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Cha-Om – A Delicious and Nutritious Tropical Acacia

Kasma Loha-unchit, Friday, May 13th, 2011

Cha-om, a tropical member of the acacia family (Acacia pennata) native to mainland Southeast Asia, is a well-loved herby vegetable among Thais, Cambodians and Laotians. The parts that are eaten are the ferny young leaf shoots and tender tips before the stems turn tough and thorny. It has a particular fragrance that may seem unpleasant at first to the unaccustomed, but when it’s cooked up, it’s so tasty that most people can’t stop eating it and the aroma is just part of the package and soon becomes quite likable. This happens a lot whenever cha-om is cooked up in my cooking classes.

Click on an image to see a larger version.
There’s a slide show with all images in this
post at the very bottom (scroll down).

Fresh Cha-Om

Fresh cha-om from Mithapheap

More Fresh Cha-Om

Prickly thorns on lower stepms

De-stemmed Cha-om

De-stemmed, ready to cook

Cha-om is a small shrub with prickly thorns on its branches and stems, though I hear breeders have come up with a thornless variety I have yet to personally come across. In tropical Southeast Asia, it is a fast-growing shrub that puts out new shoots year-round and most robustly during the rainy season. People in some regions, particularly the North, prefer to eat cha-om in the dry season since cha-om grown during the monsoon season tends to develop a tartness and has a much stronger smell. Growers prune the shrubs regularly to harvest the young shoots, wearing long gloves to protect themselves from the nasty thorns. A mature plant can put forth enough shoots for cutting every three days or so. In the more temperate climate of northern California, growth is less profuse and the plants need protection from the cold. They stop producing new shoots when temperatures dip in late fall and stay semi-dormant through the winter.

Cha-om Egg Squares

Cha-om egg squares

The most common way cha-om is cooked is with beaten eggs, like in an omelette, which is then cut into squares or rectangles to serve with pungent nahm prik (hot chilli sauces, usually with fermented shrimp paste – nahm prik kapi in Thai) and fried fish (usually Asian mackerel, or pla too).(See Kasma’s recipe, Pan-Fried Mackerel and Assorted Vegetables with Hot-and-Pungent Fermented Shrimp Dipping Sauce – Nam Prik Pla Too.)

Nam prik pla too

Nam prik pla too

Thai Dipping Sauce

Nam prik with cha-om egg pieces

Cha-om Egg Rounds

Cha-om egg rounds

Cha-om Omelette

Cha-om omelette

Cha-om egg squares are also frequently cooked in a spicy sour tamarind curry with shrimp (kaeng som). One of my favorite restaurants, Mallika, located in the outskirts of Bangkok, makes a fabulous crispy fried cha-om in a ferny nest, topped with a hot-and-sour sauce containing squid, shrimp and chopped pork (yam cha-om gkrawb). It’s one of the first dishes people in my Thailand travel groups get to savor as I usually take them to Mallika for lunch right after picking them up from the airport. Most fall for cha-om and look forward to eating more of it in other dishes through the trip.

Cha-om in Curry

Cha-om egg squares in curry

Dish with Cha-om

Crisp-fried cha-om

Stir-fried Cha-om

Stir-fried cha-om with egg

Because of its fairly assertive flavor and higher price, cha-om is usually not stir-fried by itself like other leafy green vegetables, but is instead used much like an herb to flavor other things cooked with it. For these reasons, it is sold in small bundles in markets across Thailand. Eggs go especially well with cha-om and in my classes, we make a delicious stir-fried cha-om with eggs and bean thread noodles.

Cha-om for Sale

Cha-om at Hua Hin market

Cha-om Bundled for Sale

Cha-om at Krabi market

Cha-om for Sale

Cha-om at Mithapheap

Starting last spring, we’ve been lucky to be able to get cha-om fresh in the Bay Area during the warmer months beginning in April until the weather turns cold in the fall. Being a tropical acacia, cha-om needs warmth to enable it to put forth new shoots. However, there’s only one store I know of that carries the fresh shoots and that’s Mithapheap, a Cambodian market on International Boulevard in Oakland. [Update, May, 2014: Lao Jaleune Market, formerly Heng Fath Market, on 23rd Street in Richmond, CA also carries it on occasion.] Last summer the store even had cha-om starter plants for sale. But the supply is very limited and disappears quickly in spite of its price (retails for around $15 a pound).

 

Cha-om Plants

Cha-om plants at Mithapheap

Sam, who owns Mithapheap, tries to carry as many of the tropical herbs and vegetables that his Southeast Asian clientele craves and misses after immigrating to this country. He’s made an arrangement with farmers he knows in Modesto to grow many of these exotic produce. Among them is cha-om. During the growing season, Sam drives down to the farm two to three times monthly, usually late in the week (often Thursdays) and the produce would be available over the weekend. Cha-om is usually gone within a few days. Since both Michael and I are very fond of cha-om, as are many of my students who’ve been introduced to it, Sam would call or email me whenever he’s been to the farm and brought back cha-om. As soon as I receive the message, I would dash down to the store to pick up some before it disappears and then shoot off a message to my students. Sam is the main fresh cha-om supplier in the Bay Area and many of his big Southeast Asian customers, including some restaurant owners, often place special orders with him and are among the people he would contact whenever he brings cha-om back from the farm.

 

Frozen Cha-om

Frozen cha-om at Mithapheap

Short of being able to get cha-om fresh, it is available for a lower price in 4-oz. packages imported from Thailand in the freezers of several East Bay stores (haven’t checked the Cambodian markets in San Francisco which most likely would have it). Mithapheap sometimes has frozen packages of de-stemmed leaves which make it easier to use and you get more for the same weight. But most frequently, the frozen packages contain cha-om still on the stems. The Laos International Market two blocks further down the same street also regularly carries frozen cha-om and a third store in the same vicinity to check is Thien Loi Hoa on East 12th Street at 12th Avenue.

 

Frozen Cha-om

Frozen Cha-om at Lao Market

Frozen Cha-om

Frozen Cha-om at Thien Loi Hoa

Not only is it delcious, cha-om is a nutritious vegetable, high in vitamin C and beta-carotenes. It is good for the heart and is known to be an anti-cancer agent. There’s nothing like a natural food that tastes great and, at the same time, is good for you!


Click on “Play” below to begin a slideshow. You can also click on any picture individually and either scroll through the images using “Next” and “Prev” or start the slideshow at any image. Captions accompany the images. Clicking on a slide will also take you to the next image.


Kasma’s Cha-om Photo Slide Show

Fresh Cha-Om
More Fresh Cha-Om
De-stemmed Cha-om
Cha-om Egg Squares
Nam prik plah too
Thai Dipping Sauce
Cha-om Egg Rounds
Cha-om Omelette
Cha-om in Curry
Dish with Cha-om
Cha-om for Sale
Cha-om Bundled for Sale
Stir-fried Cha-om
Cha-om for Sale
Cha-om Plants
Frozen Cha-om
Frozen Cha-om
Frozen Cha-om

Fresh cha-om from Sontepheap market in Oakland.

Notice the prickly thorns on the lower part of the stems.

De-stemmed cha-om leaf shoots and tips ready for cooking.

Cha-om egg squares to accompany nam prik and fried fish in the next picture.

Nam prik plah too at Nong Beun in Inburi.

Nam prik with cha-om egg pieces at Mae Sa Valley Resort.

Cha-om egg rounds at Or Tor Kor (Aw Taw Kaw) market.

Cha-om omelette and fried mackerel at a rice shop in Nakhon Si Thammarat.

Sour tamarind curry with cha-om egg squares at Chula in Sukhothai.

Crisp-fried cha-om with hot-and-sour sauce, Mallika.

Cha-om sold in small bundles at Hua Hin market.

Cha-om bundled with banana leaf in Krabi market.

Stir-fried cha-om with eggs and bean threads.

4- to 6-oz. packages of fresh cha-om, Sontepheap Market.

Cha-om plants for sale at Sontepheap.

4-oz. frozen packages of de-stemmed cha-om at Sontepheap.

4-oz. frozen packages at Laos International Market.

4-oz. frozen packages at Thien Loi Hoa.

Fresh Cha-Om thumbnail
More Fresh Cha-Om thumbnail
De-stemmed Cha-om thumbnail
Cha-om Egg Squares thumbnail
Nam Prik Plah Too thumbnail
Thai Dipping Sauce thumbnail
Cha-om Egg Rounds thumbnail
Cha-om Omelette thumbnail
Cha-om in Curry thumbnail
Dish with Cha-om thumbnail
Cha-om for Sale thumbnail
Cha-om Bundled for Sale thumbnail
Stir-fried Cha-om  thumbnail
Cha-om for Sale thumbnail
Cha-om Plants thumbnail
Frozen Cha-om thumbnail
Frozen Cha-om thumbnail
Frozen Cha-om thumbnail

Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, June 2011

Thong Lo Street Vendor (Wednesday Photo)

Michael Babcock, Wednesday, December 22nd, 2010

Seafood Vendor on Sukhumvit Road

Fish Vendor

Fish vendor, Thong Lo

Kasma has her tour groups stay at a hotel right at the intersection of Sukhumvit Road and Sukhumvit Soi 55, popularly called Thong Lo (but pronounced “Tawng Law”) so we’ve had many opportunities over the year to enjoy the lively street scene.

Heading towards the higher soi numbers on the odd soi side right past Sukhumvit there’s always vendors right on the street in the morning, selling everything from aprons to delicious Kanom Krok (Grilled Coconut-Rice Hot Cakes) – see Siripon, Maker of Kanom Krok.

I recently began scanning some of my old black and white negatives onto the computer and came across this seafood vendor. Most probably taken in 1994, on one of my very first trips to Thailand, seeing her smile, even after all this years, brings a responding smile to my face.


The Wednesday Photo is a new picture each week highlighting something of interest in Thailand. Click on the picture to see a larger version.

Hua Hin Treats

Michael Babcock, Thursday, September 16th, 2010

In Hua Hin, Thailand, about 120 km south of Bangkok, there’s a great place to buy snacks. Readers of this blog can be forgiven for thinking that all Kasma and I ever do in Thailand is visit restaurants and markets where we eat all the time. Come to think about it, that’s pretty accurate! Actually, though that’s a bit of an exaggeration, food is never too far from our minds in Thailand, in part because it is so widely available and visible. When we travel around Thailand we rarely miss an opportunity to visit a market and inevitably, over the years, we’ve gotten to know some markets very well.

Hua Hin Intersection

Look for this intersection

Meechai Shop

Mee Chai Shop

(Click on an image to see a larger version.)

Mee Chai Shop Sign

Look for this sign

One of our regular markets is Hua Hin Market, for we drive through Hua Hin once or twice a year on our way down South, both on Kasma’s small-group trips to Thailand and when we travel on our own.

Another reason we stop in Hua Hin is to pick up Thai kanom (snacks) at one of our favorite snack spots in all Thailand. It’s a storefront called Raan Mee Chai or, in English, “Mee Chai Shop.” It’s found directly opposite the main market in Hua Hin, right on the main road through town. It is just past Soi 55/2 and as you head south it will be on your left hand side.

Kanom Tian Sign

Sign and Kanom Tian

We make a special visit to this store to buy a number of treats. I’m convinced that they make the best Kanom Tian in Thailand. You may have seen this treat in Thai markets and not known exactly what it was – it’s one of a number of Thai treats that are wrapped in banana leaves. This particular kanom is a pyramid-shaped, dough-filled savory treat and is widely available in markets everywhere around Chinese New Year as well as Songkran (Thai New Year). The Thai word, tian means candle, so it is the “candle snack.” (It is perhaps named that because of all the candles lit on the holidays when it is usually available.)

Kanom Tian

Kanom Tian, unwrapped

The dough is made from sticky-rice flour while the stuffing contains mung beans and spices, sometimes pork. The dough at MeeChai is particularly gooey and tasty while I’ve never had a filling elsewhere that is so peppery and savory; this one is pork-free. It’s worth a trip to Hua Hin (and this shop) just for this one snack. I’ve pretty much stopped buying kanom tian elsewhere because it always disappoints: it’s never as good as from this shop.

Here’s a recipe for Kanom Tian – Stuffed Dough Pyramid Dessert. Although I can’t vouch for how good the recipe  is, I’m including it because it has a sequence of pictures that give a very good idea about how the snack is made.

Trays of Custards

Trays of custards

The second treat that I like at Mee Chai shop is their Baked Coconut Cream and Taro Custard (Kanom Maw Gkaeng Peuak). (Another transliteration of the Thai might be Khanom Maw Kaeng.) This is actually a snack that another town on the way to Hua Hin – Phetchaburi – is famous for; Thai travelers will make a special stop at Phetchaburi just to buy this custard. They’d be better off going to Hua Hin! I’ve had this snack from several different places in Phetchaburi and I think Kanom Maw Gkaeng here at MeeChai is the best I’ve ever had. It is an incredibly rich, creamy delicious baked custard.

Baked custard

Baked custard – Kanom Maw Gkaeng

One of the secrets to this delightfully rich custard is that it uses duck eggs rather than chicken eggs. I’ve made it at home using 100% duck eggs and 100% chicken eggs as well a combination of both; by far the best result comes from using 100% duck eggs. The other ingredients are coconut cream (the thicker the better), palm sugar, and taro that has been cooked and mashed. This dessert is very, very rich. With the Mee Chai version  a small square is enough; I eat small bites at a time wanting the delectable smoothness and taste sensation on my tongue to go on and on and on.

Pineapple Cookies

Pineapple Cookies

The other snack we always get is a box of pineapple cookies. These consist of a pineapple filling between two almost cracker-like outer cookies. Although we see these cookies in many places in Thailand, this shop sells the best ones we’ve found, though I don’t think they make the cookies themselves as they do the custards and kanom tian. I find these cookies are best eaten after snorkeling for a couple hours! (Underwater Photos from Thailand)

The shop also sells other treats, other types of custards and also sticky rice and mango. Try anything that looks good to you because it is all good. They also sell a number of nahm prik (chilli pastes), nahm jihm (dipping sauces) and gkabpi (shrimp paste), perfect for taking home or as gifts.


Previous blogs on Thai snacks (kanom):

Serving Sticky Rice

Serving sticky rice


Written by Michael Babcock, September 2010

Berkeley Farmer’s Market (Saturday)

Michael Babcock, Sunday, August 15th, 2010

Saturday Farmer’s Market in Berkeley, on Center Street at Martin Luther King (MLK) Way, is one of our two favorite local farmer’s markets; the other is the the Friday Old Oakland Farmer’s Market. Every Saturday when we’re at home in the Bay Area, rain or shine, we go to the Saturday Berkeley Farmer’s Market. Although the market is scheduled to open at 10:00 a.m., we usually get there somewhat early in order to get good parking and make sure we get some of our favorite items before they sell out.

Berkeley Farmer's Market

Saturday Berkeley Farmer's Market

I love local farmer’s markets. They are as close as I can get to the street markets in Thailand. I love knowing who is growing my food and that the producer gets all the money from my purchase. By going weekly, I get to know what is in season and what is not: in California where the seasons are often similar, it’s a way to be in touch with the changing year.

Here are the stalls where we shop week after week at the Saturday morning Berkeley Farmer’s Market. We prefer the Saturday market (Berkeley also has markets on Tuesday and Thursday) because that’s the only day that all of our favorite vendors are there. You can get a full listing of all the vendors at the Berkeley Ecology Center website. One advantage to the Berkeley Farmer’s Market is that nearly every stall is organic and the few that are not are often pesticide-free or transitional.

Pictures for this blog are from both Michael and Kasma. They were all taken in July of this year (2010) and reflect what is available at this time of year. Click on an image to see a larger version.

Mostly Vegetables

Riverdog Farms

Tomatoes

Riverdog farm tomatoes

Riverdog Bird

Kasma's dove likes Riverdog!


Riverdog Farms is one of the first places I look for produce at the Berkeley Farmer’s market. Everything always looks so fresh and eatable! Green beans, cherry tomatoes, asparagus (in season), snap peas, carrots (orange and red) are things I buy here. They also have delicious pastured chickens that are very tasty indeed. Their almond butter is absolutely fabulous!

Catalan Family Farm

Catalan Stall

Catalan market stall

Strawberries

Strawberries from Catalan Farm

I always check out the vegetables at Catalan Family Farms, often buying onions, green beans or cauliflower there. This year (2010) I think they’ve had the best strawberries at the Berkeley Farmer’s Market; week after week we tasted as many strawberries as we could (I love tasting fruit before I buy, a definite plus for farmer’s markets) and we usually bought them here.

Blue Heron Farms

Cilantro

Cilantro, roots attached

Flowers

Flowers from Blue Heron

We are eternally grateful to Blue Heron for being the one place where, week after week, we can be certain of getting cilantro roots. Cilantro roots are a critical ingredient in many Thai curries, soups and stir-fries. In Kasma’s weeklong advanced classes, she may need a couple cups of cilantro roots for various dishes over the week: thankfully we can get them at Blue Heron. I’ve also bought their carrots and other greens. This summer they also have had a beautiful selection of flowers. Unfortunately, they take a break in the winter months: we miss them.

Vang Family Farm

Eggplants

Eggplants from Vang Family Farm


Vang Family Farm is the one Asian produce vendor at the Saturday Berkeley Farmer’s Market. He often has a variety of ingredients that we find useful: the Thai eggplants shown here, daikon, Asian greens such as Chinese broccoli (ka-nah, in Thai). Lemongrass and Thai Basil (bai horapa) are available sometimes. His prices are always a bit lower than the other stands.

Happy Boy Farms

Heirloom Tomatoes

Heirloom tomatoes from Happy Boy

Edible Flowers

Edible flowers from Happy Boy

Happy Boy Farms is another produce stand we like. This year (2010) they were the first to have heirloom tomatoes and they have been very, very good indeed. If I’m going to get a salad mix, I get it here.

Lucero Organic Farm

Okra

Okra

Squash

Lucero Farm summer squash

Lucero Organic Farms has excellent produce. Their summer squashes are great and they often have okra, including some varieties I never see elsewhere. Their heirloom tomatoes are also outstanding.

Brooks & Daughters

Sprouts

Sprouts from Brooks & Daughters

Brooks & Daughters sells sprouts of many different varieties. I’ll sometimes get the plain alfalfa, other times a clover mix and sometimes just plain broccoli sprouts. Sold by the handful, they are a great snack.

Solano Mushrooms

Mushrooms

Mushrooms from Solano Mushrooms


It should come as no surprise that Solano Mushroom sells mushrooms; mushrooms of all kinds, in fact. Here we see Royal Trumpet (Eryngii) mushrooms, our favorite for a snap-pea with oyster sauce stir fry. They have many varieties such as chanterelle, porcini and oyster, all very fresh indeed.

Fruit

Frog Hollow

Peaches

Frog Hollow peaches for tasting

For stone fruits, it’s usually hard to beat Frog Hollow. This is where I often buy my peaches, apricots, nectarines and pluots. Their Flavor King pluots are the best I’ve ever tasted. They are always very generous with their tastings. This year we depended on them for cherries.

Woodleaf Farm

Peaches

Woodleaf Farm peaches


Woodleaf Farm is the other stall that we depend on for peaches. They have some of the best peaches I’ve ever eaten. Like many other vendors, they are always willing to give you a sample. It’s smart marketing: often once I’ve tasted one of their peaches I’m hooked.

Kashiwase Farms

Fruit Tasting

Fruit tasting at Kashiwase

I think Kashiwase has the best tasting at the market; they usually have eight to ten varieties of stone fruit (in season) and have a tasting table with samples of all of them. Nectarines are the one fruit I find myself buying over and over here.

Smit Orchards

Smit Orchards

Smit Orchards


Smit Orchards is my go-to stall for Gala and Pink Lady apples, which become available in the fall. They are at the market year-round with other organic fruits, such as cherries and yummy grapes.

Meat & Fish

Highland Hills Farm

Sign

Highland Hills sign


Highland Hills Farm has the best pork I’ve ever tasted. We’ve especially enjoyed their pork belly, pork butt and ground pork. They also have wild boar. All their meats, beef, pork, lamb, goat and chickens, are pasture raised.

Fatted Calf

Market Stall

Fatted Calf market stall


The Fatted Calf is one reason we come to the Saturday market: it’s the only market it visits in the East Bay. They specialize in local and sustainably raised meats transformed into meaty goods. It’s an unusual week when I don’t get at least one of my favorite products: liverwurst (with a delightful smoked flavor), Mexican Chorizo (see my blog on Bitter Melon, Chorizo and Egg) or crepinettes (flavored meat patties – yummy!). I’ve enjoyed their sausages, duck liver mousse and sausages as well. And when they have leaf lard for sale, I jump all over it: lard is the best fat I’ve ever found for stir-frying.

Update, March 2011: Unfortunately, Fatted Calf no longer comes to the Berkeley Farmer’s market. They do have a store on Fell Street in San Francisco.

Hudson Fish

Black Cod

Hudson Fish black cod

Although everything here is fresh and wonderful looking, I rely on Hudson Fish mainly for the black cod (AKA butterfish). Butterfish is a good name for it: it melts in your mouth like butter. For a drunken stir-fry or a pad gkaprow (holy basil stir-fry), there is no better fish.

Prepared Food

Morell’s Bread

Morell's Bread

Morell's Bread

Raisin Rye Bread

Raisin Rye Bread

Eduardo Morell’s breads are my favorite breads anywhere: they are true artisan breads. Naturally leavened by whole wheat starters (no commercial yeast or chemical leavening are used in any of the products), they are dense, chewy and full-flavored delicious. My favorite loaves are the Multigrain and the Raisin Rye bread. I’ll also get the 100% Spelt bread for variety and occasionally a loaf made with an heirloom variety of wheat from the local Full Belly Farm. Toasted and with butter, they are satisfying and filling. Eduardo also makes delicious scones, both multi-grain raisin scones and fruit scones using seasonal fruits from vendors in the market. Anything here is highly recommended! The only places these breads and scones are available anywhere are the Saturday and Thursday Berkeley Farmer’s Markets. (Morell’s Bread Website)

Cultured

Pickles

Seasonal specialties at Cultured

Naturally fermented foods are some of the healthiest foods you can eat: the natural fermentation creates beneficial gut bacteria that helps with digestion and helps boost the immune system. Cultured is another reason to attend the Saturday market (they’re also at the Tuesday Berkeley market). In addition to sauerkraut (I like the Traditional, the Nutra Kraut and the Lemon Garlic Dill), Cultured offers seasonal specialties, which change from week to week. My absolute favorite product here is the Beets with Fennel. They also sell kombucha. (My favorite article on the importance of bacteria is Garry Hamilton’s Why We Need Germs.)

Bariani Olive Oil

Olive Oil

Bariani Olive Oil


Although we eat mainly Thai food at home, when I make a salad I’ll often use olive oil from Bariani Olive Oil. It’s a family-run operation that oversees every step of the process themselves. It’s organic and very tasty, with a slight grassy taste that I find enjoyable. They also make a very nice balsamic vinegar.

Big Paw Grub

Big Paw is the other olive oil I enjoy: it’s somewhat less grassy than Bariani. They also make balsamic vinegar here that, combined with olive oil, makes a very complete and tasty salad dressing. The Apricot Lavender is delicious but my favorite is the Mission Fig.


Floating Market (Wednesday Photo)

Michael Babcock, Wednesday, August 11th, 2010

Boat Vendor, Damneon Saduak Floating Market

Frying Bananas

Frying Bananas on a boat at Damneon Saduak Floating Market

Everyone should visit Damneon Saduak Floating Market south of Bangkok at least once. I recommend doing what Kasma does on her trips: hire a car, get up at the crack of dawn and arrive at the market around 7:00 a.m. in the morning. Then rent a boat and enjoy being paddled around on the klong (canals). At that time in the morning it’s a true local market: the tourists and tourist buses haven’t yet arrived and you can enjoy the market in relative peace and quiet.

I have te believe that images such as this are among the most widely known images of Thailand: a vendor on a boat with a straw hat. I love this picture of Kasma’s, taken on an old 35-mm Olympus camera in 1999. The first time I went to the market I was amazed to see vendors cooking everything right on the boat.

Floating markets are largely a remnant from the past, when much of the country lived along the canals (klong). Recently many other floating markets have opened, many of them much more strictly local than Damneon Saduak, perhaps the best known of the Thai floating markets.


See also:


The Wednesday Photo is a new picture each week highlighting something of interest in Thailand. Click on the picture to see a larger version.

Mithapheap (was Sontepheap) Market in Oakland

Kasma Loha-unchit, Friday, August 6th, 2010

The Cambodian market formerly called Sontepheap is now called Mithapheap and is found in Oakland, on International Avenue at 14th Avenue, is a great Southeast Asian market.

(Note: this blog was updated on 12 June 2012 to reflect the name change from Sontepheap to Mithapheap Market.)

Mithapheap Market

The Mithapheap storefront

Oakland doesn’t have a Thai Town like L.A. Neither does it have any Thai market. Whenever I need the the hard-to-grow and hard-to-find fresh herbs and vegetables I am used to eating and cooking with back in Thailand, I head for Mithapheap (renamed from Sontepheap in early 2012). The store is small but packed with many interesting things. It is run by a friendly couple – Yun (short for Yunita) and Sam, – who both speak fluent English. Usually one of them is there behind the check-out stand and they are more than happy to help new customers find things in the store.

Plants

Plants for sale at Mithapheap

(Click on an image to see a larger version.)

During the summer and early fall, when the weather is warm, Mithapheap is a great place to visit for people missing the exotic flavors they’ve experienced in Southeast Asia. Sam makes frequent trips to growers he knows in Modesto and brings back a truckload each time of fresh produce seldom seen in other Southeast Asian markets in the area, such as pea eggplants, winged beans, the beloved cha-om (which always sells out within a day or two!), lemon basil, holy basil, ivy gourd leaves (bai dtam leung in Thai) and the very nutritious drumstick tree leaves (moringa or marum, in Thai). The store also carries numerous frozen and bottled herbs and vegetables imported from Thailand, as well as precious items such as salted crab needed for making a delicious som dtam (green papaya salad), the bitter sadao (neem) flower buds that are so good with nahm bplah wahn sauce and grilled catfish, the yummy sun-dried mudfish (blah chon daed diow) and pilot fish (bplah salit daed diow), and one of my favorite ready to cook preserved fish – bplah som – a sour fish made similarly as sour sausages.

Mithapheap Market

Produce aisle inside Mithapheap Market

Moreover, the store sells many freshly made snacks similar to ones found in markets in Thailand, which I love to buy for my students to sample. Below are pictures taken during a recent visit to the store, showing a vast array of exotic Southeast Asian produce and other food items one can acquire there. But because some of the rarer items are sometimes hard to come by, if you are searching for something particular, call ahead and ask if they have it in stock before you make a trip there. It may be there one day but gone the next.

Yun and Jackfruit

Yun cutting a large jackfruit

If you are out that direction, there are two other markets worth visiting: the Lao International Market and Maykong Market. Both are smaller than Mithapheap and just two blocks further down on International Ave between 16th and 17th Aves. The latter is a tiny store, but sometimes I find very fresh herbs and produce there that are particular to Cambodian and Thai cooking.

From International Ave (which is the old East 14th Street), take a jog a street over to East 12th Street and head on to Sun Hop Fat at 5th Ave. Unlike the three small markets mentioned earlier, it is a supermarket-size Vietnamese store that we recommend to students because it carries a large number of fresh produce and packaged food products used in Thai cooking. It also has large freezers carrying a large variety of seafood products and frozen snacks from Southeast Asia.

(Note: I took all the pictures in this article except the first one.)


Sam Behind Counter

Sam at checkout counter

Produce

Produce for sale!

Sam (to left) and Yun (above right) are the owners of Mithapheap. The produce in the picture to the right includes, from front to back: galanga, turmeric, ginger, Thai eggplants, Thai chillies and home-made coarse-ground toasted rice in the shadows in the back.

Banana Blossoms

Banana blossoms, kaffir lime leaves

Vegetables

More hard-to-find vegetables

To the left we see banana blossoms (for salads and dips) and packaged kaffir lime leaves. to the right we see baby watermelon (used as a squash in some sour curries), bagged cha-om and bitter melon.

Winged Beans

Very fresh winged beans

Kaffir Lime Leaves

Kaffir lime leaves

Winged beans are a treat to find: Thais use them in wing bean salads, often of the yum (a type of spicy and sour salad) variety. Kaffir lime leaves, critical in many Thai dishes, are always a challenge to find in the U.S.

Holy Basil

Holy basil

Lemon Basil

Lemon basil

Holy basil is another hard-to-find Thai ingredient. It is used in many dishes, particularly dishes such as Spicy Basil Pork (Moo Pad Gkaprow) (see my recipe for Spicy Basil Chicken(Gkai Pad Gkaprow)). Some dishes, such as Pad Kee Mao (Drunken Stir-fry) just are not the same without holy basil. And Lemon Basil is a real find if you are making a soup such as Golden Pumpkin Coconut Soup with Lemon Basil (Gkaeng Liang Fak Tawng) that requires it.

Sawtooth Coriander

Sawtooth coriander

Ivy Gourd Vines

Ivy gourd vines

Two more hard-to-find items. Sawtooth coriander is a great accompaniment to the northeastern salads called lahb (or larb), such as my Northeastern-style Spicy Minced Chicken Salad (Lahb Gkai). Ivy gourd vine (pak dtam leung) is used in salads and stir-frys.

Curry Leaves

Curry leaves

Fresh Baby Corn

Fresh baby corn

Canned baby corn is just no substitute for recipes that call for baby corn!

Drumstick Tree

Drumstick tree (moringa)

Green Papaya

Green papaya

For more information on drumstick tree or moringa, see my blog Moringa (Marum). Green papaya is used to make Green Papaya Salad (Som Dtam).

Green Mangoes

Young tart green mangoes

Wild Pepper Leaves

Wild pepper leaves

Young green mango is used to make salads, such as my easy-to-make Sliced Tart Crisp Green Mango with Chillies and Salt (Mamuang Yam Prik Gkap Gkleua). Wild pepper leaves (bai cha plu), used to make Miang Kam (Tasty Leaf-Wrapped Tidbits), are often confused with betel leaves (in the next picture). (See my recent blog: Miang Kam uses Bai Cha Plu NOT Betel Leaf (Bai Plu).)

Areca Nut

Areca nut, betel leaves

Pickels

Home-made pickles

To the left are dried, sliced areca nuts and betel leaves for wrapping the nut and chewing as a stimulant. To the right are home-made pickles in the refrigerator at the market.

Sour Fish

Sour fish from Thailand

Sour Sausage

Sour Cambodian sausages

Here are two different types of fermented products. To the left is bplah som – sour fish from Thailand (found in the freezers). To the right are sour Cambodian meat sausages.

Sour Sausage

Sour Thai Sausage

Sweet Treats

Thai sweet treats

To the left is another type of sour sausage (naem) from northern Thailand. To the right are some refrigerated sweet treats (kanom wahn). (See Michael’s blog on Thai Sweet Snacks – Kanom Wahn.)

Yun

Yun behind counter

Ready-made Meals

Ready-made meals

To the left is Yun behind the counter with an assortment of fresh-made sweet snacks in front. The ready-made meals on the right include kanom jeen rice noodles with salads and curry sauce, and grilled spicy fish wrapped in banana leaves.

Mangosteen

Mangosteen and durian cakes

Shelved Jars

Shelves of various items

To the left are fresh mangosteens in net bags on top of cylindrical packages of durian cakes on the checkout counter. To the right are shelves packed with a large assortment of bottled herbs, vegetables and fruits, such as banana blossoms, tamarind leaves, young green peppercorns, cassia leaves, water mimosa, lotus stems, turmeric, galanga, star gooseberries and more.

Sticky Rice Steamers

Sticky rice steamers

Mortars and Pestles

Mortars and pestles

Here we see sticky rice steamer baskets in the cookware aisle. (See my recipes: Steamed White Sticky Rice (Kao Niow Neung) and Coconut-Flavored Sticky Rice with Mangoes (Kao Niow Ma-muang).) To the right are baked clay and large palm wood mortars and pestles for making green papaya salad. (See my blog on the Mortar & Pestle.)


Mithapheap Market
1400 International Blvd., #C
Oakland, CA 94607
(510) 436-3826
Lao Market
1619 International Blvd.
Oakland, CA 94606
(510) 536-5888
 
May Kong
1613 International Blvd.
Oakland, CA 94606
(510) 261-7630
Sun Hop Fat 1 Supermarket
501 East 12th Street
Oakland, CA 94606
(510) 763-8888

See also:


All photos copyright 2010 Kasma Loha-unchit.