It used to be that a New Yorker who wanted to cook a Thai meal — or a Japanese, Indian, or Chinese one — had to first make a concerted effort to track down the right ingredients. Otherwise, the necessary substitutions would result in a dish that fell short of even the lamest takeout. But it was only a matter of time before some food retail genius would realize that the desire for these products extends far beyond the ethnic enclaves where they are most commonly found. Dining out, New Yorkers can sample different cuisines every night of the week, and are consequently less intimidated by the idea of trying to recreate foreign dishes in their own kitchens.
In recent years, it has become remarkably easy to whip up a pot of Tom Yum Kung soup without spending an entire day hunting down the crucial elements — fresh lemongrass, Kaffir lime leaves, and imported fish sauce. This is thanks largely to the new age of supermarkets — sprawling chains like Whole Foods have answered the call for modern one-stop-shopping. Regular old supermarkets (D’Agostino’s, Key Food, Associated, etc.) really missed the boat on organic and ethnic products. They are very slowly catching on, with organic milk and eggs becoming more common, and a few very basic items, like soy sauce, being reliable now. More interesting ingredients are generally stocked depending on the particular location of the branch and the ethnic makeup of that neighborhood.
During its rapid assent, Whole Foods’ international aisle has become increasingly diverse, and now covers the basics for Thai, Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Middle Eastern, and Latin cooking. But of course there’s a major drawback to this convenience — the prices. Another factor in the pricing is the way the company chooses its products, strictly avoiding anything containing items from their long list of Unacceptable Food Ingredients. These standards, while noble, limit the selection and raise the prices, especially for ethnic ingredients, many of which contain MSG or artificial preservatives. Shoppers should check out this list and decide what ingredients they feel strongly about avoiding. Many consumers would prefer to look at a larger selection, reading the labels and comparing the prices to decide for themselves.
Focusing on Thai, because it’s so popular and its essential flavors tend to be harder to find than, say, Japanese, we did a little comparative shopping and found that even an occasional Thai cook would save a lot by taking a trip to Chinatown. Also, while Whole Foods has a good selection of the basics, it is not a comprehensive collection. More esoteric items are only available in specialty markets. The most exhaustive selection by far is available at Asia Market Corporation, which provides many of the City’s most celebrated restaurants with products every day. Spice Market’s Executive Sous Chef Micah Maughan told us he relies on the store heavily. “We use them primarily for all our Asian specialty ingredients,” he said. If it’s good enough for Jean-Georges Vongerichten and Gray Kunz, this place should work for you, too.
To stock your cabinets
Especially for packaged pantry items, like sauces and pastes, which will keep almost indefinitely, it pays big to hit up a real Thai market every few months. Here are a few items to look for:
Fish Sauce Fish sauce is indispensable to Thai cooking. At Whole Foods, we found just one choice for the plain version — a small bottle (7 ounces) priced at $3.19. At Bangkok Center Grocery, on Mosco Street, a 23-ounce bottle goes for $1.50.
Curry Paste Whole Foods stocks curry paste from a company out of Northern California, Thai Kitchen, which appeals to Americans partly because of its “upscale and engaging packaging,” as the website puts it. A 4-ounce jar of curry paste is $2.99. At Asia Market Corporation, the Thai brand, Maesri curry is 75 cents for the same size. Another Thai brand, Maeploy, is available in 14-ounce jars for $1.85 and in 35-ounce jars for $3.50.
Sriracha The ubiquitous hot sauce, which originated in a seaside town by the same name, is great on all kinds of food. Whole Foods prices it at $3.99 for 18 ounces. At Bangkok Center Grocery, a variety of brands are available. The most common one, with its trademark rooster on the label, is Tuong Ot Sriracha, from California. It costs $2.75 for 17 ounces.
Shrimp Paste One of the most widely used Thai ingredients, this intense paste is made of salted, dried, and fermented shrimp. Whole Foods searched far and wide to find the one brand of shrimp paste that does not contain MSG. It cost $2.99 for eight ounces. At Asia Market Corporation, another Thai brand is $3.50 for 14 ounces.
The best fresh produce
If you don’t live near Chinatown, it’s more of a schlep to travel there for produce than to stock up on pantry items that will last a long time, but some of the most overpriced items we found at Whole Foods are vegetables, so it’s all a personal choice about the value of convenience. Chinatown’s vegetable stands are a great resource for Western cooking as well as Asian.
Ginger Root and Galangal At Whole Foods, fresh ginger is $3.98 or $7.98 per pound (“conventional” or organic), while at a vegetable stand like Hung Lee Co. on Bayard Street, it’s a $1.20. At Hung Lee, you can find fresh galangal (a spicier member of the ginger family and another Thai staple) for $4.20. Whole Foods doesn’t have it.
Long Beans Whole Foods stocks long beans, which are as the name suggests — similar to string beans, but denser and very long. Unfortunately, on a recent visit, they were speckled with brown spots, drying out in their basket, and cost $7.98 per pound. At most Chinatown vegetable stands, like Hung Lee and Shing Hing Trading Corp., a pristine bunch is priced at $2 per pound.
Kaffir Lime Leaves Picked from almost juiceless Kaffir limes, these leaves are used like an herb, adding a bright, citrus flavor to many Thai dishes. They will keep in the fridge for up to a month. Whole Foods only carries organic Kaffir lime Leaves from Jacobs Farm, which come in 0.9-ounce packages for $2.49 (equivalent to almost $40 per pound). At Asia Market Corporation, they are $30 per pound.
Lemongrass These tangy stalks are essential to hot and sour soups and curries, either simmered in stock or pounded into a paste. Dried varieties are a poor substitution. They cost $3.98 per pound at Whole Foods, and just $2 per pound at Asia Market Corporation.