In Food + Drink

Exactly What To Order From Kingdom Of Rice

For a city that prides itself on excellent Asian food, Sydney has yet to embrace Cambodian food in the same way as it has its south-east Asian neighbours. There are Vietnamese and Thai restaurants aplenty, and a growing number of Malaysian and Indonesian joints around town. It’s not for a lack of hungry diners: the 2016 census places just under 12,000 Cambodian-born people living in metro Sydney, and about 33,000 nationally.

So, where are all the Cambodian restaurants?

“They’re pretty much non-existent in Sydney,” says Sophia Thach, lead floor staff at the to-be-opened Kingdom of Rice. She can only cite Battambang, the duo of restaurants in Cabramatta, for reliable Cambodian fare in the city.

“You’ve just got to go to your family’s house, or know someone who’s Cambodian.”

Mitch Orr, Sophia Thach and Cam Fairbairn Photo: Nikki To

The Cambodian-sized gap on Sydney’s plates is set to be filled with the opening of Kingdom of Rice on October 12. Led by Thach and her colleagues from ACME (Mitch Orr, Cam Fairbairn and Lillia McCabe), it’s the second of Merivale’s pop-up series at Mascot’s Tennyson Hotel, following the pasta-slinging good times at Mr Liquor’s Dirty Italian Disco earlier this year.

For Thach, it’s a golden opportunity to bring Cambodian food to the people.

“I’ve been cooking since I moved out of home. I really missed my mum’s cooking,” she says.

A two-year stint in Phnom Penh, where she worked with a training restaurant run by non-government organisation Friends International, brought her closer to the cuisine of her parents’ homeland.

“The identity of Cambodian food is a bit lost because of the war – a lot of people died, and a lot of the country’s food style and culture was lost. Food was seen as something just to get by. It wasn’t seen as an opportunity to express your culture and what you love,” she says.

Even now, with the opening of Kingdom of Rice, her parents are sceptical that people will take to the food of their homeland.

“They ask, ‘Are you charging people for our food?’ They can’t believe people will pay to eat Cambodian food,” she says.

Thach says the Kingdom of Rice [KoR] menu reads like a “greatest hits” of Cambodian street food. She talks The Upsider through some highlights.

Sach gor ung numpang | Lemongrass beef baguette

It all starts with kreung, the quintessential Cambodian paste typically comprised of lemongrass, turmeric, eschallots, kaffir lime leaf, galangal and garlic. It’s the beating heart of Cambodian cooking, used in marinades, soups and curries.

“The kreung is used to marinade the beef along with coconut milk, fish sauce and kaffir lime leaf, [then] skewered then cooked over charcoal. Sach gor ung is eaten with a lightly pickled papaya salad and a banh mi baguette [numpang] – it’s more of a DIY sandwich,” says Thach.

Prahok k’tis: Crudités

Like kreung, prahok is another must-have in Cambodian cooking. The fermented fish paste was originally a technique to preserve fresh fish, but is now used to add a savoury depth to dishes.

At KoR, it’s the key ingredient of prahok k’tis, a dip combining prahok, kreung, pork belly, pea eggplants and coconut milk. Green tomatoes, snake beans and sliced cucumbers are provided for dipping: “It tastes salty, umami, crispy and fresh,” says Thach.

Trey ung: Chargrilled fish

The smell of charcoal is everywhere in Cambodia. “Even in the the sweaty hot markets, everyone cooks with hot charcoal,” Thach says.

You’ll most often see gills on the grills, with featuring more heavily in the Cambodian diet than meat. Freshwater fish (commonly snakehead fish) is cooked simply, and served with lemon, fish sauce (tuk trey) and lime and pepper sauce or chilli.

It’s freshened up at KoR, where a whole fish (it’ll be barramundi in the first week) is stuffed with lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves, grilled over coals, then finished with Asian herbs and a coconut lime dressing.

Murk ung: chargrilled calamari with pork fat and shallots

In Phnom Penh’s Psar Thmei (Central Market), one of Thach’s favourite places to eat is a grilled seafood and chicken stall. In particular, she’s pulled inspiration from the murk ung, grilled calamari tentacles with fatty pork and shallots.

At KoR, they’ll be chargrilled whole Southern calamari, served with a dressing of rendered pork fat, shallot and soy sauce. “It takes it up a notch when you dip it in lime and pepper sauce, a condiment we will have on tables,” says Thach.

Slab moan baoek: Stuffed chicken wings

Chicken wings aren’t the traditional meat for this dish. In Cambodia, it’s made with frog legs, a legacy of French colonialism. “The chickens are really small in Cambodia,” says Thach.

Growing up, Thach’s mother would order slab moan baoek from Cambodian grandmas, who would also peddle home-grown herbs and vegetables on the streets of Cabramatta.

At KoR, there’s no need to place an order with the grandmothers: deboned chicken wings are stuffed with chicken mince, kreung, shiitake mushrooms and Thai basil, before being thrown on the wood-fire grill, and glazed with a barbeque sauce.

The wings were especially popular at KoR’s pop-up stall at Surry Hills’ The Dolphin earlier this year. “Even my mum was like, ‘How did you make these?’”, says Thach.

Bobor lapoav: roasted pumpkin, tapioca and coconut milk

While working for Friends-International, Thach helped open a restaurant that trained marginalised women in Siem Reap (in north-west Cambodia). There, one of the local mothers made this pumpkin-based dessert: “We fell in love with it – it perfectly balances sweet and savoury,” says Thach.

At KoR, they slowly roast Jap pumpkin to bring out its natural sweetness, and serve it with coconut tapioca, lime juice and sugar.

Kingdom of Rice opens Friday October 12 at Tennyson Hotel, 952 Botany Road, Mascot. Wed – Fri 6pm–midnight; Sat 12pm–midnight; and Sun 12pm–10pm. It’ll be open for six months.

Published 08 October, 2018