(A few) Asian grocery options for Germantown and Manayunk

img_5361cropped

Binto Market & Cafe


Regular readers of this blog may be surprised to find that for the past 3 years, I have been living about as far away from any Asian market as can possibly be in Philadelphia. Perhaps that has helped to drive me to continue to explore Philly’s many neighborhoods. This has also meant finding the most efficient street networks to bike all over the city to reach our many markets. I’ve gotten pretty good at getting around the city. That said, my own neighborhoods (Germantown and later, Roxborough) remained about 3 miles to the nearest Asian market.

But no longer! Over the summer there have been a couple of nice developments that will will directly influence my quality of life going forward, including Asian grocery options in Germantown and Manayunk…


Chelten Market IGA International Food Market (176 Chelten Ave). The grocery store at the corner of Wayne and Chelten in Germantown used to be a Pathmark, and it used to be the closest store to us when we lived in Germantown—it had been a basic grocery store for mainstream American food choices and it wasn’t very interesting. Over the summer the store has  changed into Chelten Market IGA. I can’t say that this is a full Asian or international market—in fact it largely maintains the look and stock of the prior Pathmark, and has kept many of the same staff  and they even still have their corny announcements on the PA (which I do enjoy). What has changed is a slightly more expanded produce section with items like lemongrass, daikon,  napa cabbage, and a few bok chois (though today lemongrass and daikon were quite old), and more importantly to the purposes of this blog, there is also “international” aisle that has an unusual mix of Asian items. There you can find several things that can’t be found in more mainstream US markets: Glutinous rice from Thailand, fish sauce, Mama brand instant noodles, basic staples for making Japanese and Korean foods. There is also a decent Caribbean section. It seems there is some effort to stock things for the local community, including the neighborhood’s growing Asian community (mostly students at Philadelphia University and Drexel University College of Medicine).  The most impressive addition to the store is the freezer section, which contains a large selection of Korean and Chinese dumplings, mantou, mandu Chinese youtiao.


Binto Market & Cafe (part of Chabaa Thai Bistro’s expansion at 4345 Main Street in Manayunk). This newly established market (named after the stacked lunch box popular in Japan and Thailand–2 countries that fittingly reflect the specialty food items inside) has surprising and unusual mix of high-end Japanese, Chinese, Thai, and Vietnamese pantry staples and snacks. Even more surprising is the refrigerated section of rare and crucial Southeast Asian vegetables (they had 4 types of eggplant for example, as well as lotus stems, kaffir lime leaves, etc). The market is light on leafy greens, but is seems the fresh veg stock may be on rotation.

Prices are a little higher than Southeast Asian markets in South Philly, but you might expect that for a boutique market in Manayunk… Thai mortars and pestles line the shelves on the wall (which you can barely see in the above image), and are also for sale. They are also packing quick meals out of Chabaa’s kitchen, with daily specials that range from pho, to grilled chicken and papaya salad, to banh mi sandwiches. The clerks are Thai and speak Thai fluently. They let me custom order an Isaan-style papaya salad! For my purposes, this will be a valuable new option for stopping by to pick up a few things for a Thai meal on the way home from work.

Posted in - Featured Food Discoveries, - Featured Markets, Japanese food, Korean food, Thai/Lao food | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Selamat pagi, Yogyakarta: a surprisingly rich and savory chicken rice porridge for breakfast

IMG_5225I’ll start by saying that I’m not one for sweet breakfasts. As regular readers will know (ex. 1, ex. 2, ex. 3), I prefer savory foods leftover from the night before to American breakfast cereal or glazed donuts. A recent trip to Yogyakarta, Indonesia brought savory breakfasts to a new level for me–and using simple rice porridge as a vehicle! This is explained in the following post.

Rice porridge (or congee) is a very common meal in East and Southeast Asia. It is remarkably filling and it is an easy-to-digest anytime food.

Perhaps to many readers, rice porridge will best known as a breakfast, a late night snack, or as a part of dim sum varied offerings in southern China and among Chinese emigre communities in Chinatowns around the world. In those locations it is generally known as 粥 zhou (Mandarin) or juk or jok in southern dialects. In Philadelphia, my favorite location for juk is sadly about to close down. Heung Fa Chun Sweet House, You will be missed!

Rice porridge is very easily prepared. Just overboil the rice in too much water to the point that it breaks down to a mush (1.5-2 hours). Sometimes it is boiled together with pork, fish, chicken, and/or eggs. It can then be seasoned with soy sauce, black or white pepper, fresh ginger, cilantro, green onion, fried garlic. It is delicious and classic. Below you can see an example of a great Sino-Thai version.

las jok

This is an example of Sino-Thai jok โจ๊ก 粥 -  my idea of what is amazing rice porridge. Courtesy La Sripanawongsa

In Southeast Asia, rice porridge is built off that same Chinese classic, largely due to the enormous ethnic Chinese populations that relocated to Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and Cambodia over the past hundred or so years. In most of those renditions you can still see vestiges of Chinese influence to the crucial accompaniments to this dish: deep fried dough, soy sauce, pickled Chinese cabbage. All of those are still standard in southern China, as well as in other places where southern Chinese have settled.

Somehow in Indonesia, that simple presentation of rice porridge wasn’t enough. From what I can gather through my travels in person and online, rice porridge in Indonesia is anything but boring. Just to give you a sense of how different rice porridge can be there, try following these two links: a Google image search for Chinese-style rice porridge, zhou 粥, and an image search for Indonesian bubur ayam “chicken porridge”. Do you see what I mean? For the first link you have recognizable congee or porridge, and in the other link, there’s party in a bowl.

My bubur ayam experience was eye-opening for me, though the preparation I regularly had in Yogyakarta was a little different than examples I see in videos online that are perhaps more Jakarta-focused (See here for one such entertaining video example from Mark Wiens of migrationology.com as he explores a Jakarta bubur ayam stall).

The experience that I am trying to replicate is from Hotel Meliá Purosani in Yogyakarta. Their’s was a rice porridge cooked thick in chicken broth, lumped into a bowl, covered with crunchy, pickled and salty Indo-Chinese toppings AND THEN topped with an intensely flavored coconut curry-like soup. That left quite an impression on me. Pickled cabbage, cilantro, white pepper, and crunchy deep fried dough were very familiar pairings to me, but the curry soup thing took things to a new and different level. I had to try it at home. Below are my first efforts on a “next-level” congee, followed by a recipe of sorts:

 

Bubur ayam Meliá Purosani – Chicken porridge à la Hotel Meliá Purosani

  • Step 1. Prepare intense savory chicken soup (for later topping). That recipe requires a recently discussed salam leaf, and will likely be a basic soto recipe that is chicken or beef based. I adapted largely from an excellent recipe posted online from André Chiang at Snapguide.com. See the photo series below of my version, and compare to Andre’s version. This soup can be prepared the night before if need be.

 

  • Step 2. Boil some rice in chicken broth. I used a few generous scoops of cooked jasmine rice, with leftover chicken broth from my soto experiment. Boil for as long as it takes so you don’t recognize the grains anymore. Don’t leave it alone for too long though, stir every 10 minutes or so otherwise it will burn on the bottom. If it is getting too thick and sticking too much, just add more broth or water. It will probably take 1.5 hours.
  • Step 3: While the rice is cooking, prepare all other toppings (besides the soup). That might mean baking or frying crunchy bits, and chopping green aromatics. Any or all of the following may apply…

BONUS: Chinese/Southeast Asian rice porridge topping guide

  1. Deep fried dough. In Chinatown and internationally, this item is likely best known by its Mandarin Chinese name, youtiao 油条 (see below image. If you find it at the fridge section it will likely be labeled as “Chinese cruller”, “Chinese donut” or “油条”). Among Chinese emigre communities it might also be referred to as “oil fried devil” 油炸鬼 you zha gui, or how they are referred to in Indonesia after being that name was transmitted in Hokkien: cahkwe.
    Assuming you don’t get them freshly deep-fried and find them in the fridge section, bake in your oven at 350 for 10 minutes or until starting to crisp. Then you can cut them up smaller if you like.
  2. Soy sauce. Kecap (have you heard the story about how our “ketchup” is related to Southeast Asian/Chinese sauces? If not, check this Codeswitch page. You can use different soy sauces to your preference. Basic soy sauces from China/Japan/Korea are very salty, of course. In Yogyakara, most prefer sweet soy sauce for their porridge, or kecap manis. Image below.
  3. Chopped cilantro and green onion. These are pretty standard everywhere.
  4. Pickled cabbage/other vegetable. At the hotel, they used a pale colored salty vegetable that I find is very similar to the Lychee Brand pickled cabbage (product of Thailand). In Indonesian, this may be referred to as tongcai “tongchai” 冬菜 (dongcai in Mandarin).
  5. Fried soy nuts/soy beans. These I haven’t seen in China besides as toppings for Guilin noodles. It must not be so common for southern Chinese cooking, since they are not commonly found Asian groceries. You can get fried/roasted soy nuts at health food stores, or places like The Head Nut at Reading Terminal Market. If possible, seek out lightly salted or unsalted soy nuts. For dishes like the bubur ayam, all of the other toppings are already salty.IMG_5111
  6. Ground white pepper. This may be a universal, but Southeast Asia is the home for this spice.
  7. Other crunchy fried toppings, like Emping bumbu (melinjo chips), deep fried noodles, etc. If you use emping chips, deep fry them first! I didn’t and it was awful. You’ll notice I had a raw one in my otherwise beautifully prepared bowl above. If you fry them, they crisp up like a poppadom.
  8. Chopped Chinese celery.
  9. Dried pork, beef, or fish sung or “floss”. This is known as 肉松 rou song in Chinese. It’s like meat cotton candy. See here for a wiki entry on the stuff.
  10. Fried garlic. This is a standard topping in Thailand. Just chopped garlic fried until completely dry and golden in oil. Fried shallots might be also used in Indonesia.
IMG_5193

Batman view of toppings for this meal. Clockwise from the soup: pepper grinder for white pepper, sweet soy sauce, green onions, Chinese celery, emping chips (remember, fry those first), fried dough (youtiao, aka, cahkwe), shredded chicken from the soup, fried shallots or better yet fried garlic, Chinese preserved cabbage, cilantro, and soy nuts in the middle.

Posted in - Featured Food Discoveries, - Recipes, - Unique food traditions, Chinese food, Malay/Indonesian food, Thai/Lao food | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Salam leaf, an essential flavor in Indonesian cooking

IMG_5059 copy

What you are seeing above is NOT a bay leaf. I say this because it seems like a majority of all recipe sites and blogs online, as well as cookbooks translate daun salam as “bay leaf” in English. In fact, it comes from a totally different order and family of trees (Syzygium polyanthum), and it yields a VERY different flavor from that of the Mediterranean variety, which comes from the laurel family (Laurus nobilis).

Recipes from Indonesia that use this ingredient are honestly too abundant to list here. It is one of the most common aromatics from Sumatra, Java, and Bali. One such common, everyday dish is “chicken soup” (soto ayam). That will be a planned post in the coming week. In addition, Indonesian cooking does not typically use the western bay leaf. So, if you have an Indonesian cookbook that calls for bay leaves, daun salam is what you are looking for.

If you are interested in trying your hand at Indonesian cooking, this ingredient is well worth seeking out. It adds an subtle yet unmistakable sweet and savory flavor. I find it has a flavor between cardamom and cinnamon.

In Philadelphia you can find this at nearly any of the several Indonesian corner stores in South Philly, imported under the Wayang brand. I highlighted several shops that would carry this in a previous post, but I got today’s batch of leaves from One Stop Shop, on the corner of S. 16th and Morris streets.

IMG_5063

If you open a bag of these leaves, you won’t smell much of a fragrance. You really need to cook with them to release their aroma. Frying 3-4 leaves in some oil or boiling them in some coconut milk turns on their flavor.

In Javanese and Balinese cooking, the fresh version of daun salam is widely used, and you can witness giant piles of the leaves at most fresh markets.

Bay leaf confusion. Just to give you a sense of how these leaves look compared to other “bay leaves”, see the image below for things I’ve acquired recently:

IMG_5059

Typically referred to as “bay leaves”: on left, Mediterranean variety from Turkey, in middle daun salam from Indonesia, and finally on the right, UNKNOWN from a recent shopping trip in Thailand. I thought I was maybe buying a Thai variety of daun salam, and it is labeled as “cardomom leaf” (which, just to confuse matters is how “bay leaf” translates into Thai!). I now suspect that it is actually yet another leaf that is typically labeled “bay leaf”: Cinnamomum tamala, a.k.a. Indian bay leaf, or tejpat leaf. There are still other “bay leaves” out there, but these represent the most common in Eurasia.

 

Posted in - Featured Food Discoveries, Malay/Indonesian food | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Kassod tree leaves and a leafy Thai curry with grilled fish (gaeng khiilek)

IMG_5037I am back after a nearly four month hiatus. Although I didn’t report on them as they were happening, over these past several months I was fortunate enough to have many incredible food experiences in Mongolia, China, Thailand, and Indonesia–experiences that I will reflect upon as I post going forward this fall.

Most recently I was in Thailand for a week. Food was of course, wonderful. Of particular note and following a trend of my own recent food interests, I appreciated the incredible diversity of vegetal leaves, sprigs, vines, and pods in local cuisines of North and Northeastern Thailand. I tend to be drawn to dishes that include a lot of greens, and in Thailand this idea goes way beyond “salad”. Today, back in Philadelphia, I am cooking to recreate one such food memory of a leafy curry—a curry that is simply named after the savory leaves of the kassod tree (Senna Siamea-see here for an image search of what these trees and flowers look like). In Thai, the name is khiilek ขี้เหล็ก.

IMG_5047English names for this tree vary: kassod, cassod, [Siamese] cassia. To keep things simple, I will refer to them by the Thai name, khiilek (pronounced “keelek”). The leaves and flowers of this tree taste a bit like cardamom, but the leaves should not be eaten raw due to a toxin that can damage the liver. If you have fresh leaves/flowers available, they should be boiled and squeezed of water 2 or 3 times before using in final cooking preparations.

Because of its toxicity in its raw state, as a cooking ingredient khiilek is generally used in soups throughout Thailand and Myanmar. In Thailand, the dish gaeng khiilek แกงขี้เหล็ก, or “khiilek soup” can be found in most any rice and soup stand or market. There are regional variations, however, with what goes into this “soup”. You can get a sense of regional diversity by seeing an image search for khiilek soup. You may notice that the soup seems to come in different colors: dark brown, green, and a pale orange. This difference is primarily whether the soup base is a coconut curry (popular in Southern, Central, North-central Thailand), or as an herbal soup, as it is in Northeastern Thailand.

Today I am trying the coconut curry version.

IMG_0316

“Pickled Cassia Leaves”. I wouldn’t have used the word “pickled” but rather “canned”. It is nice to see new imports from Thailand with nicer labeling, however.

I found the leaves in jarred form at a Cambodian market in North Philadelphia, Seng Hong market. As usual, I checked the name in Thai to be sure I was buying the thing I thought it was. If you cannot do this, ask the shopkeeper (smaller shops in North and South Philly are best for this). This can be found in the jarred/canned Southeast Asian section of the market. At the large markets on Washington Ave, the jars don’t have Thai writing, but are labeled as “Cassia”.

Today’s effort was kind of experimental, based heavily on research of Thai language blog posts and videos. The curry paste that is generally used for khiilek coconut curry is basically the same as red curry paste (namprik gaengdaeng น้ำพริกแกงแดง), with the addition of rhizome (grachai กระชาย) and tumeric. I followed the advice of Pim and her great blog, “Pim’s family kitchen” ครัวบ้านพิม to use ready-made red curry paste instead of doing that from scratch. Other examples online puree the leaves to produce an effect that is a thick soup. Some may find this a more attractive option, and a good example can be found in a Thai FoodTravelTV video here.

The results were tasty, and I was surprised with the flavor (especially as I was using canned leaves). Below is my first attempt.

Kassod leaf curry with grilled fish – gaeng khiilek plaa yang – แกงขี้เหล็กปลาย่าง

Below are images with captions of other the key ingredients besides khiilek leaves. Approximate amounts: 1 16 oz jar of khiilek leaves, Japanese mackerel, 1/2 lb of pork ribs, 1-2 Tblsp rhizome, 1-2 Tblsp palm sugar, 2 cups coconut milk or cream, water if too thick, fish sauce to taste.

  • Grill fish. I used a charcoal grill with hardwood charcoal. My fish was a Japanese mackerel (cleaned) that was seasoned with a little salt. Grill until golden and crispy on all sides. After it is cool, hand shred the fish meat and remove bones if they will be a nuisance. Parboil pork ribs (optional, and probably less important as this is an opaque curry anyway).
  • Drain and soak khiilek leaves in lots of water. Drain and squeeze dry.
  • Chop rhizome and mash in mortar and pestle. Fry the red curry paste and rhizome in a little oil. Add in the shredded grilled fish and pork ribs.
  • Add in khiilek leaves, and add sugar and more coconut milk/cream or water to cover. Bring to boil.
  • Taste for final seasoning and add palm sugar and/or fish sauce to balance flavors.

Next time I make this, I will experiment with colors and perhaps puree about half of the leaves.

Posted in - Featured Food Discoveries, - Recipes, Thai/Lao food | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Guilin rice noodles for breakfast

IMG_4069

Simplified version of Guilin rice noodles for breakfast

My 2014 posts on Guilin rice noodles (Guilin mifen 桂林米粉 master stock and noodle staging) are two of the most viewed posts on this blog. Google is the primary referrer, and I attribute these search engine queries to: 1. people learning to love the popular and ubiquitous noodle dish in any one of China’s many large cities and then returning home to find no such comparable offerings, and 2. curious people finding this dish for the first time in places like Flushing, NY (see here for Guilin Mifen’s Yelp page).

The process that I introduced in my previous posts requires many ingredients and several hours of boiling or braising meats and boiling down the master stock. That said, once that is done, the master stock can be frozen and thawed repeatedly for semi-instant results later on down the road. Last night I had some meat that I needed to deal with somehow, and I decided to braise it in some frozen stock. This morning that became a simple and delicious Guilin rice noodle breakfast.

IMG_4056Just to review, mifen 米粉 are noodles made from rice flour and water, they are often fermented, and then extruded into foot-long segments.

This style of noodle is most common in the South/Southwest regions of China, from Guizhou south through Yunnan and Guangxi, and further south to Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand.

Between countries and regions, the names of these noodles can vary. In China they are often called “Guilin mifen” (as the package to the left is labeled), but Jiangxi rice noodles are virtually identical. In Vietnam, the thinner variety of rice noodles can be called bún and the thicker kind are known as bánh (and in my prior post on Guilin rice noodles I used a giant bánh). In Thailand they are called khanom jiin ขนมจีน (see here for a past post that discussed how these are used in Thailand).

In Philadelphia we can only find these noodles (to my knowledge anyway) dried. That said, they are available in a wide variety of thicknesses in the bulk noodle section of Asian markets.

Recipe: Simplified Guilin rice noodles

This is less a step-by-step recipe than a set of very basic guidelines. I should say that I am missing a standard ingredient this morning, the crunchy bean/nut topping (usually soy nuts)–see my prior post on this dish to learn about the more common pickles and crunchy toppings. Even without the soy nuts the noodles were still delicious and satisfying.

1. Prepare braising liquid (aka master stock). Thaw it from the freezer, or make it new. I boiled some chunks of pork butt for about an hour last night in the stock.

2. Boil rice noodles. I use a very wide pot for that. In China, noodles are usually about the size of spaghetti, so choose the large size (L), or (XL)–see package above. Rice noodles need more time than pasta and/or egg noodles. The ones I boiled today were cooked with a little bit of a bite at about 15 minutes. You can then drain and rinse the noodles to stop the cooking process, but if you are eating them right away you can just take out the hot noodles into a bowl. If you rinse them, you might like to pass them through boiling water again, just to heat them up–otherwise cold noodles and hot stock would be room temperature very quickly.

3. Depending on how strong your stock is (i.e. how concentrated), you might want to mix in some boiling water (or noodle-boiling water) to the stock that you ladle over the noodles. My stock was not super concentrated, and was very good just on its own. Give it a taste and decide for yourself. After adding the stock and/or boiling water, top off with meat, cilantro, and pickled vegetables. We had some pickled mustard kicking around in the fridge, so that was today’s pickle. Pickled mustard should be rinsed and squeezed dry before chopping.

IMG_4075

Posted in - Featured Food Discoveries, - Recipes, Chinese food | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Vietnamese Plaza in Near Northeast Philadelphia

IMG_3948Regular readers will be familiar with the mission behind this blog… to showcase notable food finds from my exploration of markets of Philadelphia’s Asian diaspora communities. Since I moved to Philadelphia a few years ago I have spent a lot of time navigating such neighborhoods by foot, bicycle, and computer. I really was beginning to think that I had discovered all of the major food centers for Philadelphia’s Asian communities. It seems that is not the case! Today I found a huge plaza with a large and fascinating market, as well as a small collection of cafes and shops specializing in Vietnamese foods. I’d like to share that with you here.

As you can see from the road sign (which is missing some of the plaza’s newer cafes/restaurants) there is a lot of exciting culinary ground here to cover. The plaza’s primary establishment is the large supermarket, named “New Ben City Supermarket”. The plaza is at 5520 Whitaker Ave in Near Northeast Philadelphia.

What is “Ben City”? Is that referring to the city of Ben Franklin? Maybe he founded the first supermarket too? The names of the market in Vietnamese and Chinese provide the actual meaning behind the store’s name, which is also illustrated as a faint image on the market’s sign: the most famous market landmark in Ho Chi Minh City, the Ben Tranh Market, Chợ Bến Thành. The Chinese version of that famous place is on the sign 檳城, but it seems to be more commonly written 濱城.

The actual Bến Thành market in Saigon has a special place in my heart, because I made an important purchase there 20 years ago… a thin-bodied cut-away handmade red acoustic guitar. A real beauty. Unfortunately for me, too many dry winters have now rendered the instrument unplayable…

 

How did I miss this huge and notable marketplace in Philadelphia? In fact, I only learned of it by accident from a business card address for a great Vietnamese cafe on Washington Ave (that recently underwent a face-lift), Như Quỳnh Bakery. I was impressed with that bakery/cafe, with their hot food, banh mi (with in-house baked breads), iced coffee, and desserts. It turns out they have a sister location at the Whitaker Ave location in near Northeast Philly, which prompted my curiosity. This Whitaker plaza is actually very similar to that Washington Ave plaza where Hung Vuong is, with its pho shops, coffee shops, and other businesses.

IMG_3946

So, I jumped on my bicycle and rode over to the area to check it out. I’m happy I did, as the market is great. It has extensive offerings for produce, meat, and fish. Fresh herbs (my last post detailed that topic) are also considerable. There is even a roasted duck and pork section.

I can’t believe I didn’t know this plaza was here, especially when I am a relatively frequent visitor to the Hong Kong Supermarket a few blocks away.

Finally, I stopped by one of the cafes (Tu’s Tea & Bánh Mì) and had a classic banh mi. It was delicious, and umami rich with a sprinkling of chicken stock powder (that might sound disgusting to some… I’ve been noticing that lately at other Asian eateries too) and the traditional pâté. The price was amazing at $3.75.

If you live in Northeast Philly, this might be a great option for you to obtain Southeast Asian ingredients, and getting your pho and banh mi fixes!

Posted in - Featured Food Discoveries, - Featured Markets, Vietnamese food | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

The fresh herb section

 

IMG_3922

All herbs $.79/bag. Labels in Vietnamese, except the word “basil”. Big 8 Supermarket.

Fresh herbs are absolutely key for several Southeast Asian culinary traditions. In particular, foods of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam rely heavily on leafy herbs. Fresh aromatic herbs can easily be the variable that will make a mediocre dish something extraordinary.

In Southeast Asia, fresh herbs top all manner of prepared foods, from soups to stir fries, from salads to leafy wraps. Coarsely chopped herbs are an integral part of the genre of Thai/Lao minced meat salads Laab ลาบ, as well as for the sour mixed salad genre known as yum ยำ. Herbs are important flavor components to stews and stir fries, exemplified with Thailand’s most common street food of holy basil stir fries, and rich soups and stews flavored with cilantro, sawtooth coriander, Thai basil, or dill. Herbs are also crucial in Vietnamese rice paper wraps and noodle dishes. Finally, herbs can simply be served on the side, things to munch on as ideal pairings to various intensely-flavored (usually meat) dishes.

Take one of my favorite cookbooks for example. It is a Thai language cookbook called Saep Isaan [Delicious Isaan] แซบอีสาน, by Ratri Gaewsaengtaam ราตรี แก้วแสงธรรม, published by Amarin Press, 2012. The recipes are written with extensive introductions to a large variety of leaves, herbs, and vines common to the Northeastern region of Thailand (aka Isaan). See how herbs are used in in the dishes on the cover and the back of the book. Notice the pennywort leaves served alongside the cover’s featured dish “smashed beans and crispy pork” (tamthua muukrob). See how most recipes on the back are served paired with fresh herbs. Finally, find the fresh herbs at the bottom, showcased in little glass vases.


Clearly fresh herbs and leaves have an important place at the Isaan table. The same can be said for regions of Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam. While this amazing cookbook introduces about twice as many herbs and leaves than I have had the pleasure to encounter in Philadelphia, we do have several markets that maintain respectable and reliable fresh herb offerings.

The best selections of Asian herbs
Southeast Asian-focused markets have larger selections of fresh herbs than others Asian markets. Chinatown markets, for example, have extensive green vegetable selections, but they won’t have much in terms of herbs besides cilantro and occasional Thai basil and mint. The large Sino-Vietnamese markets on Washington Ave (Hung Vuong at 12th St, Big 8 Supermarket at 16th St–locations for images above) are good places to start. Cambodian markets of North and South Philly (look for dark green pins on my map of Asian Markets) generally carry the same items as the big markets and sometimes have the less commonly encountered items. Some exceptions: Green shiso leaves would be better found at Korean markets. Curry leaves would be more common at South Asian or Indian markets, and western herbs (Rosemary, thyme, oregano, etc) are best sought at mainstream US groceries.

IMG_3924

The fresh herb section (middle shelf) at Hung Vuong Market on Washington Ave

Navigating market offerings
Unfortunately for those of you who are not too familiar with Asian herbs, markets don’t  bother with labeling the herbs in English. That said, many do have hand-written tags in Vietnamese. Sometimes bags are misplaced though, and sometimes things are mislabeled. Offerings are pretty standard at the big markets on Washington, though, where they sell herbs in small pre-sized plastic bags (usually .79 or .89 each–much cheaper than “exotic” herbs for sale in mainstream US groceries). Smaller Cambodian markets might have their herbs pre-bagged or in bulk in large tubs or boxes in the fridge. Sometimes they are just sitting on a counter. Spend some time checking them out, smelling the bags, getting to know what they are. Talk to the shopkeepers–even if they don’t know how to call it in English, they might be able to tell you what to do with it (shopkeepers at small markets in North and South Philly are especially helpful).


A visual directory of common herbs in Southeast Asian cooking

Below is an added bonus of a visual directory of the most typical Southeast Asian herbs taken mostly from past posts, starting with the most common (a few of those you can even find at mainstream US grocers) to the more obscure. Hopefully this helps…


Cilantro (aka coriander). If you are reading this blog, surely you are acquainted. IMG_2557

Dill. Great in soups/stews, or for munching on.IMG_2781

Mint. Great in minced meat salads, Vietnamese wraps, or for munching on.IMG_3348

Chinese garlic chives (jiucai 韭菜). These are the leaves used in a recipe in this poststem and flower discussed in this post.IMG_3289

Thai basil (horapha). Dedicated post here. Not to be confused with holy basil.IMG_2687

Sawtooth coriander. Dedicated post here. This can often be found at Mexican markets too.IMG_1419

Vietnamese mint. Dedicated post here. Sometimes called “Lady’s thumb”.IMG_2556

Rice paddy herb. Nice in fish soups.not semizotu

Kaffir Lime leaves (bai magrut). Dedicated post here.makrut2

Vietnamese balm. (top right in below image).DSC00595

Cha plu leaves. Dedicated post here. Great as wraps for savory bits.IMG_3185

Lemon basil (ii tuu, or maenglak). Great in fish curries, beef stews.DSC00629

Acacia fronds (cha-om). Highlighted in this post. Smells funky but is delicious.IMG_3255

Holy basil (kapao).  Dedicated post here.gapao_01

Pennywort. This is great as an accompaniment, and it is also made into a healthy drink.IMG_2495

Fishmint. Tastes a bit like “Vietnamese mint” and a bit like fish. No joke.IMG_3928

Curry leaves. highlighted in recipe here. Common in South India and Cambodia.IMG_3415

Posted in - Featured Food Discoveries, - Featured Markets, - Guides, Cambodian food, Thai/Lao food, Vietnamese food | Tagged | 3 Comments