It is a rare day in Cambodia where everything goes to plan, more so when that plan involves cooked food. Austin and my plan was relatively simple: drive to Kampot then Kep on Cambodia’s south coast and eat pepper crab until we received a plate worthy of a food magazine money shot. Getting to Kampot these days is easy: a five-hour busride on Highway 3 that skirts Phnom Voar and the limestone karsts near Kampong Trach where the Khmer Rouge bookended their decades of terror by kidnapping three foreigners and a group of Cambodians in one of their final acts of banditry in 1994. Things can still go wrong but not nearly that wrong.
Getting perfect crab should have been more difficult. We hit Ta Eauv Restaurant in Kampot straight from the bus, just as the local Lexus-driving CPP apparatchiks were finishing their midweek crab meals and bottles of lunchtime Johnny Walker. It is never a good time to hit a Cambodian restaurant late at lunchtime, mostly because they tend to run out of food rather than the risk of running into a boozy, politically-connected four-wheel drive enthusiast.
We ordered the crab, stripped the table of its cheap lace tablecloth to reveal the sort of perfectly-scratched patina that food stylists probably carry about with them and were presented with the best looking plate of crustacea that I’ve ever seen. By all rights, my job should be much harder and Ta Eauv should be charging more than $4 a plate.
My Pepper Crab Recipe
This recipe is one that I made up based on many a crab meal: it skirts more closely to Cantonese territory than Cambodian. I go heavy on the pepper and don’t add any other green distraction. A more Cambodian version of pepper crab would also include more palm sugar.
4 mud crabs
100 grams of fresh green peppercorns on the vine (brined peppercorns can be substituted, but wash to remove excess salt)
3 cloves of garlic, roughly chopped
4 tablespoons of light soy sauce
4 tablespoons of oyster sauce
2 tablespoons of oil
2 teaspoons of palm sugar
Boil the crab. Drain. Clean the crab and cut into quarters.
Heat the oil in a large wok and fry the peppercorns and garlic until the pepper is fragrant and slightly soft. Add the oyster sauce, soy sauce, palm sugar, and mix until the sugar is dissolved. Toss through the crab pieces and serve.