Angkor Wat, the Tonle Sap Lake and rapid modernisation: these are probably some of the things that come to mind when you think about Cambodia. But travel further east towards Mondulkiri Province and you may discover a different Cambodia altogether. Mondulkiri is Cambodia’s largest and also most sparsely populated province, but offers a unique setting for the agriculture sector, and the home to the Mondulkiri coffee beans.
The hilly province is located on the country’s eastern border, about 370 kilometres from the capital city, Phnom Penh. It boasts scenery and a climate unlike anywhere else in the country.
“In the dry season it is a little like Wales with sunshine; in the wet season, like Tasmania with dreadful roads,” is how the authors of the Lonely Planet guide to Cambodia describe the area.
At an elevation of 800 metres above sea level, temperatures – particularly at night – are significantly lower in Mondulkiri province. The rust-coloured soil gives the province a distinct look, but also makes it suitable for a multitude of crops, including tropical fruits, rubber, black pepper, cashew, cassava and, of course, Mondulkiri coffee.
Coffee is grown elsewhere in Cambodia, particularly Kampong Cham, Pailin and Ratanakkiri. But according to Mondulkiri Coffee, one of the two major coffee producers in Cambodia, most of the coffee plants in Cambodia outside of Mondulkiri are the hardier but less prized robusta species
Arabica plantations are rarely found outside of Mondulkiri because they require the highlands climate to thrive.
“Coffee farmers in these highlands are primarily made up of the indigenous (Bunong) people, whose main economic activity is in agriculture,” the Mondulkiri Coffee website says.
The farmers, who once mainly grew rice, are increasingly shifting to coffee cultivation as Cambodia becomes more of a player in the coffee business. Interest in the sector is also growing among local businesses, connoisseurs and specialty coffee entrepreneurs.
Last year, Cambodia hosted its first franchising and licensing exhibition, which brought together many of the country’s major coffee players.
Roasting in animal… what?
Hilly areas, a colonial history and temperate climates are common denominators of coffee cultivation.
But what makes Cambodian-grown coffee interesting is the processing. Historically, animal fat such as pork fat has been used to roast Cambodian beans, along with butter and alcohol.
The use of fat is not unusual in Southeast Asia. Malaysia’s roasters use a similar approach to make the popular Ipoh White Coffee, where beans are roasted in butter and sugar for a bittersweet taste.
The traditional Khmer process takes the roasting a little further; the beans are roasted until they turn nearly black. Phnom Penh residents prefer to call it a “pitch black roast”.
It is at this point that some roasters add rendered animal fat into the roasting drum or vat, allowing the animal fat to burn. The smokiness from the roast gives out a rich and pungent flavour which adds to the characteristics of Cambodian coffee.
After roasting, the beans are allowed to cool on mats or drying trays. They are then ground into a fine powder that produces a dark and rich brew.
The whole process is usually done by hand. There are vegetarian options, where producers use vegetable fat instead.
Adam Rodwell, proprietor of The Little Red Fox in Siem Reap, tells us that the flavour profile of Cambodian coffee when blended with its Southeast Asian counterparts is bold with a good balance of medium bright lemon blossom acidity.
“With a backing of chocolate, this flavour also holds up very well with your milk-based coffee,” he says.
He is describing a popular organic blend his cafe uses that mixes arabica beans from Thailand, Dalat in Vietnam and robusta beans from Mondulkiri.
Another feature of coffee culture that Cambodia has in common with its Southeast Asian neighbours is that the coffee is brewed using cloth-like sock-sieves.
In terms of preference, some like it strong and black but many enjoy a cup of Khmer coffee accompanied by sweet condensed milk or sugar.
At the height of the country’s hot season, when temperatures routinely hit 40 degrees Celsius, Cambodians and visitors get a refreshing caffeine kick by drinking the strong Khmer brew with ice.
A common sight around Cambodia’s towns and cities are roadside stalls selling this cool version of the drink in plastic cups or bags with straws. These street treats go for KHR1,000 (SGD0.35) and are called gah-fay dteuk-gork.
The coffee culture is picking up in bustling Phnom Penh, so if you prefer the higher end cafe scene head to Boeung Keng Kang area, where you will be spoilt for choices for choices ranging from the International brand Costa Coffee or the local Brown Coffee and Bakery.