Food writers are slaves to superlatives. Perhaps it’s out of passion or pride or a genuine desire to arouse in readers a longing to taste the topic du jour, but more likely it’s because we’re lazy bastards with no sense of perspective. Either way, it’s a regrettable fact. So it is with a cringe of self-awareness but not a hint of hyperbole (really!) that I say that this crab was the greatest thing I ate in 2011. It comes from a small town on the Cambodian coast called Kep, a fishing village a few miles from the Vietnam border blessed with an abundance of unthinkably delicious crustaceans dancing around in its opal blue waters.
The restaurant is called Kimly’s, a seaside shack whose position on the Gulf of Thailand is so privileged that when you order your crabs, you’re likely to see a woman wade into the waters and pluck them directly from a trap set just beyond the sandy banks. Still dripping with ocean water, they go into a screaming hot wok bubbling with fresh coconut milk, garlic and ginger. The final touch is the most important: a fistful of Kampot pepper, fragrant coils of spice so fresh and tender that you suck the whole peppercorns directly from the branch as you work your way through the crab. By the time you finish, you have little rivers of coconut milk and crab juice inching their way down your forearms. The famous chili crabs of Singapore seem clumsy by comparison, the delicate taste of the crab stifled beneath a tongue-numbing blanket of capsaicin. At Kimly’s, it’s all briny ocean sweetness.
I ate three crabs at 11 pm on my last night in Cambodia, then three more the next morning at 9 am right before a bus carried me across the border to Vietnam.