Badda Bing Battambang (by Carmen)
The only reason I had heard of Battambang is that a restaurant of the same name was near my office. I thought the name sounded exotic but was completely ignorant to the fact that it was an actual place. As I glanced through the guidebook to plan our Cambodia itinerary I had hoped to find a laid back town to break up our visits to the more tourist-ready Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. Battambang (BB) seemed like just the ticket so off we went!
At a whopping 140,000 residents, BB is Cambodia’s 2nd largest city. But really it’s more of a town, easily traversed by foot or bike. One of the first places we walked was Vegetarian Foods. In meat crazy Asia even the veg restaurant specialized in imitation meats. They were indeed delicious, served over steamed rice or in a bowl of savory congee.
Later, we were walking around the town soaking in the French colonial architecture. But of course we kept an eye open for good street eats and luckily we spied two. One was a huge steamed bun filled with peppery pork.
The other was nom krok, a type of gooey rice ebelskiver. As we walked past this one, I wasn’t entirely sure if the cakes the old woman was cooking were for sale or just for her family. Fortunately, the woman’s granddaughter, who was visiting from the US, was sitting nearby and helped us out. Soon enough we were sitting on our little plastic stools munching away happily. The cakes are a simple mixture of rice flour, coconut milk and green onions. They were served in a broth of more coconut milk, vinegar, fish sauce, and sweet chilies. The sweet savory combo was supremely satisfying. We waved goodbye to the grandma and her family and continued our walk with a big smile.
Along the way we stepped into a temple and encountered this. I’m not exactly sure what to say. It no doubt represents an important Buddhist story…in an extremely graphic way. But really, I guess it’s not too different from some Catholic paintings I’ve encountered that depict how the saints were martyred through decapitation, being prodded with hot irons, etc.
That night we did something unexpected – we went to the circus. The Phare Ponleu Selpak group trains impoverished kids to become acrobatic performers good enough to tour the world. I liked the fact that this venue provided opportunities for children to have better futures. In fact many shops, and even cafes in Cambodia seem to be connected to an NGO that somehow assists the disadvantaged. As we sat waiting for the show to start, staff members of some of these NGOs sat behind us chatting about their everyday lives. It was nice to see so many people who were actively trying to improve other communities. As for the show itself, it was greatly entertaining with all the flips and feats of strength one could hope for.
For an after circus snack we enjoyed a fried spring roll served over rice noodles. It was a little taste of the vietnamese flavors soon to come our way.
In the morning it was back to Cambodian cuisine, not just eating it but cooking it. We chose a cooking class at the Smokin’ Pot restaurant. Because of this Nathan insisted on calling the post “We (Went To) Bought-A-Bong and Spent Time (at) Smoking Pot,” but I thought badda bing came with more bang. Anyway, the classes have been taught for 12 years by the very knowledgeable and insightful owner. The first step was a visit to the market housed in an art deco creation left by the French. Our instructor pointed out what to look for in coconut, lemongrass, long beans, banana flowers and more.
Back at the kitchen we sliced and diced garlic, lemongrass, chilies, and galangal to make a tasty paste. We squeezed fresh shaved coconut with water to make our very own coconut milk. Then we mixed these flavors with fish sauce, salt, sugar and chunks of fish to make amok, the national dish of Cambodia. It was delightfully rich and definitely tasted better since I made it myself. We went on to cook loklak, a simple peppery stir fry, and sautéed morning glory. I was very happy to get back in the kitchen after months of eating out.
With some extra time we decided to rent some bikes and cruise over to Wat Ek Phnom. It was built in a similar timeframe as Angkor Wat but was definitely left in a more rustic setting. I wonder if the cow appreciates the significance of the ruins it grazes on :) Nearby was a giant Buddha with a set of smaller Buddhas housed within its base.
We cycled over to the night market because we had to try something crazy we had seen – barbecued eggs! They were literally skewered and placed over hot coals. Once we cracked them open it seemed like they had been shaken since the yolk and whites had combined into a single delicious mass. I wondered why I had never thought of this before. Nathan ordered four brown eggs and one white egg from a different stack. It turns out the white one was very special, containing a partially formed chick inside. This delicacy is fairly common in Asian cuisines so we half expected it. But that night I wasn’t up for tasting it. Nathan reported that it was a mix of textures, a sort of soft and hard boiled egg rolled into one. But no strange tastes, just egg flavor.
I truly enjoyed Battambang . Our stopover provided insight into a less visited Cambodia. One where you can still bike past stilted houses and people wave hello. Yet, in the center, the colonial legacy and expat community results in cozy cafes and creative art galleries. It is the kind of place to spend an afternoon on a cafe patio watching the world go by. Battambang is a place to linger.