How To Shop A Thai Market Like A Pro
When the Tilakamonkul family opened Bangkok Market on Melrose and Normandie in 1971, they didn't expect the store to become a building block of Los Angeles's Thai American community.
They launched the humble, 2,000-square-foot space to fill a basic need -- providing produce and ingredients that their fellow Thai immigrants couldn't find anywhere else. To import the goods they needed, they had to navigate U.S. customs and build supply chains where none existed, laying the path that other Thai grocers would follow.
Bangkok Market boomed, moving down the block to a space three times the size. The store grew along with the community. (For more details on the role of food in the rise of Thai Town, check out Mark Padoongpatt's fabulous book, Flavors of Empire: Food and the Making of Thai America.)
L.A. is now home to the highest number of Thai people anywhere in the world, except for Thailand. The heart of that community is Thai Town in East Hollywood, and people have plenty of places to buy their groceries.
In the 38 years since Bangkok Market debuted, other Thai markets have opened. There's Bangluck with locations in Thai Town and North Hollywood, Silom Market on Hollywood Blvd. next to Thailand Plaza and LAX-C, a giant warehouse known as "Thai Costco," northeast of Chinatown.
Support these institutions by shopping at them like a pro.
Unless you've been living under a rock these last two decades, you've heard of sriracha, the fiery red sauce that's ubiquitous at pho shops, rice bowl joints, burger shops and food trucks across L.A. The brand with the rooster logo, marketed by Vietnamese American David Tran and his company Huy Fong Foods, has become iconic but it's not the sriracha I grew up with.
Sriracha comes from the town of Si Racha in the eastern half of Thailand, along the gulf. The Thai version of the sauce is smoother, more liquid and poured from glass bottles. You dip grilled meats and seafoods in it or, if you're teenage me, you use it to spice up spaghetti sauces, chili, fries and noodle soups.
Although Huy Fong's sriracha can be found in most major grocery stores, you'll have to go to a Thai market to find brands such as Panich, Shark and Por Kwan. They vary in heat level and, unlike the heat-forward Huy Fong version, their flavor tends to be rounded out with garlic and sugar notes.
"But I already have soy sauce at home," you might be saying. Most Asian cuisines that feature soy sauce use one that's specific to their culture. Try to make pad see ew with Kikkoman and it won't come out like you'd hoped.
There are three main types of Thai soy sauce: light/white (thin and salty), dark/black (thicker and sweeter) and sweet (more viscous and extremely sweet).
Dragonfly and Healthy Boy sell all three types, and are the most popular brands to cook with. Golden Mountain sells a more savory soy sauce-adjacent condiment meant to finish dishes at the table. It also goes well with fried eggs and rice porridge. (If you've had Maggi, it's very similar.)
Nam Phrik Phao
This roasted chili jam is the secret hero of many Thai dishes. Without knowing it, you've probably had this blend of chiles, sugar, shrimp paste, garlic, tamarind, shallots, fish sauce and other spices in countless restaurant tom yum soups, stir fries and salads. It's spicy but doesn't lead with the heat. Instead, it adds a sweet, savory, briny, fiery kick to dishes and makes a great addition to grilled cheese sandwiches (an idea from Thai food writer Leela Punyaratabandhu).
An essential ingredient in the Thai pantry, fish sauce, aka nam pla, adds a distinct briny funk and goes well with anything that needs a savory boost. That includes eggs, tomatoes, onions, mushrooms and any number of sauces and soups.
Most major supermarkets carry one, maybe two kinds of fish sauce but nothing beats the variety at a Thai grocery store. You'll find leading brands such as Tiparos and Tra Chang alongside various seafood-themed brands. (At least five different brands use crabs on their label.) They like to differentiate themselves by touting the purity of their fish sauce and whether they add sugar, glutamates or coloring. Each one varies in strength, saltiness and sweetness. Since every Thai cook has their preference (usually based on what they grew up eating), it's hard to find consensus. Fortunately, fish sauce isn't expensive, so you can try a bunch and find your favorite.
In a perfect world, you'd pound together herbs, spices, chiles and aromatics with a pestle until you made a fresh, fragrant paste. But when you're trying to survive meal prep or serve a quick dinner, it's way easier to grab one of the many pre-made Thai curry pastes.
They run the spectrum: gaeng phed ("spicy" aka "red curry"), gaeng khiew wan ("green sweet" aka "green curry"), gaeng panang (a nutty and thick curry), gaeng massaman (a curry with Malay and Muslim influences), and gaeng garii (a curry based on Anglo-Indian sauces and the only one Thai people literally call "curry," aka "yellow curry").
They're sold as either single-use cans or, in case you plan to cook the dish regularly, in sealed plastic tubs.
Long before refined cane or beet sugar came to Thailand, the traditional sweetener of choice was palm sugar, harvested from the sap of palm trees. The stuff that's exported to the U.S. is thickened and hardened into disks, bricks or jars. Its distinct flavor is key to sweetening dishes such as pad Thai. In recipes, brown sugar is often recommended as a substitute. If you have a disk of palm sugar, go with that instead. Its extreme sweetness will add a hint of butterscotch flavor.
Herbs and Spices
Thai cuisine relies on many aromatics and herbs that are hard to find, even in other Asian grocery stores. If you're lucky, you can find mint (bai saranae) and Thai basil (bai horapha) in some Asian markets but for ingredients like holy basil (bai kaphrao), lemongrass (takhrai) and makrut lime leaves (don't call them kaffir lime leaves), the produce section of a Thai market is the way to go. Choose wisely. These herbs are usually bundled in plastic bags and the quality of individual leaves varies.
Thai chili powder is traditionally made by taking sun-dried Thai chiles, toasting them in a pan until the whole house has a fiery, smoky aroma then grinding them into a powder. My parents made their own, a process that took days and turned our home into a biohazard zone but they did it as an investment in the spiciness of future dishes. Red pepper flakes from a supermarket spice aisle can't compare. I learned this the hard way in college while trying to season my laab with ingredients from Safeway. Seek out the real stuff. Noodles, stir-fries and salads will all benefit from its dry toasted heat.
Thai grocery stores offer a wealth of amazing, seasonal fruits from Thailand: rambutan, longan, lychee, mangosteen, tamarind, jackfruit and the infamous durian. My favorite is the Thai "naamwa" banana.
It's smaller than the Cavendish (the standard American banana). It's also a little sweeter, a little more tart and creamier. Frankly, it tastes more like a fruit. Sometimes, you can find them sun-dried and soaked in syrup or battered and fried in fritters at snack shop Ban Kanom Thai in Thailand Plaza. I prefer them ripe and fresh. Maybe it's because they're easier to peel and eat than many other Thai fruits, saving me the awkwardness of trying to crack shells and navigate around pits (looking at you, jackfruit).
Naamwa bananas are impossible to find in mainstream grocery stores. Even other Asian grocery stores, like 99 Ranch, rarely offer them. But Thai markets will usually have a least a few bunches. In Thailand, they're available year-round but their peak season occurs between January and March. They're often green when they're imported so give them a few days to ripen and turn yellow with some dark spots before enjoying them.
Every Thai market offers a wealth of crunchy, salty, sweet and sour snack items. Most are based on dried fruits or fruit flavors, like mango fruit leather, candied tamarind, fried banana chips and pineapple cookies. On the savory side, you'll find endless varieties of salty and spicy dried fish, squid and cuttlefish, pounded thin for jerky-like snacking.
These are a highlight of any trip to a Thai market. In other countries, companies like Lay's produce flavors that we rarely see in the United States, and Thai markets have dutifully imported them stateside. Enjoy herby, spicy flavors such as Thai basil, grilled squid and miang kham (a traditional savory leaf wrap snack or, in this case, a synthesized version of that flavor). Check out the clever localization of the logo. It actually reads "Lay" in Thai.
Make Thai iced tea at home by swirling the dark red brew with condensed milk and copious amounts of sweetener (bonus points if you use palm sugar). Since it's not instant, you can also make Thai iced black tea as "cha dam yen," the way my mom preferred it -- no cream, lots of sugar and a squeeze of lime. Cha Tra Mue is the most popular brand in Thailand, and its dark red powder has been packaged so you can brew it here in the U.S, ideally using in a muslin cloth steeped into a large stock pot.
If that seems daunting, pick up a ready-to-drink bottle of Thai tea in the refrigerated section.
Competition in the Asian instant noodle game is fierce, so I'm not going to say Thai noodles are superior to all other noodles but they more than hold their own. The Thai flavors bring another level of heat, acidity and seafood brininess to each bowl.
Let's start with instant pad Thai. It's not as good as a fresh batch of the stuff but when you have only five minutes and a cup of hot water to make your lunch, it's a solid option. You can also get instant versions of tom yum noodles, green curry, hot and sour nam tok pork noodles, and so much more, from the leading Thai brand, Mama, as well as its competitors, Wai Wai and FF.
If you have the time to cook the non-instant variety of these dishes, you'll find packaged rice and wheat noodles of varying thickness to use in pad see ew, pad kee mao, laad naa and kuaytiew noodle soups.
Hale's Blue Boy Syrups
Thai iced tea and oliang (Thai iced black coffee) are my current beverage loves but nothing tastes quite as nostalgically sweet to me as Hale's Blue Boy. These colorful flavor syrups typically come in green for cream soda, clear for jasmine and, most iconically, red for sala or palm fruit. You can mix them into chilled soda water or milk (pink milk with red syrup is quintessentially Thai), or use them to top shaved ice. All of them make a refreshing treat on a hot day.