Bopha Devi review

Bopha Devi Docklands owner Chan Uoy.
Bopha Devi Docklands owner Chan Uoy.  Photo: Eddie Jim

27 Rakaia Way Docklands, VIC 3008

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Opening hours Lunch Fri-Sun noon-3pm, dinner Tue-Sun 6-10pm
Features Accepts bookings, Vegetarian friendly, Gluten-free options, Outdoor seating, Licensed, Bar, Wheelchair access, Events
Prices Moderate (mains $20-$40)
Payments Diner's Club, eftpos, AMEX, Cash, Visa, Mastercard
Phone 03 9600 1887

Chan Ouy did not grow up particularly proud of his culinary heritage. He never meant to be a restaurant owner, or the person who introduced many Melburnians to Cambodian food. 

In 1976, six-year-old Ouy and his family fled the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and were among the first boat refugees to be resettled in Australia. "Assimilation was important," Ouy says, explaining that growing up, he was embarrassed of his family's culinary differences.

When he went to university he studied accounting, but working in that field for a few years made him realise: "Oh dear, this is not for me." After a lot of soul searching, he decided he wanted to create something. And in 1999 he opened his first restaurant, Bopha Devi, in Yarraville.

Spicy minced chicken dip: Thai larb meets bolognese.
Spicy minced chicken dip: Thai larb meets bolognese. Photo: Eddie Jim

At the time Ouy was cooking mainly from family recipes. "Cambodia wasn't a place to go for a long time," he explains. "It was closed off to tourists, and to people who had left. That's why people don't know much about Cambodian food – because it was closed off to the outside world for so long."

In 2003, Ouy returned to Cambodia for the first time since he'd left as a small child. "I was blown away," he says. "There was a sense of coming home."

Since then,  Ouy has revisited Cambodia a number of times, bringing recipes and recipe books back to Australia with him. In 2005, he opened a second location of Bopha Devi in the Docklands. The stylish restaurant is anchored by a huge chandelier, with black tables and green leather bench seating.

Cambodia's best-known dish, fish amok.
Cambodia's best-known dish, fish amok. Photo: Eddie Jim

Cambodian food shares much with both Thai and Vietnamese cooking, but there are dishes unique to Cambodia. At Bopha Devi, you can try amok, a thick and mild coconut cream curry with lemongrass and turmeric that envelops tender pieces of barramundi.

There's a spicy minced chicken dip entree that is a little like Thai larb and a little like bolognese, served warm with thick slices of cucumber and celery for dipping. Hot fried rice cakes come stuffed with chives, and with a bright, almost floral chilli sauce on the side.

Ouy has found a passion for educating people about the food of his homeland, through his restaurants and other means. He is gearing up for his second food tour of Cambodia, in which he leads Australian travellers on a food-focused trip around the country.

He's been known to hold durian tastings at the restaurant, "for durian lovers and those that are curious," in an effort to introduce his favourite (but somewhat divisive) fruit to a new audience.

Introducing people to new things seems to be Ouy's talent. "Cambodia was shut off for so long," he says. "The generation of people who lived there before are ageing and dying. My goal, as the next generation, is to preserve that heritage."

Go-to Dish: Spicy minced chicken dip $15, fish amok $28.