Fish (and Other) Sauces
At the top left there's Ricker reaching for Sriracha—the original Sriracha, not the rooster sauce with the green cap made in Los Angeles by Huy Fong Foods. Si Racha is an actual town in eastern Thailand along the country's coastline, where apparently the namesake sauce was created to go with seafood dishes. The red paste—made of chili peppers, distilled vinegar, garlic, sugar, and salt—comes in Mild, Medium, and Hot varieties.
Fish sauce. Oh so many bottles of fish sauce, including both Vietnamese and Thai brands. (The difference? Vietnamese fish sauce is sweeter.) Tiparos and Squid are two brands that are pervasive in Thailand, and Ricker thinks both are pretty good. At Pok Pok, Ricker uses the premium MegaChef fish sauce from Squid brand.
Thai soy sauce, which is different from Japanese or Chinese soy sauce, can be divided into there distinct categories: thin, sweet, and black. Thin soy sauce (not to be confused with "light," which is lower in sodium) has a thin, gentle consistency; less in-yo'-face than sweet soy sauce. Sweet soy sauce is darker with a deep caramel-y flavor; it's essential in Pad See Ew, the fried flat rice noodle dish. Lastly, black soy sauce is very viscous and can best be described as, well, the darkest.
Healthy Boy is a popular Thai soy sauce brand, available in all three styles.
The unripe papaya acts like a vegetable when shredded into Thai salads such as som tam. The crisp shreds get pounded in a mortar along with hot chili peppers, salty fish sauce, palm sugar, and lime to achieve that simultaneous spicy-salty-sweet-tart glory of flavors.
Tamarind paste is the sweet, tart, dark brownish, sticky pulp from a ripe tamarind pod. When shopping for it, look for a Thai brand and give it a gentle squeeze—you want it to be a little soft. Tamarind paste is used in nam phrik, the very common sauce made of chilies, garlic, shallots, lime juice and fish sauce, which you'll find in small saucers served alongside so many dishes in Thailand.
There exist so, SO many kinds of mango in this world, and it's currently mango season (from late March through June) so go eat a mango. Here are some wee mangoes, about lime-sized.
Ah, the champagne of mangoes. The Ataulfo variety is a smooth, sweet, fragrant, golden-hued mango that's delicious on its own or with a plate of warm, sticky rice drenched in coconut milk for dessert.
Bags upon bags of rice including sticky rice from the northeast of Thailand and jasmine rice from central Thailand. Down below are the 40-pound bags of rice, which Ricker orders at Pok Pok.
Used for dusting foods before frying them, rice flour is available in both glutinous and non-glutinous varieties. The glutinous kind doesn't actually have wheat gluten; it just comes from sticky rice.
"Use the frozen stuff—it's much better than the canned," advises Ricker when it comes to durian, the pungent fruit that sort of resembles a hedgehog before it's sliced up. He uses frozen durian in Pok Pok's durian ice cream. "The frozen stuff is great if you're making a purée like ice cream."
"Whatever you do, don't buy curry paste in a can," Ricker says, but pointed us to this decent stuff in a bag. If you have the time, and the mortar and pestle, he really recommends making curry paste from scratch.
Whole Dried Thai Chilies
Dried peppers are pounded in mortars for so many Thai sauces, salads, curries, and other dishes. This bag of peppers comes from Wang Derm (meaning "old palace" in Thai), one of the first Thai food companies to directly export to the United States. Look out for Wang Derm products when you're Thai grocery shopping.
Pandan leaves (bai toey in Thai) have the same chemical compound as jasmine rice, which explains the similar nutty, rice-y aroma. In Thai cuisine, the leaves are wrapped around chicken or beef skewers on the grill, or can be pounded up to lend a subtly sweet aroma and flavor to Thai desserts. If you've been to Pok Pok before, you've probably sipped the water they pour and wondered, what is that whisper of sweetness? (It's pandan-infused.)
Look for palm sugar that's a darker shade of brown; it will have a deeper, more caramel-y flavor, plus, it's less likely to have been blended with white sugar.
Thai-style Pork Rinds
Khaep mu are puffed, porky snacks that are especially common in Chiang Mai where Thais like to crunch on them with nam phrik dipping sauce.
Mud Fish Sauce
Open a jar of fermented mud fish sauce and you'll be greeted with quite a stench. Whoa, is that stuff rotting? Enough salt is used to prevent the mud fish sauce from rotting, but it's still pretty dank. This pasty sauce is generally used in Northeasthern Thai and Lao dishes.
Olives in Thai cooking? Nah, they aren't technically olives. Magok are tart tropical green fruits that've been nicknamed "Thai olives" since they're often pickled and eaten as a snack.
Stink beans (sator in Thai) resemble large fava beans and are quite intense-smelling, hence the nickname. They're popular in a stir-fried dish with prawns in the south of the Thailand.
"Wait, this is awesome that they have this!" Ricker was pretty excited when he saw the bags of imported Thai coriander seeds (right). He usually brings it back from Thailand himself. The tiny, round beads provide a warm, nutty, spicy flavor to curries. It's different from Mexican coriander (left), which has a more "hot-doggy flavor."
When's the last time some white pepper gave you the thumbs-up sign? Isn't this some awesome packaging? This brand "NguanSoon No.1 Hand" is probably the best known white pepper brand in Thailand. It's a staple ingredient in Thai/Chinese cooking, especially as a final shake on soups and rice dishes to impart its gentle peppery aroma.
"This is a good brand of shrimp paste." Ricker approved of Klong Kone's shrimp paste, made from preserved tiny shrimps that are all ground up. "It's also lasts indefinitely. Only Christ knows how long."
Roasted Uncooked Rice
This rice powder is essential in Isan style laab to add a nuttiness and act as the binder/thickener in the ground meat salad. "This brand is okay," said Ricker, grabbing it off the shelf, though he (no big surprise) makes his from scratch at Pok Pok.
And now for a kitty interlude...
When we visited Inthira Thai Market, located across the street from popular Thai restaurant destination Sripraphai, we met this furry friend named Mimi, the shop's cat mascot. These two became fast friends.
Check the freezer section of a Thai market and you might find a bag of bird's eye chili peppers, the incendiary Thai peppers needed to pack heat into so many Thai dishes. These were grown in New Jersey.
Herb Discovery in a Ziploc
In the back of the Thai Grocery on Woodside Avenue, we found this gem hiding in a Ziploc bag. "This is amazing. Makhwen is a relative of Sichuan peppercorns." Ricker uses the prickly ash berries, which have the same mouth-numbing powers as Sichuan peppercorns, in the laab at Pok Pok.
Another discovery at Thai Grocery on Woodside Avenue: these dried flower pistils. They add a slightly earthy, herbal flavor and a feathery texture to broths and soups.
Frozen Coconut Milk
If you can find frozen coconut milk, it's better-tasting than the canned stuff. Just melt it and proceed cooking with the milk like you normally would. (Alternatively you could pretend these were coconut popsicles and eat them straight?)
Frozen Scraped Coconut
Again, opt for frozen coconut if you can find it. Coconut freezes well since the ice doesn't change the texture of the shredded coconut meat much.
Mama's Instant Noodles
All of these colorful pouches are instant noodles from Mama, the most popular brand of instant noodles in Thailand. Tom Yum Shrimp is the #1 flavor. Doctor up the noodles with all sorts of sauces and spices or eat 'em like the cool kids in Thailand do: raw and crunchy.
Labeled "fish bait," these large water bugs (mangda na) frolic about the rice fields in northern Thailand and at night, are netted near the lights to be, gulp, eaten later. They're pounded up and used as a flavoring in nam prik, the Thai chili paste.
"Suck on some gooseberries after a drink of whiskey," said Ricker. You can find them frozen at many Indian grocery stores.
Solar Dried Bananas
What is the Banana Society and how can you join? They are responsible for some of the most perfect dried bananas. To be clear, these aren't banana chips. The smooth, moist, hefty banana pucks have been dried in a state-of-the-art parabola dome developed by the Department of Food Technology in Thailand to control temperatures and moisture levels. Banana lovers out there, you really have to try these.
Orange turmeric is an awesomely vibrant shade of orange while white turmeric (as seen here) is much paler, but it's just as pungent. Ricker heads to the Indian market Patel Brothers to find the less commonly found white turmeric, which has a parsnip-y flavor. It goes into Pok Pok's herbal salad.
Sticky Rice Pot and Basket
To make sticky rice at home you really need this aluminum sticky rice pot and steaming basket.
Arguably the most crucial of all Thai cooking implements is the indispensable mortar, used for grinding spices, peppers, nuts, and whatever else needs a good whack in there. This is the mortar section of Thai Grocery, where you'll find granite mortars for grinding curry paste and clay mortars for Isaan-style som tam ingredients.
Mango salad mountain
All that Thai market shopping worked up an appetite. We headed to Ayada for lunch, which began with this dome of a salad.
Shrimp paste fried rice
This reddish rice is laced with a fishy flavor thanks to the shrimp paste, which coats every grain. Ayada serves the shrimp paste fried rice with red onions, shredded mango, and a side of sweet pork. (Thai style surf-n-turf?)
Hainanese chicken and rice
Ricker ordered this Hainanese chicken and rice for lunch, a dish that's also very common in Singapore and Malaysia. It's traditionally served with sliced cucumbers and that very necessary, can't-stop-dousing-everything-with-it ginger dipping sauce.