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.
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.
Due to its sizable 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 now boasts a sleek restaurant serving pan-Asian sharing plates and potent cocktails.
Here’s our guide to eating and drinking 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 stuff 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 (85, Street 1) for its pancakes, crepes, bagels, and enormous huevos rancheros, however, a warning: while service is well-meaning it is excruciatingly slow.
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 (look for different sections dedicated to pineapples, corn, coconuts and so on), as well as the market where locals do their eating and shopping.
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.
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 of the joint. This is where the most unlikely of noodle masters, wearing low-slung shorts, singlet and flip-flops, makes hearty handmade 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.
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; 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.
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 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 wooden stall where owner Sal makes nom krourk (fried rice and coconut cakes) in a mould over a charcoal fire, which she serves 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. We also order pong tia koun or 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 desserts for over 20 years, you can try an array of sweets if you like. I love the heavenly banh ja’neuk or glutinous rice balls stuffed with mung bean paste, drowned in coconut milk and tapioca, with sesame seeds sprinkled atop. It and a similar dessert 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 raw beef skewers that he has been marinating in a big plastic tub of kroeung onto a row of barbeques. 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
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 for a decade. Her specialties are char kroeung (a kroeung-based dry curry-like dish made with chicken, duck or cat fish) and home-cooked samlors (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 all things grilled – 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. Try to find petite Mao Vanna too. For over 20 years, this lovely little woman has been selling three specialties from her tiny stools, topped with trays of 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.
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. Another good spot for sundowners is Café Eden (see above), where the narrow first floor balcony offers good peoplewatching – come sunset the riverfront is busy with locals jogging and power-walking, monks strolling and kids playing games. The Bambu bar (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. Art curator Darren Swallow’s stylish Lotus Bar (Street 2½) is great for cold beers (and they also do good burgers), especially on Friday and Saturday nights when they host anything from avant-garde sound performances and live music to experimental film screenings and exhibition openings in the gallery upstairs. The best spot for serious cocktails remains Jaan Bai (above and below), where technical advisor Tom has injected some creativity into the heady Asian-inspired cocktails.
The best restaurant in the 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 cheesy French-style ‘pizza’ that affable Frenchman Michel serves up in his simple shophouse pizzeria, BTB Pizza (Street 2). But if you haven’t had your fill of local food yet, then stroll over the bridge or take a tuk tuk to Battambang’s best boutique resorts to tuck into some of the city’s most delicious Cambodian cuisine.
Across the river at Russey Restaurant at colonial-inspired Bambu hotel, you can try generous portions of expertly cooked Cambodian favourites, such as a rich samlor kako, a hearty Cambodian soup made with kroeung, prahok and a variety of vegetables, such as sweet pumpkin, and one of the finest renditions we’ve had of lok lak, a beef pepper dish that is thought to have been probably brought to Cambodia by the Chinese in the 13th century. The restaurant’s signature dish ‘Beef Battambang’, however, is a richer, more sophisticated version of sach ko ang jakak, the grilled kroeung beef and pork skewers, and it’s often served at weddings. The restaurant also offers delicious Western and Asian dishes in case you have a craving.
A ten-minute tuk tuk ride out of town you’ll find some of Battambang’s finest Cambodian cuisine served on the leafy Lotus Terrace restaurant at the charming Maisons Wat Kor, a small boutique hotel of traditional timber houses. Here, Cambodian owner Kim Nou has worked with his chef to develop refined renditions of Khmer dishes, including some not typically found in Cambodian restaurants. Some are cooked with French techniques or presented in a European style. Pretty on the plate, they are packed with big flavours. 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 for the set tasting menus change nightly. If you’re not staying at the property, organize 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.