The Guardian

Cambodia’s food capital

City of Battambang honoured by Unesco for culinary heritage

Lara Dunston Battambang

“Batdambng mean avei chhnganh? Anything delicious in Battambang?” crooned popular Cambodian singer-songwriter Sinn Sisamouth in his song of the same name. For Cambodians, everything is delicious in Battambang and now, much to their delight, Unesco agrees.

A quiet provincial capital in northwest Cambodia that feels like a big country town, Battambang has been named a city of gastronomy by

Unesco and is one of 55 places added to its Creative Cities Network of destinations known for crafts and folk art, design, film, gastronomy, literature, media arts and music.

Yet no Battambang restaurant has ever appeared on a global where-toeat list and the town doesn’t have a single fine-dining space presided over by a hot young creative chef.

What Battambang does have are rich culinary traditions and a reputation for producing the country’s most delicious food: flavourful fruit and vegetables and award-winning rice; fresh rice noodles and rice paper made as they’ve always been made; and tasty street food and traditional fare sold at markets, roadside stalls and rustic eateries.

Local tourism and culture authorities are hoping the Unesco designation will establish Battambang – pronounced Bad-tam-bong – as a destination for foodies.

The wider province of Battambang is Cambodia’s rice bowl, widely loved for its fertile soils; its picturesque countryside dotted with lofty sugar palms and traditional timber houses; and its lush rice fields where farmers cultivate the famed phka rumdoul variety of fragrant jasmine rice – crowned the world’s best rice last year for the fifth time.

The town’s cuisine is best sampled on a stroll around its exuberant markets, with stops for snacks such as crunchy deep-fried bananas speckled with black and white sesame seeds, and piping-hot coconut custard puddings cooked on clay braziers by smiling women in mismatched floral pyjamas or bespectacled men in pork-pie hats.

Kim Nou, owner of boutique hotel Maisons Wat Kor welcomed the recognition from Unesco. “For Cambodians, Battambang is very well known as having the best food,” he says. “Now we hope people outside the country will start to know Battambang for its gastronomy.”

Tour guide Sokin Nou (no relation to Kim) splits her time between her Battambang birthplace and tourist hotspot Siem Reap, where she is an archaeological guide leading as many excursions to markets, villages and farms as she does to Angkor temples. The 25-year-old foodie and history buff was one of the first to guide foreigners on proper culinary tours in Battambang.

“Battambang has so much more to offer than popular tourist experiences like the bamboo train and the bat cave,” she says. “The way locals prepare food for you is the way they cook it at home.”

Arun Ham of Battambang’s provincial tourism department agrees. Along with Kim Nou, he was closely involved in preparing the Unesco application.

“Battambang’s food is so tasty and so famous in Cambodia that some foods that are sold in other cities and provinces use the name of Battambang ,” he says. “But Cambodian food is not yet widely known. We hope that the Unesco designation will put Battambang on the map.”

Sokin Nou agrees. “I think locals will be more encouraged now to continue to preserve our food traditions. Battambang is close to Thailand, so some people think that our food is more like Thai food, but actually it’s not. We have our own Battambang style of food, that I can say inspired the Thais but was also inspired by them, because we can’t deny that food travels with people.

“Right now all I want to do is return to Battambang, to visit my family, and to eat,” she says. “I miss Battambang food so badly.”