Our Guide to Eating and Drinking in Battambang
Some of the best Cambodian cuisine in the country is found in Battambang, the capital of Cambodia‘s most fertile province and the country’s rice bowl. Here’s our guide to eating and drinking in Battambang.
A few tourist restaurants aside, Cambodia’s second city of Battambang, set in an agriculturally-rich region, is one of the best places in the country to sample the most authentic renditions of Cambodian dishes — at roadside stalls, fresh markets, local eateries, foodie tours, a stylish restaurant, and even a boutique hotel restaurant or two. This guide to eating and drinking in Battambang covers all of the delicious opportunities to sample those specialties.
Cambodian cuisine is one of the most misunderstood cuisines in Asia. And unfortunately visitors’ understanding of the food isn’t helped by tourist restaurants passing off Thai dishes as Cambodian because they know diners are more familiar with the balanced flavours of their neighbour’s cuisine than the confronting sour, bitter and pungent notes of their own. What complicates things in Battambang is that the city and surrounding province was under Thai rule for a while.
Due to its sizeable expat population and creative young locals, Battambang is also the spot to find Cambodia’s best coffee, along with good burgers and icy beer in arty bars, and everything from French pizza to fantastic Indian food. Thanks to Tara Winkler of the Cambodian Children’s Trust (CCT), Chef David Thompson of Nahm Bangkok, and restaurateur John Fink, owner of Quay in Sydney, Battambang also boasts a sleek restaurant serving pan-Asian sharing plates and potent cocktails. Here’s our guide to eating and drinking in Battambang.
Our Guide to Eating and Drinking in Battambang
Breakfast in Battambang
Battambang’s typical breakfast is kuy teav, a pork noodle broth, and you’ll spot it being slurped at markets and stalls all over the city. The best is at Mrs Te Lieng and Mr Lee Mun’s soup joint in Wat Kor village on the outskirts of town, where the couple have been dishing up bowls of the steaming kuy teav since 1995. The version with succulent pork slices served atop the noodles is the most barang (foreigner) friendly, however, locals prefer the addition of offal, including liver, intestines, lung, and heart. Add chilli, lime and fresh herbs to taste from the selection of condiments on the table. The deep fried breadsticks or youtiao — also known as ‘Chinese doughnuts’ — served on the side, are for dipping in the soup. If you’re staying at Battambang Resort, owner Phary takes guests on a breakfast bicycle ride to the eatery as an alternative to the hotel buffet. For a Western breakfast, expats like Cafe Eden for its pancakes, crepes, bagels, and enormous huevos rancheros, however, a warning: while the service is well-meaning it is excruciatingly slow.
Markets in Battambang
After breakfast, make a beeline for the markets, which are best in the morning. Fertile Battambang province has a reputation for producing the country’s finest fresh produce — Cambodians swear its coconuts are the finest, pineapples the juiciest, oranges the sweetest, corn the tastiest — so it’s no surprise the town is home to a couple of the country’s best markets. In the heart of town, Phsar Naht market is most compelling in the early morning for fresh food and the early evening for street food. Our favourite market is the larger, busier Phsar Boeung Choeuk, which is a distribution point for suppliers, as well as the market where locals do their eating and shopping. Look out for the mountains of pineapples, corn, coconuts, and so on, depending on the season, of course.
Best Coffee in Battambang
Coffee lovers shouldn’t miss Cambodia’s best coffee at cute Café Kinyei, a social enterprise aimed at providing training and employment for young locals, on dusty Street 1½ in the heart of the old city. Set in a renovated colonial-era Chinese shop-house, the compact café is decorated with rustic wooden furniture and flowers on the tables. This is where you’ll find smiling 19 year-old Sakana, Cambodia’s 2013 Barista Champion, making her award-winning Cambodian Cappuccino with pineapple syrup, palm sugar and frothy coconut milk. The café also serves up Battambang’s best cheese toasties.
Lunch in Battambang
Nicknamed ‘Noodle Guy’ or ‘Chinese Noodle’ by expats, Lan Chov Khorko Miteanh (145, Street 2) is a simple, no-frills eatery with a stall-like kitchen with boiling pots and woks on gas stoves at the front. This is where the most unlikely of noodle masters, wearing low-slung shorts, dirty singlet and flip-flops, makes hearty handmade Chinese dumplings and silky hand-pulled noodles to order. Order a serve of each. Don’t even think about ordering anything else.
For something more contemporary, along with air-conditioning, good wines by the glass, and great music, try Jaan Bai (Street 2), which means ‘rice bowl’ in Khmer. In a chic, renovated, colonial-era shop-house, the casual restaurant features local art on the walls and bookshelves holding issues of Anthology and Kinfolk. The exterior is covered in murals by Battambang artists and boasts an alfresco area furnished with astro turf and wooden pallets serving as coffee tables and seats. The succinct menu features a few dishes by Chef David Thompson, an advisor to the hospitality training restaurant, such as a fiery Thai jungle curry, and is made with seasonal produce that’s been grown in CCT’s own organic gardens. Try the pulled pork buns and squid sliders (if they’re on the menu) and don’t miss the Kampot pepper crab, a Cambodian specialty from the south.
Local Restaurants in Battambang
If you speak Khmer or have a Khmer-speaking guide or friends, ask them to take you to the local favourite, a riverside restaurant called Mlob Chan or The Shade of the Nutmeg Tree, for a quintessentially Battambang experience. There is no menu and guests simply request their favourite dishes or order ahead, as our friend did. Locals like to linger for hours here, eating slowly and drinking beers as they swing in the hammocks in the rickety alfresco bamboo pavilions that overlook the river. After they’ll snooze or play cards, ordering more snacks if they’re still hungry. We were firmly focused on the food: a massive spread of plastic plates piled high with morning glory and garlic; wok-fried chicken with preserved lemon and garlic; prahok with kroeung, grilled in banana leaf; whole goby fish grilled in salt, eaten with a sauce of young tamarind paste, chilli and garlic; fresh green beans, baby eggplant, cucumber and cabbage; and a mountain of rice, all arranged on a colourful mat on the bamboo floor. It was simple, fresh and flavourful.
Battambang Street Food Tour
Forget the Nutella pancakes, Battambang’s food stalls serve up some of the most authentic street food you’ll find in Cambodia and the best way to experience it if you’re visiting or are new in town is on a street food snack tour with Phary, the owner of Battambang Resort. Come late afternoon, Phary leads her food-loving guests on either a bike ride or tuk tuk tour (your choice) to graze at half a dozen food stalls and small family-owned eateries that dot the dusty riverside road. We love it so much we’ve done it a couple of times.
The tour generally starts at a small roadside stall where owner Sal makes nom krok (fried coconut and rice flour cakes) in a cast-iron pan with moulds over a charcoal fire. There are many variations but she serves her’s with a sweet, light vinegary syrup of palm sugar and fish sauce. The next stop is usually a ramshackle bamboo shack precariously perched over the river (each monsoon it slips a little further toward the water) where you can sample son vac (fish paste grilled in banana leaves), which you should wrap in lettuce and eat with the cold noodles, basil, saw-tooth coriander and tangy sauce provided and pong tia koun (boiled baby duck eggs), which we scoop out and eat after first drinking the warm flavourful juices from the shell that we created by adding salt, pepper and lime juice.
A little further down the road at Ponleu Preh Chung or The Shining Moon, where Mrs Vat Ongn has been crafting a repertoire of Khmer desserts for over 20 years, you can try an array of sweets. I love the heavenly banh ja’neuk, glutinous rice-flour balls stuffed with mung bean paste, which she drowns in coconut milk and tapioca, douses with some ginger syrup, and sprinkles with sesame seeds. The genre of these glutinous-ball desserts are nicknamed ‘killing husband’ for their tendency to get caught in the throats of drunk spouses.
If you have room, Phary can include a few other spots on her itinerary too, however, the highlight for us is the final stop. Outside a corrugated iron shed, Mr Pra Dina is usually found piling the raw beef skewers that he has been marinating in a big plastic tub of kroeung onto a row of grills to barbecue Battambang’s best sach ko ang. We like to watch him fan smoke over the coals as dozens of locals begin arriving on motorbikes to join us in the patient wait for the smoky beef skewers, succulent from the pork fat placed between the beef pieces, and aromatic and sweet from the lemongrass kroeung. They are well and truly worth the wait.
Takeaway in Battambang
Around sunset, smoke starts to rise from the stalls set up in the evenings outside Psar Naht market, where you’ll find grilled salted fish, various barbecuing meats and offals on smouldering coals, and hearty soups and stews in massive pots. Take care, as this is takeaway-central. Locals cruise right up to the stalls on motorbikes and in vehicles to buy their dinner. The best stalls are those that are busiest, but look out for two adjoining stalls selling soups and curries.
We like the stall ran by a very focused woman called Roth, who has had her stall here selling soups, stews and curries for over a decade. Her home-cooked specialties include char kroeung (a kroeung-based dry curry dish made with chicken, duck or cat fish) and samlors (soups, light stews, and curry soups), including samlor machou youn (sweet and sour vegetable soup with pineapple, tomato, watermelon and tamarind, and vegetables); samlor machou, a typically-sour countryside soup made with green papaya, spicy basil and smoked fish; sgnor, a clear chicken broth fragrant with lemongrass and kaffir lime; samlor trayong chek, made with banana blossom and tamarind; and samlor machou kroeung that looks like a watery curry but is actually a rich, flavourul koeung-based soup. Don’t leave without buying another Battambang specialty, prahok chamhuy, a steamed prahok fish paste, with pork and eggs.
There are several stalls offering barbecue meats — frogs, fish cakes, chicken wings, pork ribs, quails, sweet Cambodian sausages, and whole chickens — glistening from a marinade of kroeung, oil and red chilli. You will also spot large grey-coloured goby fish and smaller catfish, both caught from the river, blanketed in a salt mixture featuring kaffir lime and lemongrass, and being continually turned on the barbecue. The culinary adventurous shouldn’t leave without sampling khnob — barbecued prahok, mushroom and tamarind wrapped in banana leaf.
If you need help, go see English-speaking Dang who, with his baseball-capped wife, sells succulent rotisserie chickens and ducks, sold with bags of fresh greens, cucumbers and fragrant herbs. Their stall is the only one sign-posted.
Also try to find petite Mao Vanna, a lovely little woman who for over 20 years has been selling three specialties from her tiny stools topped with trays of dishes. Her star dish is amok trey, Cambodia’s national dish that has a texture that falls somewhere between a souffle and mousse. It’s made from fish and a curry paste that’s been steamed in banana leaf and in Battambang it’s always made with goby fish (note: for Cambodians, there’s no such thing as chicken amok or beef amok or tofu amok – these are dishes purely invented for tourists). Also try her other two specialties: char kdao, a kroeung-based duck dish with hot basil, and char kgney, a light chicken and ginger stir-fry.
Best Battambang Bars
One of the loveliest spots for sunset drinks has long been atmospheric Balcony Bar in a big traditional Khmer timber house on the riverside about halfway to Wat Kor village, which recently reopened under new management. This is the kind of spot you can head to for sunset and end up spending the whole evening here, sipping cocktails (now some of the best in town) before moving on to wine and pizza. The bar at Bambu (see below) is a popular happy hour destination, with stools filling with an equal number of expats as hotel guests; you’ll often find gregarious owner Pat perched at the bar shouting drinks and Battambang’s best G&Ts on tap. Well, almost. Bric-a-Brac’s Libations Bar (Street 2), which pops up on the pavement every evening outside this delightful B&B cum boutique, is a nice spot for a negroni tarted up with the peel of Battambang oranges. They also have good wines by the glass and, a rarity in this part of the world, very good cheese and charcuterie platters. Unfortunately, French-owned Vintage wine bar doesn’t have very good wines by the glass, but they do have cheap wines by the glass, better wines available by the bottle, and cheap cold beers. They make up for the mediocre drinks with friendly service, loads of charm and retro atmosphere. The best place for serious cocktails remains Jaan Bai (above and below), where some creativity has been injected into their heady Asian-inspired cocktails. The soundtrack is a bonus.
Best Battambang Restaurants
The best restaurant in Battambang’s centre for dinner is Jaan Bai, which stays open late and is even buzzier at night than it is by day. If you’re looking for a change from Cambodian, try the pizza at Balcony Bar, above. Across the river at Russey Restaurant at colonial-inspired Bambu hotel, you can try generous portions of expertly prepared Cambodian favourites, such as their fresh spring rolls, Cambodian curry, rich samlor kako, a hearty Cambodian soup made with kroeung, and one of the finest renditions we’ve had of lok lak, a peppery beef pepper dish that is one of Cambodia’s most quintessential. The restaurant’s signature dish ‘Beef Battambang’, however, is a richer, more sophisticated version of a dish that’s often served at weddings. The restaurant also offers delicious Western and pan-Asian dishes in case you have a craving. The salt and pepper calamari is a must!
A ten-minute tuk tuk ride out of town you’ll also find delicious Cambodian food served on the leafy Lotus Terrace restaurant at the charming Maisons Wat Kor, a small boutique hotel of traditional timber houses. The menu changes daily, but hope that the fried frangipanis are served and the intense ginger-infused beef broth is on the menu. Book a table early in the day or a day ahead. If you’re not staying at the property, organise a tuk tuk driver through the hotel or ask your own driver to return or wait.
For more on Cambodian cuisine and Battambang, see our 10-page story ‘Land of Plenty’ in the May 2014 issue of Delicious magazine; ‘On the Map: Bohemian Battambang‘ in the March 2014 issue of Travel+Leisure Southeast Asia; ‘Battambang Bada Boom’ on Jaan Bai in the January 2014 issue of Travel+Leisure Southeast Asia; ‘Cambodian Culture Club‘ on Jaan Bai in the January issue of Australian Gourmet Traveller.
UPDATED: November 2016