The spicy bite of red curry paste, the taste of sweet roasted coconut juice, the fragrant licorice scent of Thai basil, these ingredients draw me out of winter’s clutch, away from a snowy suburb in south Kansas City to Thailand. I don’t board a plane for my getaway. Instead, I navigate icy roads to Kim Long Asian Market, a few blocks east of the City Market, to gather ingredients for meals to come. Food is my passport to the aromas and flavors of my mother’s native home.
Since I was a child, I have accompanied my mother to Asian markets in or near the City Market. We used to shop at Hung Vuong Market, formerly at 5th and Grand. It is now located on the east side of Grand between 3rd and 4th Street, just south of The Diner. At the original location, overstocked shelves were filled with rice, noodles, sauces, beans, canned goods, and fresh-baked delicacies and dazzled the eye with color. The strong scent of fish and brine-soaked concrete floor in some spots was powerful. Depending on what was in stock, I peered into tubs filled with live blue crab or refrigerated cases filled with glassy-eyed fish. We didn’t buy meat or fish there. We stocked up on noodles, rice, cans of coconut milk, nam pla or fish sauce, and fresh produce including bok choy, morning glory, bean sprouts, and string beans.
Today, I stock my own pantry after shopping at similar Asian markets near Columbus Park. I purchase groceries for Thai dishes as well as Vietnamese and Chinese delicacies and treats. At Kim Long Asian Market, I grab a cart and head straight for the basket of bánh cam (bánh rán in Northern Vietnam), or sweet sesame balls, a Vietnamese treat made with glutinous rice flour, stuffed with sweet mung bean paste, fried, and rolled in sesame seeds. This fried pastry originated in China as jin deui, but has spread to other countries where the food has been adapted into sweet and savory versions. Similar to doughnuts, yet denser, crispier, and chewier, bánh cam cost two for a buck at Kim Long. I try to get to the market earlier in the day when they’re made fresh and still warm.
I’ve grown fond of bánh mì, inexpensive Vietnamese sandwiches ($2-3) made on a baguette. While living in Boston as a student, I ate them often because they were affordable on a budget and were made to order at shops in Chinatown. The sandwich is stuffed with thinly sliced pickled carrots and daikon (do chua), cucumbers, cilantro, chili peppers, pâté, mayonnaise and various meat fillings including sliced pork and head cheese. Use of the baguette is a culinary holdover from French colonialism in Indochina where the bread was adapted into a country-style sandwich using local ingredients. Today, bánh mì can be found in San Francisco, New York, Boston, Kansas City, and any major metropolitan area with Asian markets.
When it’s hot outdoors or I get a nostalgic craving, I swing by the refrigerated case full of beverages and grab a can or two of roasted coconut juice. I grew up savoring fresh juice from coconuts that my mom would crack in half with the back of a 9-inch knife. On a trip to Thailand several years ago, I was introduced to fresh juice extracted from coconuts grown specifically for roasting whole. Roasting the coconut imparts a different, mildly robust flavor to the sweet juice. While the canned version isn’t as good as sucking down a cup from a roadside stand in sweltering heat, it’s close enough to transport me across space and time to Thailand if only for a few minutes.
The array of sauces and spices at Kim Long, like most Asian markets, is mind-boggling. As children, we tend to inherit preferences, or shy away from choices, of brand name condiments and sauces (Heinz, Gates, A-1, French’s, etc.) we were exposed to as children. I gravitate toward specific sauces that I’ve spotted in my mom’s cupboard and recognized on the store shelf.
Nam pla, or fermented fish sauce, is a pungent but essential mainstay for flavoring Thai dishes like ginger chicken, chicken satay, tom yum goong (shrimp soup), and, of course, pad Thai. Believe it or not, brands of nam pla and soy sauce possess different flavor profiles depending on the ingredients used, the fermenting process, and other factors. A crab-based nam pla will taste different than one made with shrimp. I didn’t realize this for years and simply bought whatever my mom used, shifting from Tiparos to Squid to Three Crabs brand. If she bought a off-brand on sale that tasted too strong or salty, then she’d discard it rather than use it and throw off the balance of flavors in her cooking. Just as people in Kansas City are partial to certain types of barbecue sauce, a personal preference for fundamental ingredients makes all of the difference in the dish.
Anyone that has eaten at a Vietnamese restaurant will recognize the ubiquitous clear bottle of Huy Fong srirachi sauce bearing the image of a rooster, thus earning the name rooster sauce or cock sauce. The Americanized version of this spicy red chili sauce, produced in California, is now available in the Asian/ethnic aisle of many mainstream grocery stores as well as Asian markets. Sriracha originates from Thailand rather than Vietnam. I have visited Si Racha, the seaside city in Chonburi Province of central Thailand for which the sauce is named. There, sriracha began as a paste made from a blend of sun-ripened chilies, vinegar, garlic, sugar, and salt and is used in seafood dishes. For the sake of convenience, I use the Huy Fong brand on occasion.
My cupboard is also filled with sweet black soy sauce, rice vinegar, and sweet chili paste. The refrigerator holds a clay jar of fermented cabbage and homemade nam prik or vinegar-based chili dipping sauce. When the summer garden fades, I freeze homegrown Thai basil, chilies, and string beans for winter use. I pluck kaffir lime leaves from my plant (a gift from Pam) or raid my mom’s overgrown shrub. Using these basics in combination with fresh meat and produce, I can produce an array of traditional Thai and fusion dishes.
At Kim Long, I can find bok choy, morning glory leaves, fresh Thai basil, lemongrass, and other produce not readily available at conventional supermarkets. As needed, I load up on coconut milk, curry powder, star anise, dried galanga (a fragrant rhizome similar to ginger), red curry paste, rice vermicelli, pad Thai noodles (banh pho), and other goods. The store also carries numerous types and brands of rice that can be bulk-purchased in various quantities. Whether it’s Three Ladies brand of 2010 new crop jasmine rice or another brand, the quality of the rice is superior to the brands found at most grocery stores.
As a bonus, hungry visitors can visit the counter next to Kim Long’s market, order a dish, and eat on the premises or grab it to go. Be adventurous, head to a market near you, and investigate the offerings. I’ve noticed a wide range of clientele that includes Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, Laotian, Filipino, Caucasian, and African American customers shopping for not-so-exotic goods here in the Heartland. Fully stocked, I head home armed with sacks of food that will become not only meals, but also brief excursions to a sunny land far away.
Asian Grocery Shopping
Kansas City and the greater metro area is host to a number of Asian Markets. Visit one near you, pick up some inexpensive ingredients, and experiment with them at home. Recipes for Thai, Vietnamese, Filipino, and Chinese dishes can be found easily online. Or experiment with your own version of Asian fusion cooking.
Kim Long Asian Market – 511 Cherry, Kansas City, MO
Huong Que Oriental Market – 424 Locust, Kansas City, MO
China Town Food Market – 202 Grand Boulevard, Kansas City, MO
Asian Super Market – 9538 Nall, Overland Park, KS
Jung Oriental Grocery Store – 930 Minnesota Avenue, Kansas City, KS
Oriental Supermarket – 10336 Metcalf Avenue, Overland Park, KS
888 Market – 10118 West 119th St, Overland Park, KS
Originally published in PresentMagazine.com.