Battambang first started in 1993 in a refugee camp in Thailand. It was there the Hua family, having fled from post-war Cambodia, met Tiev Kong. He taught the Hua brothers and sisters almost everything they know about cooking Khmer food. Both Tiev and the Hua family settled in Cabramatta and it was there, under the old man’s tutelage, the restaurant opened more than 20 years ago.
It was the first Cambodian restaurant in Sydney. Since then a handful more have opened, but none have the same reputation as Battambang. The original restaurant, famous for its English-free menus and Phnom Penh noodles, has now been duplicated and upgraded. We went to the new site to find a flashy menu and some new mirrors but with the same clientele and pungent, traditional food.
If you go in the morning you’ll likely see groups of Cambodians wide-eyed over Battambang’s nom banh chok, a dish of fermented rice noodles in a thin curry, which mixes prahok, (a fermented fish paste at the centre of many Khmer meals) with fresh fish and vegetables. In Cambodia, nom banh chok is usually served with a mix of local greens and condiments alongside it, but because many of the typical Khmer vegetables aren’t available, Battambang’s version has just the traditional trio of banana blossom, bean sprouts and cucumber.
Condiments are abundant on every table, with chilli sauce, dried chilli, sugar, fish sauce, vinegar and pickles. Battambang owner Soc Kieng Hua and her chef brother Khieng Hua Houch say they can always spot a Cambodian customer because almost all of them have a unique strategy for customising each dish. It really comes down to preference: try experimenting with a breakfast bowl of Phnom Penh noodles, the delicate pho-like broth is a good canvas to discover the combination suited to your taste.
Lunch brings out the grittier, more boisterous dishes on the menu. Try the crispy chicken, a regional speciality in Battambang, and the fried pork intestines. The intestines are masterfully brittle and crunchy on the outside but incredibly juicy and full of flavour inside. You can get them sprinkled over almost anything; littered over Houch’s fried rice with salted fish and Chinese sausage is a good option. The chicken, as succulent and crisp-skinned as they come, arrives on a bed of slightly sticky sweet-and-sour sauce.
Being a former French colony, it’s not uncommon in Cambodia to see many of these dishes served with bread. Try Battambang’s lemongrass chicken curry with blood jelly and tender giblet wedges. Once the gravy shallows into a pool, use your bread to soak up the remnants. This may rock your fundamental understanding of food pairings, but if you’ve ever put leftover curry in a sandwich, you know what we’re talking about.