We live in a city full of folks who have emigrated from their home countries, leaving much of their lives behind. But many bring with them some of their traditional practices — especially in the kitchen. So, when faced with yet another burgeoning bunch of Thai Basil, do not fret. Doing some exploration into the hidden corners of Chinatown can help expand your culinary horizons and unlock grand new opportunities.
At any street market in Chiang Mai, you’ll find a plentitude of basil varieties including Thai basil (ho ra pa), lemon basil (maeng luck), holy basil (kra prao), and the traditional American sweet basil — each unique in flavor and application. You can even find a type of eggplant (ma kua puang) that is said to be prohibited from importing to the United States! When ordering panaeng curry (pha naeng moo) in Thailand, you’ll often find these delightful “pea eggplants” in your dish.
Aside from restricted ingredients, there are also plenty of exotic food items available in this city, which are as diverse at its inhabitants. I have two favorite locations for picking up the otherwise hard-to-find traditional Thai cooking components. Asia Market Corp (71 Mulberry St) has the fresh produce that can typically be found at markets in Thailand. This is a great place to find fresh produce like durian (thoo rian) and the main ingredient for making green papaya salad (som tam). At Bangkok Center Grocery (104 Mosco St.) you’ll be able to peruse cramped isles packed with all sorts of non-perishable items like sauces and dried spices as well as a huge array of pre-packaged and frozen foods.
With some Thai garlic (kra thiam), specialty Thai chilies (phrik chee fah), vegetarian fish sauce (nam blah), and palm sugar (nam taan peep), I was able to use the Hepworth fresh corn and Thai basil to create this summery corn salad with a Thai twist. Because the unique anise flavor of Thai basil is more stable under high cooking temperatures, it can be used in stir-fried dishes that you might otherwise avoid when using traditional American sweet basil.
Though the CSA may provide the same items for several consecutive weeks at a time, keep in mind that there’s an entire universe of culinary delight out there and a lot of it can be found just a few blocks away. There’s no reason to allow monotony to pervade your kitchen during CSA season. So when you’re all pesto-ed out, think outside of the box … and below Canal Street.