5 unusual Thai cooking ingredients to find in fresh markets in Bangkok
The staples of Thai cuisine – chillies, lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, garlic, fish sauce, coconut milk – are well known to foodies around the world. But Bangkok’s plethora of sensory-overload-inducing fresh markets hold a wealth of secrets for those willing to put in the work hunting down hard-to-find unique local ingredients. These are the Thai ingredients to seek out at your local fresh market in order to take your Thai cooking prowess to the next level.
Okra probably isn’t a vegetable that you associate with Thai cooking – it’s more well known for its prominence in middle-eastern cuisine – but you might be surprised to find that it’s easily found at local Thai fresh markets in Bangkok and elsewhere around Thailand.
Okra shares distant relations with the hibiscus plant family, perhaps most famous in foodie circles for producing the roselle flowers used in tea and iced infusions – so it’s not altogether surprising, albeit it is fairly confusing, that the two share a name in Thai: dok grajiab for hibiscus or roselle flower, and pak grajiab for (literally) hibiscus vegetable or okra.
Middle-eastern cooking aside, okra is a great vegetable to use in a healthy adaptation of your favourite everyday Thai stir-fry. It also works well in green or red curry, or a curry-paste-based stir-fry served over rice, as well as in a gaeng-liang-style, vegetable-forward Thai soup.
This one is something of a clever foodie hack, and the not-so-well-guarded secret of chef Alyssa Han at The Market Experience’s cooking school in the heart of Pak Khlong Talat wholesale flower market in Bangkok. One ingredient you’ve almost certainly not yet noticed hiding in plain sight, during your walks through Bangkok’s numerous spectacular fresh markets, is limestone powder. And even if you have noticed it, all but the most knowledgeable of Thai foodies would likely have next to no clue as to when or how to use it.
As Alyssa explains during her Thai Cooking With A Twist workshops, a little limestone water added to a tempura batter mixture helps to radically reduce its temperature – doing away with the usual need for tempura batter to be chilled in the fridge before use, and ensuring that the tempura perfectly crisps up into crunchy heaven the second it hits the hot oil in the wok or frying pan.
Although not commonly called for in mainstream English-language Thai recipes – and almost certainly a challenge to find overseas – limestone water is a life-changing ingredient to have on hand when making dishes like Alyssa’s flower tempura that brings to life the best of Pak Khlong Talat flower market’s edible offerings.
You might have to hunt for it a little bit, but at most local Thai markets you’ll find small bags of reddish-pink limestone powder (known in Thai as boon sai) for sale at general grocery shops and stalls – the kind usually touting numerous varieties of rice, eggs, bottled condiments, and perhaps a selection of herbs and vegetables – for as little as 10 baht. To use it, combine a teaspoon of the powder with a litre of water, allow the sediment to settle, and then spoon it off to substitute half of the amount of regular or soda water called for in your tempura recipe.
Congealed pig or chicken blood makes a prominent appearance in the most authentic and delicious versions of chicken green curry, where small cubes of it float in the curry’s soupy base alongside the main meat component, vegetables like baby and pea aubergines, and herbaceous horapa sweet basil leaves.
At your local market, you’ll usually find it for sale at the stalls selling fresh whole chickens and various chicken joints, fillets and innards. The congealed blood comes in a round block, referred to in Thai as a wheel, likely around 12cm in diameter and around 3cm in thickness. One wheel is almost certainly far more than you’ll need for a big serving of green curry or whichever other dish you’re making, but it’s often the smallest quantity blood is available in, and in any case it usually goes for as little as 7 baht a piece.
Fresh markets in Bangkok and elsewhere around Thailand are a fairytale-like heaven for cooks keen on the dizzying array of pungently scented herbs. Those with a passing knowledge of Thai cuisine might already be familiar with the likes of krapao (holy basil, famed for its namesake stir-fry pad krapao), horapa (sweet basil, which makes an appearance in green curry among other dishes), and bai makrut (kaffir lime leaves, prominent in plenty of dishes including penang curry) – but there’s plenty more to discover beyond those most common specimens.
Make a beeline for the likes of cumin leaves (bai yila, also known as krapao khwai or buffalo basil, and a key ingredient in jungle curry and other dishes), lemon basil (bai maenglak, also known as hairy basil and which features in gaeng liang soup as well as accompanying kanom jeen rice noodles), Asian pennywort (bai bua bok, used as an iced infusion and in an eponymous salad), and Chinese chives (gui chai, which make an appearance in steamed chive dumplings and more evidently in pad thai).
Of course, Thai fresh markets are also a breeding ground for crazily verdant selections of all manner of other ingredients that are central to the country’s cuisine: expect especially countless options when it comes to selecting chillies, coriander, mushrooms, onions, shallots, garlic and ginger variants (ginger itself, known as khing, plus galangal or kha, and wild ginger or krachai). And then there’s also the usual suspects of lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, mint, pandan leaves, and much more besides.
With The Market Experience’s cooking studio based right smack bang in the middle of the trading action at Bangkok’s famous Pak Khlong Talat 24-hour wholesale flower market, it goes without saying that we’re a bit potty when it comes to anything and everything floral. And we’re here to tell you that, when it comes to flowers in Thailand, you need to let yourself imagine their uses beyond just brightening and freshening up your home or hotel room.
That’s precisely the reason flowers make regular and relatively high-profile appearances at fresh food markets around Bangkok and all over Thailand – because, apart from just looking beautiful, many Thai flowers play a central role in a range of Thai dishes that are much loved here but far less well known abroad.
Almost all coming in both fresh and dried form – but with various different levels of difficulty associated in tracking them down, depending on the market you’re at – Thai flowers well worth hunting out include dok anchun butterfly pea flowers, dok grajiab roselle flowers, dok sanow sesbania flowers, dok khae hummingbird flowers, and dok krachon cowslip creeper flowers. The first two are predominantly used in iced tea infusions, while the latter three often make their way into stir-fries and omelettes among other savoury dishes.
These and plenty of other edible Thai flowers also make great accompaniments to pad thai and other renowned dishes, or can add a splash of colour to the kind of floral tempura we like to cook up at The Market Experience.
What are your favourite finds at Thai fresh markets? Let us know in the comments!
Okra photo by shankar s.; vegetable and herb market stall photo via Pixabay; all other photos by Chris Wotton