What to buy in a Thai grocery store: best curry pastes, tea and more
The Thai grocery store is my safe place. Whether I’m jumping down the huge aisles of Lax-C – affectionately known as the Thai version of Costo in Los Angeles – or sorting fish sauces at the smaller Bangkok Center grocery store in Lower Manhattan, I still feel at home among curry pasta, pineapple crackers and frozen fermented sausages. That’s enough to get me on the train to Queens for a chance to buy my favorite desserts or drive through Los Angeles at rush hour for a box of my favorite instant noodles.
I have to admit that for the uninitiated, a Thai grocery store can be a bit intimidating. The products are often in different languages, Thai of course, but also Vietnamese and Chinese. There are dozens of fish sauces that contain three crabs, a squid, or other underwater creatures as well as curry pastes in jars and packages.
But don’t be afraid! The Thai grocery store is also an oasis of crisp flavors, culinary shortcuts, and amazing snacks. Here are the must-have items I pick up when I stop by a Thai grocery store.
Our Favorite Thai Foods and Drinks
instant noodles mom
The best instant noodles of all time are a hotly debated topic. The answers vary depending on who you ask and where they are from. My Thai grandmother always had Mama instant noodles in stock and made them for me, with a hard-boiled egg, ground pork, cilantro and chopped green onions. May the nostalgic flavor be ingrained in my brain and remain my favorite brand of instant noodles. There are so many flavors to choose from, like spicy pork, green curry, and chicken, but the creamy tom yum got me through college and continues to be what I’m looking for at home. .
I hate to make sweeping statements, but really every Thai has a bottle of fish sauce stored in their house. There are even vegan versions now that replicate that same funky, umami flavor! If you want to cook Thai food efficiently, you need to get yourself a bottle of fish sauce. Fortunately, there are a bunch of bottles to choose from. I hesitate between the Squid brand with a green cap – which is extremely tangy – and the three crab brand which has a pink and blue label and is a little more subtle (or as subtle as it gets with a fish sauce).
Hale’s Blue Boy Syrup
Thai kids always argue over which Hale’s superior flavor is: red, a sala-flavored syrup that’s more magenta than red, or green, which is supposed to mimic the flavor of cream soda. Neither is correct as the most underrated is the harder to find translucent yellow, a jasmine syrup when mixed with soda or milk that smells heady like the delicate flower. Nonetheless, the sticky metal cap of Hale syrups makes them a wonderful crushed ice, milky drink, or a base for sparkling soda water. It’s a beloved staple in Thai homes when you crave something sweet.
I applaud anyone who makes their own curry paste from scratch. The process involves collecting a bunch of ingredients, toasting lots of spices, and manually grinding a paste into the heaviest mortar and pestle you’ve ever used in your life (or removing the food processor, which is a test in itself). It’s not for everyone and the curry pastes from the store can be just as delicious. Maesri, Lobo and Aroy-D are all classic brands and come in flavors like panang, massaman, yellow, green, etc.
I try not to buy those peanuts anymore or bring them to my mom, who can finish an entire can in one go. It’s understandable: Koh-Kae peanuts are covered in a crunchy tasting shell that makes for a nutty, buttery, and subtly sweet snack. They are difficult to lay and come in flavors like tom yum, shrimp, sweet chili and wasabi. The best, in my opinion, is the coconut cream version
Tao Kae Noi seaweed
When I lived in Thailand I would venture out at 7-11 after school to pick up a bag of Tae Kae Noi seaweed. It’s the perfect snack between lunch and dinner and comes in so many flavors. There’s a tempura-crusted version, a giant seaweed roll that you can eat like a beef jerk stick, and even spicy flakes. Pick it up and crumble it over your bowl of Emily Mariko Salmon Rice.
You can call these cookies, you can call them crackers. Either way, these pineapple jam sandwiches are one of my favorite things to buy at the Thai grocery store. The cracker part is so buttery and sweet while the pineapple jam is chewy and a bit tart, giving a great balance of flavor. I don’t have a specific brand that I’m buying. Every grocery store is different, and crackers come in different shapes, such as regular rectangles or adorable flowers. If you see them, get them. Believe me.
Pretz cookie sticks
So technically, Pretz, which is under the umbrella of Glico, is a Japanese brand. But the Thais went ahead and turned those tasty Pocky sticks into flavors like larb, tom yum, and Thai chili paste. The larb has always been my favorite – it’s literally salty, a bit tart and grassy, ââjust like the Thai salad – but they’re all delicious.
Thai tea is obvious. It’s the bright orange drink loaded with condensed milk that you get at your local Thai restaurant and can finally make at home. But apart from the standard Thai tea, I also like to buy the Thai version of green tea. Similar to the Thai tea you know and love, it’s made with condensed milk and extremely creamy, but a bit more floral thanks to green tea. I like the ChaTraMue brand for both types of tea, which is also sometimes referred to as the number one brand.
Mae Ploy Sweet Chili Sauce
You know this sauce. You’ve had it before with fried wontons, crispy spring rolls and chicken wings. Mae Ploy is the one found in most Thai homes – sticky and sweet, with the most subtle flicker of heat. My mom always keeps this in our pantry for grilled chicken dinners. Personally, I like to dip sticky rice spheres that I rolled in and put them in my mouth.
I have never come across a Thai sausage that I did not like. Isaan sausage loaded with chillies and vermicelli or sticky rice, sai oua or northern Thai sausage filled with chopped lemongrass and galangal fillets, and naem (tangy fermented pork sausage) all have a place in my. heart and in my freezer. They should also have a place in yours. Whenever I have a craving, I take them out, thaw them and put them in the air fryer. You can pretend you are in a Thai night market.
Where to shop for Thai groceries
There is no national Thai grocery chain in America like the Patel brothers or Mitsuwa. However, if you live in a city with a large Thai population – Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Dallas, DC, New York, to name a few – you’ll be sure to find a spot.
Growing up in Los Angeles, we always went to Bangluck Market and Silom Supermarket for general groceries and Lax-C for bulk items. When I lived in New York I used to stop at Central Bangkok grocery store on your way home from work or venture to Woodside, Queens for 3 aunts market in Pata (which also serves amazing hot food and Thai desserts).
Outside of Washington DC, Bangkok 54 is small but mighty in its selection, and also offers a variety of hot noodle soups to sip on when you stop by.
If you don’t have a Thai grocery store in your neighborhood, many of these items can also be found in Vietnamese, Laotian, Burmese, and Chinese grocery stores.