I started Big Girls, Small Kitchen because I love to cook at home–obviously. But when I’m inspired by the cuisine of a far-flung place, sometimes it’s hard to find the right ingredients to follow even a simple recipe, and the only option is to go out. To equip ourselves to cook any cuisine in the confines of our small kitchens, we’re sending contributor Lauren Rothman off to visit the Russian, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Spanish, French, Greek, and Italian supermarkets of New York City. Her shopping expeditions will yield the specialty ingredients we need in order to make the food we’re craving at home these days.
As an avid home cook and an enthusiastic eater of New York City’s myriad cuisines, my appreciation of southeast Asian dishes goes way back—all the way to middle school, when some like-minded friends and I (read: total geeks) formed an “ethnic” cooking club. As de facto president, it was my responsibility, each month, to comb through my mother’s extensive selection of cookbooks and select the 4 or 5 recipes that club members and I would prepare together before sitting down to feast. Ostensibly, any type of fare could be eligible for the “ethnic” moniker, but over and over again, I found myself drawn to fragrant Indian rice pilafs; bright, cilantro-and-mint-stuffed Vietnamese summer rolls; and, above all, fiery, fish sauce-heavy Thai curries and noodles. More often than not, the cooking club sat down to a meal redolent of galangal, palm sugar and Thai basil.
Part of the fun of preparing for these monthly feasts was the excuse, as an intrepid young subway rider, to hop a train to parts of the city previously unknown to a brownstone Brooklyn native, in order to seek out those exotic ingredients. That’s how, all those years ago, I first discovered what remains my favorite Manhattan source for Thai ingredients: Bangkok Center Grocery. A tiny, supremely well-stocked store located on Chinatown’s Mosco Street, Bangkok Center crams all the essentials of larger southeast Asian groceries onto its well-curated shelves, from fish sauce and dried shrimp to fresh herbs and bitter melon.