful, and spicy, it’s good enough to eat on its own. We had many dinners in Cambodia made up of nothing more than meat or seafood with a dipping sauce made from fresh lime juice, ground black peppercorns, and a pinch of salt. When we visited Kampot we picked up a kilo of the delicious spice so everyone back home can try it too!
Our last afternoon in town, finally able to tear ourselves away from the oceanside crab shacks, we borrowed mountain bikes to tour the city’s vast expanse of crumbling French villas. During the last years of French colonization of Cambodia, Kep (or, as it was known then, Kep-sur-Mer) was the seaside destination for the French upper class. In the 1950s and 60s, it was billed as a top vacation destination, and saw a huge upsurge in construction. As the country fell into civil war in the late 60s, however, the villas were abandoned seemingly overnight. The intervening decades have seen roofs and floors crumbling, and vegetation growing unchecked. What’s a loss for a few wealthy French families is our gain, as we spent a few hours wandering through the modern ruins, trying to imagine the city at the height of its decadence, and wishing we had the money, time, and construction knowledge to refurbish one of these midcentury masterpieces.
Our last diversion away from Kep was an overnight stay on nearby Rabbit Island. As all good island stays should be, ours featured nothing of note more than copious hammock time, fresh seafood, and a stay in a sub-ten-dollar bamboo bungalow. Life doesn’t get much better!
For more information about Kep and Kampot, check out the recent NYT article here