Writer Marissa Carruthers and photographer Anna Clare Spelman try a taste of Thailand in Phnom Penh at Banyan Thai Cuisine.
The last Thai dish I’d eaten was a steaming bowl of pad thai noodles, cooked in front of me at a street stall that I’d discovered just days before leaving Koh Chang. The food on the island was so delicious, and cheap, that the rest of my trip was spent tucking into traditional dishes.
Bearing this in mind, my expectations weren’t high as I walked into the Phnom Penh-based restaurant Banyan Thai Cuisine. I mean, nothing can beat the real thing, right? However, I was in for a surprise.
The eatery, set on bustling Street 51, is a quaint affair. Tables decorated with butterfly-adorned cloths are scattered among a canopied tropical garden, with water features adding a sense of calm to the air despite an underlying hum of traffic.
It was 1pm when we arrived and the restaurant was empty, but we didn’t let that deter us and picked a corner table in some dappled shade. A flick through the menu showed that Banyan takes diners on a culinary adventure across Thailand. A page devoted to the North featured a hang lay curry ($5), the Northeast section offered spicy soup such as nam tok pork or beef ($5/ $5.50), while Southern dishes included deep-fried fish with turmeric ($8).
To begin, we opted for an appetiser. There weren’t many meat-free options for our vegetarian photographer, so we opted for fried spring rolls. Thankfully their taste made up for the lack of veggie choice. The six plump spring rolls ($3.50) were stuffed with a light filling of carrot, beansprouts, cabbage and onion, and crisped to perfection.
Next up was a main — the signature Northern noodle dish of khao soi chicken ($4). Chunks of chicken and egg noodles came floating in a rich curry sauce, topped with a mountain of crispy deep-fried noodles. Accompanying it were lime, shallots, pickled cabbage and ground chilies fried in oil.
If you enjoy playing with food, then this is the dish for you. Getting close to the curry involves smashing through the web of crispy noodles and mashing them into the coconut milk-infused soup. Add in the extras, and you’ll have a fiery, filling feast.
A vegetarian pad Thai ($3.50) came wrapped in a paper-thin fried egg. Inside was a simple but flavoursome mix of thin noodles, tofu and crunchy vegetables, including bean sprouts, radish and banana flowers. On the side were ground roasted peanuts, a lime wedge and chopped chilies, adding to its spicy flavour.
To finish, despite having ordered it as an additional appetiser, came the chicken satay ($5). The four slabs of satayed chicken on a stick were a little dry and chewy, but the sweet and sour dipping sauce helped mellow this.
While the price may be higher than street food in Thailand and the service much slower, the taste was definitely on a par, plus the generous portions at Banyan make sure you leave satisfied.