Sofia reviews: My Cambodia — one of only three traditional Cambodian restaurants in Melbourne
In a sentence: one of Melbourne’s few traditional Cambodian restaurants
The damage: mains $11 to $25
Top tip: it’s BYO
#EatCuriously: try sadao, a bitter plant (aka Siamese neem) that’s incredibly good for you
Quench your thirst: BYO or order tropical shakes, such as soursop or avocado
If you like this: visit Kampot Kitchen in Preston for num pang, Cambodia’s version of banh mi
Google “Cambodian restaurant Melbourne” and just nine options come up. Three are traditional. Five are walking distance from each other in Springvale. In fact My Cambodia, Tasty Cambodian and Lemongrass Restaurant are all in a row on Buckingham Avenue.
While Melburnians are relatively well versed in pho, bun and banh mi, we don’t really know our amok from our samlor korko. I know Cambodian food has similarities to Vietnamese and Thai cuisine because it’s wedged between the two countries, but that’s about it. So I enlisted chef Jerry Mai to educate me. And by that I mean I crashed her regular mother-daughter lunch at My Cambodia.
Jerry, who has Bia Hoi restaurant in Glen Waverley and multiple Pho Nom venues, is Vietnamese. Her parents were born in Vietnam, but her father was raised in Cambodia. Growing up, their table was filled with Cambodian food. Her mother still cooks it.
Jerry’s mum insists that My Cambodia is the best of the Cambodian restaurants in Springvale. It seats about 25 people and looks like any of Victoria Street’s Vietnamese restaurants: thermoses of tea, condiments and tissue boxes are on each table; printed pictures of key dishes are stuck to the mirrored wall and there are golden waving cats scattered around the place.
We start with a minced pork dip that’s full of umami thanks to prahok, a fermented fish paste used in Khmer cooking that adds incredible depth of flavour. Sweet, savoury and spicy, it comes with chopped raw snake beans, cucumber slices and cabbage for dipping and scooping. Jerry says it’s always on her table as a side, and complements a spread of soup, rice, salad and something grilled.
I can see the similarities to Thai food in bok lahong, the Cambodian version of som tum green papaya salad. Ours is flavoured with fermented crab in a murky dressing of fish sauce, garlic, chilli and lime, with the juices pooling together at the bottom of the plate, which we soak up with rice. Squat Cambodian beef sausages also remind me of northeastern Thailand’s Isaan version. They’re slightly fermented, full of garlic and left to dry a little so their casings crisp up when cooked.
The more interesting salad features sadao, also known as Siamese neem. We’ve been given a pile of chopped stalks covered in tiny, bitter buds; it looks a little like broccolini that’s bolted. Sadao is incredibly astringent and not necessarily something the western palette is used to. I adore it, especially mixed with bits of pork, smoked and dried catfish, tomato, cucumber and bean sprouts. It just tastes like it’s good for you. Right on cue, Jerry’s mum confirms that it’s used in eastern medicine to help alleviate symptoms associated with too much heat in the body.
We also eat num banh chok, a fish noodle soup that’s a breakfast dish in Cambodia. At My Cambodia, the big bowl of vermicelli noodles is swimming in yellow gravy and topped with fish mince. Whole fish is cooked to make a stock. It’s then strained to form the base of the soup, while the meat is picked out and pounded with curry paste made from turmeric, galangal and ginger root. It’s quite mild in flavour but still so fragrant.
Both Jerry and her mum have a clear favourite: samlor korko, a nourishing fish curry. Jerry describes it as “all the love in a bowl”. I think it’s special because the gravy is thickened with toasted jasmine rice, which gives it a slightly gluggier texture and beautiful nutty, earthy flavours. Ours comes with a fish tail and head and is overflowing with seasonal vegetables (pumpkin, apple eggplants, beans and green papaya). It’s an alluring greenish-yellow with lots of turmeric, galangal, makrut lime and lemongrass.
Jerry’s mum takes a spoonful and then tells her in Vietnamese that hers is better. But at the end of the meal she turns to me with a mouthful – after declaring she’s full – and admits, “This is really good!”
28 Buckingham Avenue, Springvale
03 9540 3551
Open daily from 8.30am to 9pm.