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A generation ago, the great challenge in recreating restaurant food at home was acquiring the kinds of ingredients available to three-star chefs. These days morels and demi-glace are practically on sale at the corner deli. Today's top chefs may or may not be focused on French technique, but they have expanded the ingredient basethe world is their oyster, or, at the very least, their spice rack. A playful, bold, but intellectual approach to flavor is what Jean-Georges Vongerichten, Wylie Dufresne, and almost every other gifted, innovative chef have in common these days.
We have grown accustomed to the idea that Indian spices, Japanese fruits, and Vietnamese herbs can happily share a menu with familiar Western flavors. But home cooks have assumed these hybrid creations are truly out of reach. Restaurants order their food from wholesale purveyors, and the best chefs are highly selective about their ingredients. Regular folks just don't have the same access, right? Well, the funny thing about all this fancy, innovative cooking is that, for the rarest or freshest ethnic flavors, chefs sometimes have to rely ongaspretail markets!
This shocking news means that all New Yorkers can, if we dare, experiment with the far-flung culinary palette we may otherwise only encounter on special occasions involving rich aunts or pretentious dates. Here are some secrets from the city's top restaurants.
Sunrise Mart Popular for its intriguing snack foods and excellent prepared food, Sunrise Mart is also an indispensable resource for Josh DeChellis, one of the most talked about young chefs in the city. His restaurant, Sumile, relies on Sunrise Mart for nigari, a tofu stabilizer, to make tofu for their miso soup. The restaurant also buys fresh yuzu (a Japanese citrus) there when it's available, or yuzu kosho (a paste made from yuzu rind and chilies) and various kinds of miso.
Katagiri For 98 years, this small but extensively stocked Japanese grocery store has been in the same spot on East 59th street. Wayne Nish's restaurant, March, gets its shiro dashi (white soy sauce) here. They also buy yuzu juice, which can be found elsewhere, but only in large quantities. So, although the price per ounce is higher, this intensely sour flavor is used so sparingly that it pays to go retail.
Foods of India Need some pomegranate syrup? Can't find fregola, the toasted Sardinian pasta, anywhere? Foods of India is a food lover's dream, and not just for the exhaustive stock of Indian specialties. Floyd Cardoz, the chef at Danny Meyer's celebrated modern Indian restaurant, Tabla, gets spices and dried nuts and fruits at Foods of India. Although he could turn out innovations like Saag Paneer Pizza with spices from a wholesale purveyor, freshness is a must.
Kalyustan's Right down the street from Foods of India is the more famous and spiffier looking Kalyustan's, which is beloved by many chefs around town. Culinary superstar Wylie Dufresne gets special red quinoa there for wd-50's Ocean trout with quinoa, fennel, blood orange puree, and toast oil. The restaurant also gets smoky lapsang souchong tea there. Kurt Gutenbrunner's new restaurant, Thor, uses spices from Kalyustan's for dishes like sea scallops with corn in curry sauce. Other fans include Wayne Nish and New American restaurant 5 Ninth's Zac Pelaccio.
THAI/ VIETNAMESE/ INDONESIAN
Asia Market Corp Half Wholesale, half retail, Chinatown's Asia Market Corp is widely considered by New York chefs as having the most extensive stock of Thai and Indonesian ingredients in the city. Zac Pelaccio, Wayne Nish, Gray Kunz, Jean Gorges Vongerichten and many others rely on the store for ingredients like galangal (a relative of ginger), Kaffir lime leaves, curry pastes, shrimp pastes, coconut milk, kecap manis, tamarind pastes, etc. Vong's executive chef, Pierre Schutz, claims his restaurant was the first to discover the store in the early nineties, while searching the city for the ingredients needed to make dishes like the famous lobster with Thai herbs. "They didn't even deliver then. Now they have, like, ten trucks!" Vong's kitchen is stocked with good from Asia Market Corp, which is their main supplier for all Asian ingredients.
Tan Tin Hung This Supermarket has a huge stock of food for Chinese and Vietnamese cooking. Rain chef Gypsy Gifford gets dried spices and fresh Vietnamese herbs there, plus hard-to-find pickled green peppercorns for her "Jungle Curry Shrimp" dish, an unusual curry from Northeastern Thailand.