How a sleepy town in Cambodia won a place on Unsesco’s culinary map

“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 north-west 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 it 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 to eat list and the city doesn’t have a single fine-dining space presided over by with a hot young creative chef. (They’re in Siem Reap.) The closest thing it has to a fine dining restaurant is Jaan Bai, which means “rice bowl” in Khmer, a stylish bistro and bar launched a decade ago by renowned Australian chef David Thompson.

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; artisanal products such as 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.

Representatives of Battambang’s tourism and culture authorities, who applied to join the Creative Cities Network in 2021, hope Unesco’s city of gastronomy designation will establish Battambang – pronounced Bad-tam-bong – as a destination for foodies.

“For Cambodian people, Battambang province is well known for its food,” Yong Yi, who is in charge of Battambang’s tourist information centre and social media, said. “Battambang food is famous in Cambodia, but not only for its taste. Food is closely related to the culture of Battambangers, such as the many songs about Battambang by our best Cambodian singer Sinn Sisamouth.”

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The 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 city’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.

Visitors who have a local as their food tour guide can slurp freshly made rice noodles doused in herbaceous curries at boisterous locals-only breakfast eateries, perch on plastic stools at street-side stalls selling fresh spring rolls, turmeric-tinted minced-pork stuffed pancakes, and smoky grilled beef skewers tucked into baguettes, or even score an invitation for a home-cooked feast of traditional countryside fare.

Kim Nou, owner of boutique hotel Maisons Wat Kor welcomed the recognition from Unesco. “Of course I am so proud of Battambang. 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. This a good start for Battambang.”

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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 city 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 from 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.”