With around 30 years of experience in the tea industry, Sothea Sambath is very respected in his profession and well-known for his expertise in the field.
After discovering the all-but-disappeared Camellia cambodiensis, a tea shrub native to Cambodia, Sambath has made it his life-long mission to champion the crop – promoting its production for local supply and export, and catalysing national tourism and economic development.
Not many Cambodians know that their country is home to a unique species of tea with a distinctive flavour, he says.
To deliver a revival of Cambodian tea, Sambath is working on an aptly-named project, entitled “Cambodia Tea Renaissance” that will limelight the product for export to compete in international markets, especially Europe.
Sambath sat down with The Post’s May Kunmakara to discuss the project and how he believes Cambodian tea will climb the list of priority exports.
How did you get involved in the tea industry?
I started working in the tea industry in 1991 in France, at the most prestigious and luxurious Parisian teahouse. I learned all the aspects of the tea business, from tasting, selecting, blending, selling and of course preparing this spiritual beverage. The owner of the business, a Thai man, took me under his wing and turned me into a tea master.
I also managed public relations and marketing back when our structure was quite small and had to multitask like in a family business. However the brand was and is still today the most well known tea brand in the world.
As a tea master I had to select and taste most of the teas on a regular basis and came up with the idea one day to use tea leaves in French dishes that we served at our tea salons. Thus “La cuisine au the” was born.
After a decade in Paris, I moved to New York to work in the gourmet and luxury industry. I was still creating tea recipes for companies in the US and in France.
Recently in 2017-2018, I was in Bangkok running a tea lounge at a prestigious shopping mall on Ploenchit Road. And until now I am still creating new blends for international companies.
What led to your discovery of the species of tea native to Cambodia?
When I was in Paris, around 1998, my mentor asked me about Cambodian tea, if I’d ever heard of tea that is native to Cambodia. I never had.
He told me that there are two major species of tea plant found around the world – the Camellia sinensis from China and the Camellia assamica from India. But then, he said, there’s also the Camellia cambodiensis from Cambodia.
It was a mind-boggling revelation after having worked in the industry for all these years. I never knew that there was a tea native to my parents’ home country, nor had I ever come across any literature about it – the Cambodian tea plant must have simply vanished during civil conflicts and economic downfall.
In 2006, I travelled from New York to Cambodia for the first time in my life in search of the Cambodian tea plant.
But only in 2014, after many fruitless quests, did I end up in Mondulkiri chasing wives’ tales that the province had been regarded as the cradle of Cambodian tea in olden times.
Guiding myself with a map, I trekked through forest and inquired around in villages till I came across an area known locally as “Chamkar Te village” (tea plantation village). I knew then that I was headed in the right direction. I based myself there for some time.
During my stay, locals would direct my attention to passion fruits, avocadoes and pepper and tell me that tea plants had been grown there just a few years prior.
A monk at a nearby pagoda told me that they had gotten rid of tea plants there around two months ago.
One day, on my way back to “Chamkar Te village”, I stopped a young man riding a motorbike and asked him about the tea plants. He said his father-in-law who lives in a nearby Christian village had some. He led me there and showed me the two tea shrubs growing behind a wooden house.
How will you market your idea to the people, to the region and the world?
Now, having found the tea plant in Mondulkiri, I have a new quest – my mission from now on is to promote the “Cambodian Tea Renaissance”.
My approach is to travel all over and tell anyone who will listen to grow Camellia cambodiensis – we have such a wonderful product on our hands that we could revive and bring to the international market, much like Kampot pepper.
I have met true believers of the project on my journey. I’ve asked a friend of mine, prominent researcher Dr Chen Chanratana with a PhD in Khmer History and Archaeology, to look into anything related to the tea plant chronicled in ancient texts.
Another friend in France is browsing the National Archives for documentation on French assistance in Cambodian tea plantations during the colonial era.
I am working with another group on financial data and documents to compile a business plan and develop a sustainable project for tea cultivation in Cambodia.
An old partner from the southern Chinese province of Yunnan is lending his expertise as a tea planter on growing and processing the tea leaves.
And last but not least, a friend who owns 10ha in Mondulkiri has started to plant Cambodian tea with cuttings collected from the two shrubs I found in the Christian village in O’Raing district’s Dak Dam commune.
My friend has named his place “OuReang Tea House” (using a different transliteration of the district name O’Raing), the place where Cambodian tea will find its second wind.
We are currently a small group, but I will try to meet with the relevant ministries, acquaint them with the situation and seek their endorsement of the project, which will involve many sectors – agriculture, environment, commerce and tourism.
Spotlighting Cambodian tea as a national product will provide jobs for ethnic minorities in Mondulkiri and transform tea estates into attractions for tourists curious about the growing and processing of the crop, which will serve as a strong selling point for the region.
The more tea trees we can grow, the more tea I will collect and sell on the international market, since I already have access to European markets. It is not a far stretch to imagine setting up tea cooperatives in Mondulkiri someday.
Given that tea is not one of the priority products for export, what is your plan for the upcoming years?
Tea is my priority product for export because I have access to the international market.
I will bring Cambodian tea to Europe to compete with varieties native to other countries and, little-by-little, tell its story to the people.
I started up my own company “RAMI TEA” last year (www.ramiteas.com). It was just the obvious choice after all these years – I should share with the public my passion for tea and the exceptional taste of each signature blend that I have formulated.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.