Lowell, Massachusetts, isn't just the home of Jack Kerouac and the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution in America. It also has the second-highest Cambodian population -- highest by percentage -- in the United States, which inevitable leads to part of the city being nicknamed Little Cambodia. It's the only place I've been where you can easily get not only Thai and Vietnamese food, but Cambodian, Laotian, and Malaysian food.
As it turns out, my favorite pizza place (Stromboli's) is in nearby Billerica. So Matt and I will periodically head out to get pizza for lunch and then hit Battambang Market in Little Cambodia so I can stock up on both staples and oddities.
There will be a lot of photos in this post. You may need to click through to see some of them in full on Flickr (where you can also see what Matt and I had for lunch).
I gotta tell you right now, straight up, just in case you haven't figured me out yet. I don't know what some of this stuff is. That's why I bought it, see.
Crabs and pig tails. I hardly ever buy crabs ... and I'm not even sure why I did this time. In fact, I had just left the fish counter and had decided against the whole crabs, and then for some reason bought these when I saw them. Go figure.
Pig tails are terrific. Pork is pork. That's the beautiful thing about a pig, you can eat the whole animal except for the bones and a minor amount of other bits -- and the meat is all recognizably pork, with varying ratios of meat to skin to fat to collagen. Pig tails are very baby-back-rib-like, but with skin. Fantastic barbecue.
Pork belly. Sadly, in Asian markets I'm only able to find pork belly cut this way, not larger pieces the way you'd ideally want for making bacon or for roasting. Oh, don't get me wrong -- I'll probably still use this for bacon. You just have to cure a little more carefully, and the thin cut makes it harder to slice.
Salmon heads. Four salmon heads for $6.66. This required some gesturing and clarifying to make sure the gentleman at the fish counter understood I wanted the salmon heads, and wasn't just a) commenting on the fact that "hey, you have salmon heads" or b) trying to order the much more expensive whole salmon. I'm used to this -- I'm the only white guy in a large Asian supermarket, and I'm buying fish heads instead of Pocky. I have no problem with the fact that this means I sometimes have to clarify that I really do what to buy what I'm buying.
What will I do with the fish heads? Man, I have no idea. My theory is that there is sufficient cheek and collar meat to make a meal, and then I'll make stock.
Green "chili sauce for seafood" (chile, garlic, vinegar, sugar, salt, and water).
Sriracha -- not the "cock sauce" brand we're all familiar with, which from what I understand is an Americanized version (though of course I love it, and have you tried it on Tater Tots or Boars Head natural-casing hot dogs with a little mustard?), but some other brand, so I can compare.
Lotus nut paste, like they use in pastries.
Jackfruit in syrup.
Oxtail. Oh, I have such good associations with oxtail. My first meal at my apartment in Gentilly was oxtail. Kathy and I had spent all day lugging stuff up to my apartment as I moved in -- since I had hardly any furniture yet, this meant mostly boxes of books which I had drastically overpacked, and because I lived in a gated complex, this meant carrying a box out of the car to the front of the complex; somehow balancing the box or putting it on the benches that were out of reach of the gate; unlocking the heavy gate and quickly darting through it before it closed again (we were expressly forbidden to wedge the gate open, and it was heavy enough that this was frankly pretty hard to do anyway); walking past the first fountain in the courtyard until getting to my stairs, going up one flight, and then opening my door. In New Orleans summer heat. This sucked.
I was exhausted by the end of the day and had done a cursory grocery shop at the closest market, Zuppardo's on Elysian Fields. My new neighborhood was weird. It had been the German neighborhood at one point, and the older residents in my complex were single white German men. My complex was surrounded by cemeteries: German Jewish, German Catholic, German Lutheran. But by this point, the neighborhood was predominantly black, with a lot of Vietnamese-owned businesses. The nearest restaurant was a Vietnamese-run "soul food" joint that sold turkey necks, fried rice, and Cajun meat pies. And Zuppardo's, Zuppardo's sold a mix of Asian and Hispanic ingredients alongside the ordinary stuff. I learned a lot about cooking because of living there, and taking advantage of the cheapness of things like chicken feet. Anybody can cook a chicken breast. But go on, cook me a chicken foot. Takes some doing.
Oxtail was cheap. So that's what I made my first night. I sat there drinking Sunny Delight and Captain Morgan's, waiting and waiting and waiting for my oxtail to finish braising in its Cajun tomato sauce. It took for-fucking-ever, three or four hours. But man, it was tasty.
The sign said "large hard chicken." I know what you're thinking. You wish it had said "large hard cock." You dirty bitch.
Asian markets seem to be the only place where they'll still label chickens according to breed. The "small hard chickens" next to this one were leghorns.
(Keep fucking that chicken.)
Filipino cane vinegar! A couple of the Asian markets in Bloomington were heavy on the Filipino ingredients, and I have haphazardly learned to love many of them: coconut jam (think dulce de leche made with coconut instead of milk), balut (the fertilized eggs with partially developed baby chickens inside), kalamansi (extraordinary citrus fruit), and yes, coconut vinegar and cane vinegar. These tend to be very vinegary vinegars; Americans, when they see anything but distilled white vinegar or cider vinegar, think in terms of something they'll use in a vinaigrette. Raspberry balsamic and whatnot. This is not that. These are just practical vinegars made from ingredients that grow on the islands -- as in Hawaii, the economics of domestic goods vs what gets imported from the mainland has a big impact on Filipino cuisine.
But anyway: cane vinegar is good in that fantastic Filipino dish, adobo. Meat (chicken, pork, whatever) is first marinated in, and then braised in, a combination of vinegar and soy sauce, with bay leaves, garlic, and peppercorns or chile. Outstanding.
Thai curry pastes. I have red and green in the fridge already (bought from Importfood.com, with whom I've dealt several times and can recommend for both pantry items like this and fresh produce). This rounds out my options considerably.
Frozen jackfruit! Okay, dig it. A whole jackfruit would cost $135 by mail order. I happen to know this off the top of my head. Just accept me for who I am. A pound of frozen jackfruit, already peeled? Two dollars. Sure, fresh is better, but ... TWO DOLLARS. And it's just the fruit itself, not packed in sugar or anything. I've only ever had it in syrup.
Anyway, what is jackfruit, you're wondering. It LOOKS like a durian a bit, but is nothing like it. The canned stuff I've had tastes a little like melon, a little like pineapple, a little like lychee, and is fucking awesome.
Speaking of lychee: there's some rambutans for you. The rambutan is a fruit like the lychee, but the outer covering is all ... whiskery like you see there. The fruit is sweet and mild and delicious.
Here's what I want you to notice: there are two apparently very different vegetables (one is ridged and over a foot long, the other looks like a gourd but is light and spongy-feeling), both labeled "Thai okra." I have never used either of them.
Lily roots. Yeah man, I have no idea.
Shredded green papaya. Convenience food. You can make a fantastic Thai salad using shredded green papaya, a little fish sauce, a little lime juice, a little chile.
Young ginger. I don't know about your supermarket, but at mine you never, ever see the young thin-skinned stuff.
Chinese watercress. Good for stir-fry, soup, or combined with western greens.
Culantro. Oh how I fucking love culantro. This is cilantro's rougher, more intense, more aggressive cousin. Nothing goes better with super spicy food. In hispanic cooking, culantro is sometimes called recao.
Taiwanese sarsaparilla. Such good stuff. I should have bought more. As soon as I was out of the store I was thinking I should have bought another dozen cans, not just four. Unlike American root beers, this sarsaparilla has a bitter aftertaste -- not the gentian of Moxie, nor as strong as that, but just the effect of the natural extracts used to flavor the soda.
M O O N that spells cake, right here and now. Moon cakes are eaten in celebration of the Mid-Autumn Festival which ended a week or two ago. They're elaborately decorated, as you can see, and often expensive. These were cheap because it's after the festival -- like putting the Easter candy on sale, you dig. I don't know what flavor this is ... let me go see if the label says. Nope!
Tamarind candy. Not sure if there's salt on it or just chile.
Pa piey. Yeah, no idea. I'll look it up, obviously, but I'm blogging before looking things up.
Ngo om. I should have bought more of this too, but it didn't all look as fresh. Also known as "rice paddy herb," this is a Vietnamese herb with a very very lemony flavor, but a little ... spice note, too. Really good stuff. You could build a meal around this. I suppose I should.
Persimmons! Fuyu, by the looks of them.