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On a recent trip to Thailand, I discovered how fast and easy Thai cooking can be—in spite of how bold and complex the resulting flavors often are. I took three classes: one at the Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School, another at the Thai Orchid Cookery School in Chiang Mai, and my last at the Blue Elephant Royal Thai Cuisine in Bangkok. All three classes demonstrated that the key to success with Thai food is prepping your ingredients before you fire up your wok, because once the cooking starts, it goes by quickly; if you have a good mise en place, it can go smoothly, too.
The most difficult step in Thai cooking back West might be amassing the exotic ingredients, but even that is not too tricky in New York City. Although there is no equivalent to Little Italy or Chinatown for Thailand, there are a few Thai grocery stores that are concentrated around Bayard Street within Chinatown. Many other Asian markets in the area stock ingredients prevalent in Thai cuisine as well, and you can find certain staples in your local market, too.
Herbs, Spices and Seasoning
Kaffir Lime Leaves: These leaves give many Thai dishes, such as Tom Ka Gai, their fresh citrus aroma and seasoning. Asia Market Corporation and Kalustyan's both sell packets of dried kaffir lime leaves. They go for $1.00 at Asia Market. Udom Corp. has packets of frozen fresh leaves for $5.00 and Bangkok Center Grocery for $3.00. Although the frozen version may not be as pungent as their fresh counterparts, I was pleased with the results when I used them in a green curry and a Tom Ka Gai soup.
Udom Corp. has a refrigerator with produce, but unlike the one at Bangkok Center Grocery, it does not have glass doors and it is situated behind the counter. As a result, it is more difficult to shop around, since you have to ask specifically if they have something.
Asia Market Corporation, 71 1/2 Mulberry Street, New York NY (map); 212-962-2020; Kalustyan's, 123 Lexington Avenue, New York NY (map); 212-685-3451, www.kalustyans.com; Udom Corp., 81A Bayard Street, New York NY (map); 212-349-7662; Bangkok Center Grocery, 104 Mosco Street, New York NY (map); 212-349-1979, www.thai-grocery.com.
Lemongrass: Lemongrass is probably the most famous Thai ingredient and also the easiest to find. Everywhere sells it from Whole Foods to Garden of Eden to, in all likelihood, your local grocery store. Prices can be higher at Western markets, however, and the quality doesn't always match the Asian markets. At Whole Foods and Garden of Eden, lemongrass was going for $9.99/lb and $6.99/lb respectively and was slightly brown and dry looking, whereas at stores in Chinatown such as Hong Kong Market, lemongrass costs $0.99 for a bundle of four stalks and looked much healthier.
Lemongrass's main purpose is to add flavor, and it is usually not eaten, since it is difficult to chew. It can be chopped finely, however, and is edible in salads when cut this way. Mashed, it is an ingredient in most curry pastes (recipe for penang and mussaman curry pastes here).
Whole Foods, multiple locations (map); Garden of Eden, multiple locations (map); Hong Kong Supermarket, multiple locations (Manhattan map; Brooklyn map).
Galanga: This Thai form of ginger is much stronger and spicier than normal ginger. Also known as ginza or Thai ginger, it is another ingredient that enhances perfume and taste, and is used in many curry pastes (recipes for red and green curry pastes here). Hung Lee Co. stocks fresh galanga. Asia Market sells it in frozen vacuum packages. Since I freeze my ginger anyway, the frozen galanga did not bother me. You can also buy powdered dry galanga at Kalustyan's for $4.99 for 1 oz. bag, but fresh is preferable.
Hung Lee Co., 78 Bayard Street, New York NY (map); Asia Market Corporation, 71 1/2 Mulberry Street, New York NY (map); 212-962-2020; Kalustyan's, 123 Lexington Avenue, New York NY (map); 212-685-3451, www.kalustyans.com
Turmeric: Ground turmeric is relatively easy to find, but fresh is harder to get. If you use dried instead of fresh, go sparingly, since its flavor is stronger. The closest thing to fresh turmeric I could find was frozen fresh turmeric at Asia Market Corporation.
Asia Market Corporation, 71 1/2 Mulberry Street, New York NY (map); 212-962-2020.
Bird's Eye Chilies: Small green bird's eyes are the spiciest kind of chili and a main source of heat in Thai food. They also come in red and orange colors. New Lou Cheng Market Inc. has mixed bird's eye chilies for $2.59/lb. Whole Foods sells them under the name Thai chilies (although they are grown in Mexico) for $4.99/lb. Bangkok Center Grocery has small pre-wrapped packets with a combination of red and green ones.
New Lou Cheng Market Inc., 51 East Broadway, New York NY (map) 212-349-8010; Whole Foods, multiple locations; Bangkok Center Grocery, 104 Mosco Street, New York NY (map); 212-349-1979, www.thai-grocery.com.
Thai basil: This variety of basil is sweet and often added as a garnish to spicy dishes in order to cut some of the heat. It also adds flavor in soups, curries, and stir-fries, such as Gai Pad Krapow. Bangkok Center Grocery sells pre-wrapped bundles. The Hong Kong Supermarket in Brooklyn has loose Thai basil for $9.99/lb.
Holy basil: Holy basil is somewhat spicy, rather than sweet, and is usually cooked rather than added as a garnish. Bangkok Center Grocery also sells holy basil in pre-wrapped bundles. The first time I went to Bangkok Center Grocery, they were out, but they got more in the second time I visited. Kalustyan's had fresh Holy basil in the fridge when I stopped by, as well as dry Holy basil, but their website only lists dried.
Pandanus Leaves: These long stalks offer flavoring for many Thai desserts and drinks. Asia Market Corporation and Hong Kong Supermarket sell frozen ones. Kalustyan's has Cock Brand Pandan Flavoring Essence and Maesri Pandan Leaves Extract. Read this piece on Pandan for more ideas of what to do with it.
Asia Market Corporation, 71 1/2 Mulberry Street, New York NY (map); 212-962-2020; Hong Kong Supermarket, multiple locations (Manhattan map; Brooklyn map); Kalustyan's, 123 Lexington Avenue, New York NY (map); 212-685-3451, www.kalustyans.com.
Fruits and Vegetables
Morning Glory: This is not the common western flower—although it is related. Morning glory in Thailand is a sort of water spinach meets watercress. The best thing I ate on my trip was a yum pak bung krob, a deep-fried morning glory salad with a light citrus dressing, served in a small restaurant just outside the city center of Nong Khai in Northeastern Thailand. At each restaurant where I sampled this dish afterwards, the green used had a slightly different shaped leaf. There are, it turns out, several kinds of morning glory.
In New York, you can easily find Chinese Ong Choy, which is one type of Morning Glory. It's not quite the same, but it has the same hollow stalks. American Fu Zhou Grocery Inc. sells it as does New Lou Cheng Supermarket and W.K. Vegetable Co.
American Fu Zhou Grocery Inc., 101 East Broadway, New York NY (map); 212-385-0658; New Lou Cheng Market Inc., 51 East Broadway, New York NY (map); 212-349-8010; W.K. Vegetable Co., 124-126 Mott Street, New York NY (map); 212-334-4603.
Thai (Apple) Eggplant: Thai eggplant look very different from Western eggplants; they are golf-ball size and are green speckled with white. Their most common use is in red and green curries, but they are found in a few other dishes as well, such as Thai Basil Eggplant stir-fry. Hung Lee Co. sells them, as does Bangkok Center Grocery.
Hung Lee Co., 78 Bayard Street, New York NY (map); Bangkok Center Grocery, 104 Mosco Street, New York NY (map); 212-349-1979, www.thai-grocery.com.
Green Papaya: Som Tum, spicy green papaya salad, is one of the most popular Thai dishes (recipe here). Hung Lee Co. and Asia Market Corporation both sell green papayas, although they are more bulbous than the zucchini-skinny papayas I used in Thailand.
Mango: Mango season was just starting in Thailand at the end of my stay, and I gorged on them for breakfast, lunch, and dinner—eating them in any form from spicy mango salad to shakes to pudding. Unfortunately, I have not been able to find a source for the Nam Dok Mai variety of mangoes that are the best for Thai treats such as coconut sticky rice with mango.
But Ataulfo mangoes—also known as champagne mangoes—are popping up in New York grocery stores right now, and they are a close cousin to Nam Dok Mai and a good substitute. Fairway was selling 2 for $3 this past week. Down in Chinatown in Manhattan, as well as Sunset Park in Brooklyn, they are going for 4 for $5 or 3 for $4.00 in some stores, the prices varying on the day and the stock.
Fairway, multiple locations; walk along Grand Street between Chrystie Street and East Broadway in Manhattan, or 8th Avenue in Brooklyn, and most stands and stores have mangos out front.
Curry Pastes: If you don't have time to make your own curry pastes, there are several packaged options. The easiest to find brands are Mae Ploy and Maesri; most people recommend Mae Ploy, which you can find at Hong Kong Supermarket and Asia Market Corp. in both the large buckets and smaller tubs. Go for versions found in plastic tubs rather than cans, as the metal adds a tinny flavor to the paste. Bangkok Center Grocery stocks Nittaya curry pastes, which also come more highly recommended, but are harder to find.
If you can't make it to Chinatown, stores that have branches around the city such as Gourmet Garage and Whole Foods sell 4 oz. jars of Thai Kitchen curry pastes for $3.99 and $3.39 respectively.
Asia Market Corporation, 71 1/2 Mulberry Street, New York NY (map); 212-962-2020; Bangkok Center Grocery, 104 Mosco Street, New York NY (map); 212-349-1979, www.thai-grocery.com; Gourmet Garage, multiple locations (map); Whole Foods, multiple locations (map).
Fish Sauce: Fish sauce is to Thai cooking as salt is to Western cuisine—added to everything for flavor. The Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School says that the higher the quality, the darker the color, but several Western Thai cookbooks recommend using the lighter colored sauce—most likely because the darker fish sauces have a more intense fishy smell and taste that some unaccustomed Westerners might find unpalatable.
The most prevalent brand in Thailand is Tiparos, which both the Thai Orchid Cookery School and the Blue Elephant Cooking School use in their classes. The other brand names that come up a lot are Three Crabs, Squid and Golden Boy. As with oyster sauce, people have their own favorite. The Thai Orchid Cookery School suggests looking for a fish sauce that has at least 60% fish.
For the best prices, head to Chinatown. Western Markets tend to stock brands such as Kame, A Taste of Thai, Thai Kitchen, and Asian Gourmet, whose prices can be inflated. And while Kalustyan's is a great source for ingredients from across the globe, their prices can be higher as well. For example, although they stock the full range of popular choices, their prices range from $8.99 for a 7 oz bottle of Tiparos to $14.99 for a 24 oz bottle of Three Crabs on their website (though their prices are lower in the store at $5.99 for a bottle of Tiparos and $7.99 for a bottle of Three Crabs). Compare that to $2.25 for a large bottle of Tiparos at Bangkok Center Grocery, $1.45 at Asia Market Corporation and $1.39 at the Hong Kong Supermarket in Manhattan.
Tamarind: Forget the packaged bottles of Pad Thai sauce. It is very easy to recreate your own if you have tamarind paste. If you cannot find tamarind paste, the Thai Orchid Cookery School in Chiang Mai recommends using vinegar or lime instead, since the tamarind paste is what gives the sauce its tangy flavor. In fact, if made properly with tamarind, Pad Thai does not need to be squirted with lime juice.
You can buy cans or jars of tamarind concentrate or large blocks of seedless tamarind paste. Go for the blocks, and mix chunks of it with water to get tamarind juice. Cock Brand is the preferred source and is sold at Asia Market Corporation and Bangkok Center Grocery, as well as at Hong Kong Supermarket for around $2.00. Fairway sells Laxmi Brand paste for $5.49. You can also find sweet tamarind in pods at Natural Food on Mulberry street and at Hong Kong Supermarket.
Fairway, multiple locations; Asia Market Corporation, 71 1/2 Mulberry Street, New York NY (map); 212-962-2020; Bangkok Center Grocery, 104 Mosco Street, New York NY (map); 212-349-1979, www.thai-grocery.com; Hong Kong Supermarket, multiple locations (Manhattan map; Brooklyn map); Natural Food, 88 Mulberry Street, New York NY (map); 212-285-6388.
Palm Sugar: The average Thai person seems to have a real sweet tooth. (Ask for a coffee that's not too sweet, and most vendors will still dump half a cup of sugar into your drink.) Palm sugar is added to many dishes to give it the sweetness that combines with spicy and/or sour flavors. It is used mainly in curries and desserts and either comes in packages of several hard discs or in a slightly softer form in jars. Chelsea Thai Wholesale sells one pound bags of the discs for $3.75. Asia Market Corporation, Bangkok Center Grocery and Hong Kong Supermarket have both jars and discs from multiple companies for prices that range from $1.59 to around $3.00 depending on the brand.
Chelsea Thai Wholesale Inc., Chelsea Market, 75 9th Avenue, New York NY (map); 212-924-2999; Asia Market Corporation, 71 1/2 Mulberry Street, New York NY (map); 212-962-2020; Bangkok Center Grocery, 104 Mosco Street, New York NY (map); 212-349-1979, www.thai-grocery.com; Hong Kong Supermarket, multiple locations (Manhattan map; Brooklyn map).
Sticky Rice: My new favorite dessert is coconut sticky rice with mango (recipe here). Chelsea Thai Wholesale sells large containers of the glutinous grains for $2.95. Kalustyan's sells sweet long grain Thai rice in a range of sizes from 14 oz bags for $3.99 to 4 lbs for $14.99—prices are steeper on their website, where a 10lb bag costs a shocking $49.99. Golden Way sells a 5lb bag of Siam Elephant sticky rice for $3.95.
Chelsea Thai Wholesale Inc., Chelsea Market, 75 9th Avenue, New York NY (map); 212-924-2999; Kalustyan's, 123 Lexington Avenue, New York NY (map); 212-685-3451, www.kalustyans.com; Golden Way Market, 11 Market Street, New York NY (map); 212-513-7733.
Although New York City stocks many Thai grocery items, the one item on my list I could not find anywhere was pea eggplant—these unusual tiny eggplants are used in green curries. Although fresh spring peas can be substituted, they do not offer the same bitter flavor as the eggplants. Bangkok Center Grocery used to carry them, but apparently they no longer have a source for them, and the vegetable has been banned from the United States. Otherwise, though, it is simple to relive and recreate the exotic and sumptuous flavors of Thai cooking that have made it so popular in the West in recent years.
In addition to the stores listed there are also sites online where you can order Thai groceries. One of them is an online supermarket at importfood.com.