I will be leaving for Thailand in just over a month and the other day I wanted to try my hand at cooking something Thai. I was in the mood for soup. In scoping out the half dozen or so Thai restaurants around Albany I’ve been discovering the wonderful soups of Thailand, most notably Tom Kha and Tom Yum which appear on virtually every Thai menu in the States. Tom Kha is a mild to spicy broth, usually chicken broth thickened slightly with some coconut milk. Thin slices of chicken and mushroom are added and finally garnished with cilantro just before serving. The Tom Yum soup is a Thai Hot and Sour soup with an ingredient list similar to Tom Kha just without the coconut milk. I had a small jar of Thai red curry paste in the cupboard and found a recipe for Tom Kha soup that looked easy enough to make. I always have garlic and chicken broth on hand, so I made a list of a few other ingredients I needed and headed out.
It had been quite a while since I’d been to the Asian market and it smelled liked I remembered. The fish counter is right near the entrance, dead fish, crustaceans, and other seas creatures on ice and a bank of live fish swimming in crowded tanks. Old fish, that’s the smell that hits you and stays in your nostrils as you walk around the store. Just beyond the fish counter and to the left is the refrigerated section for produce. I picked out a thick stalk of lemongrass and two limes, a bag of fresh cilantro and a knob of ginger. The Thai brand coconut milk and fish sauce came next.
The market wasn’t too busy and my nose had gotten used to the fish smell, so I ambled. It was a good time to acquaint myself with other Asian foods I will likely encounter when I get to Southeast Asia. I wanted to get used to the bright packaging and the foreign ingredients. I walked past cans and jars of pickled this and brined that and a dizzying assortment of dipping sauces, chili sauces, soy, oyster and fish sauces until I came to the cookie and candy aisle. I love my chocolate but I had read somewhere that the chocolate situation in Thailand is not a good one, that quality chocolate is hard to find. I would need to find another vice.
There are 7-Eleven convenient stores all over Thailand. According to Wikipedia there are 7,816 of them, third only to Japan with over 15000 and 8100 in the US. I thought I’d get a jump on familiarizing myself with some of the Asian cookies, dried fruits, crackers, nuts and candy that I’ll most likely encounter at the corner store. I stopped in the cookie aisle and looked for the somewhat familiar Thai script I had been seeing in my Peace Corps files. There were boxes and bags with Chinese characters, Korean and Vietnamese characters and a few I couldn’t readily decipher. But the distinctive Thai script was easy to spot and I studied the labels and the pictures and tried to figure out exactly what was inside. I found a selection of boxes with pictures of cream filled cakes. Most of the labels had photographs of the contents, prettily displayed plates laid out with three cakes, one invariably cut open to show the cream oozing out of the center. I stared at one box for quite some time, not really knowing what the flavoring was. It was green and to me looked like lime, but there are quite a few tropical fruits popular in Thailand that I’m unfamiliar with and that green substance could easily be guava, breadfruit, or custard apple for all I knew.
Further down the aisle were a few canisters of peanuts that caught my eye. Peanuts are another fallback junk food staple of mine, usually the dry roasted ones. But here on the top shelf stood Coconut flavored, BBQ flavored and Tom Yum flavored peanuts. Soup flavored nuts, I thought. Hmmmm. This nutty assortment was from Thailand and luckily all the packaging was in English. I read the ingredients: yeast, capsicum (hot pepper), lemongrass, sugar, salt, shrimp, squid, cocoa. Wait, what? Squid and cocoa? My mind automatically rationalized that this product could possibly fulfill my soup obsession. Not just that, but it could satisfy my chocolate craving in a pinch as well. I opened them as soon as I got home and you know what? They were pretty good. Score.