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Shopping at Asian Markets (for Thai Ingredients)

Michael Babcock, May 22nd, 2009

Although shopping at Asian markets in the United States can hardly compare to the wonderful markets in Thailand (see our market picture photos), it is still immensely enjoyable. Whenever Kasma and I travel anywhere in the U.S., we always visit the Asian markets. We then post our impressions on the website, as we did when we visited Savannah, Georgia in February of this year. (See our page on Savannah Asian markets.)

Vendor at Or Tor Kor Market

Vendor at Or Tor Kor Market

For many people, shopping at Asian markets is a necessity: in order to cook Thai food, you need fresh, appropriate ingredients and they very often are only found in Asian markets.

I’d like to make some suggestions about how to go about finding those Asian ingredients when you need them back in the U.S. 

(Click on an image to see a larger version.)

You first need to start with a slightly different mind-set than you use for shopping in a supermarket. Asian markets vary greatly in how much of different ingredients they stock, which ethnicity is emphasized and whether or not they have produce, meat or seafood. When Kasma shops for her classes, she’ll typically visit at least half a dozen markets.

Fish at Manila Market in San Francisco

Fish at Manila Market in San Francisco

She’ll start at her favorite, one that has a good base of ingredients. (At the time this was written it was Khanh Phong market on 9th Street in Oakland, CA, which has now (May 2020) been closed for many years). She’ll usually then visit 2 to 4 other markets in the Chinatown area. After that, she’ll head off to the International District where she’ll complete her shopping: International Blvd. has two especially good ethnic markets (Mithapheap (was Sontepheap) Market at 1400 International Blvd. and Lao Market at 1619 International Blvd.) that she relies on for harder to find Thai ingredients, such as kaffir lime leaves and holy basil. Another market that often requires a stop is Thien Loi Hoa (1199 E. 12th Street in Oakland) – it’s another very well-stocked market that also sells fish and seafood. She often also makes a special stop at a fresh fish market in her travels, as well.

The reason for all the stops are multifold: maybe a fresh ingredient doesn’t look very fresh at one of the early stores; maybe she needs fresh bamboo shoots and several markets don’t have them; maybe she can’t find the right size of frozen shrimp. And on and on.

Shopping in Oakland's Chinatown

Shopping in Oakland's Chinatown

When shopping Asian, I suggest that you start off realizing that it’s not one-stop shopping, although you may be fortunate and have a fantastic store that has everything you need. Plan on spending a little time to get the best ingredients.

If you plan to cook Asian food on a regular basis, take a day and visit as many Asian markets in your area as you can. Learn which stores have which ingredients.

If you don’t know where the markets are, start with the yellow pages, either the book your phone company gives you or online. Go to the markets page and go through the entire listing looking for names that are obviously Asian: like Hong Kong Market, or Khanh Phong. If you’re going to be cooking Thai food, look especially for markets with Thai names; we’ve also found that Cambodian and Lao markets are excellent sources for Thai ingredients. In many cities, Asian markets tend to cluster in the same area. That’s a good thing because you can visit many more easily

You can also see if there are any markets listed on our website. We have one page for markets in the San Francisco Bay Area and another for markets throughout the rest of the United States. You can also try Thai Table’s Asian Market Locator.

Once you’ve got your list, visit every one of the markets. Take notes: which markets have what ingredients, which markets have meat, fresh fish, frozen foods, and so on. Then you’ll have a good idea of where to go when you need certain ingredients.

Look on it as a fun adventure. When I shop in Oakland’s Chinatown, I can feel like I’m no longer in the United States. I’m often the only Caucasian in a market, surrounded by Asian people and Asian ingredients: it’s the closest I get to being in Thailand when I’m at home.

Market at Oakland Farmer's Market

Vendor at Oakland Farmer's Market

Another good source of ingredients can be local farmer’s markets. We’re very lucky in Oakland to have a farmer’s market right below Chinatown. (It’s on 9th Street at Broadway on Fridays from 8:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m.; about 3 blocks from the 12th Street BART station.) There are at least a dozen farmers with ethnic ingredients ranging from Vietnamese herbs to Thai chillies (prik kee noo) to holy basil to duck eggs – all according to season, of course. If your area does have a farmer’s market, go check it out and see if there are Asian vendors. Even if it does not, you may be able to get needed ingredients there. Kasma often needs cilantro roots for making curries and the only place we’ve been able to find them reliably is at the Berkeley Farmer’s Market (offsite, opens in new window) on Saturday (Center Street in-between Milvia and Martin Luther King, Jr. Way) where Blue Heron farms always has them. (Blue Heron is also at the Thursday Berkeley Farmer’s market from 3:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. at Shattuck and Rose.)

Fish Sauce, Source for Salty

Golden Boy Fish Sauce Label

So do take a day and survey Asian markets in your area. It’s a fun excursion and will set you up for cooking great Thai (or other Asian) food. If you don’t know what to cook, check out Kasma’s recipe index for some ideas.

For some of the various things you’ll find at Oakland’s Chinatown markets, check out Anita Crotty’s Flickr photo set Oakland Chinatown with Kasma (offsite, opens in new window).

Written by Michael Babcock, May 2009. Updated May 2020.

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