The Best Snacks and Drinks to Buy at a Thai Grocery Store
Curry pastes, Thai tea, and fish sauce are must-have items.
The Thai grocery store is my safe place. Whether I’m skipping through the enormous aisles of Lax-C—fondly known as the Thai version of Costo in Los Angeles—or sorting through fish sauces at the much smaller Bangkok Center Grocery in Lower Manhattan, I always feel at home among the curry pastes, pineapple crackers, and frozen fermented sausages. It’s enough to make me take the train to Queens for a chance to buy my most loved desserts or drive across Los Angeles in rush hour traffic for a box of my favorite instant noodles.
I will admit, for the uninitiated, a Thai grocery store can be a bit intimidating. The products are often in different languages—Thai, of course, but also Vietnamese and Chinese. There are dozens of fish sauces sporting three crabs, a squid, or other under-the-sea creatures as well as curry pastes in pots and packets.
But don’t be scared! The Thai grocery store is also an oasis for bright flavors, cooking shortcuts, and incredible snacks. Here are the must-have items I pick up when I stop into a Thai grocery store.
Our favorite Thai food and drinks
Mama instant noodles
The best instant noodles of all time is a hotly debated topic. Answers vary depending on who you ask and where they’re from. My Thai grandma always had Mama instant noodles in stock and would whip this up for me—complete with a soft boiled egg, ground pork, and chopped cilantro and green onions. That the nostalgic flavor is ingrained in my brain and remains my favorite brand of instant noodles. There are so many flavors to choose from, like spicy pork, green curry, and chicken, but creamy tom yum got me through college and continues to be what I reach for at home.
I don’t like to speak in sweeping statements, but truly every Thai person has a bottle of fish sauce stowed away at home. There are even vegan versions now that replicate that same funky, umami flavor! If you want to effectively cook Thai food, you have to pick up a bottle of fish sauce. Luckily, there’s a bunch of bottles to choose from. I waver between the Squid brand with a green cap—which is extremely pungent—and the three crabs brand that has a pink and blue label and is a bit more subtle (or as subtle as you can get with fish sauce).
Hale’s Blue Boy syrup
Thai kids always argue over which is the superior Hale’s flavor: red, a sala-flavored syrup that’s more magenta than red, or green, which is meant to replicate the flavor of cream soda. Neither is correct because the most underrated is the harder-to-find translucent yellow, a jasmine syrup when mixed with soda or milk that smells intoxicatingly like the delicate flower. Nevertheless, the sticky metal cap of Hale’s syrups makes for a wonderful shaved ice, milky drink, or base for sparkling soda water. It’s a well-loved staple in Thai homes when craving something sweet.
I applaud anyone who makes their own curry paste from scratch. The process requires gathering a bunch of ingredients, toasting lots of spices, and manually grinding down a paste in the heaviest mortar and pestle you’ve ever used in your life (or pulling out the food processor, which is a whole ordeal in itself). It’s not for everyone—and the curry pastes from the store can be just as delicious. Maesri, Lobo, and Aroy-D are all classic brands and come in flavors like panang, massaman, yellow, green, and more.
I try not to buy these peanuts anymore or bring them to my mom, who can finish a whole canister in one sitting. It’s understandable—Koh-Kae peanuts are covered in a crunchy flavored shell that makes for a nutty, buttery, and subtly sweet snack. They’re hard to put down and come in flavors like tom yum, shrimp, sweet chili, and wasabi. The best one, in my opinion, is the coconut cream version
Tao Kae Noi seaweed
When I lived in Thailand, I would venture to 7-11 after classes to pick up a bag of Tae Kae Noi seaweed. It’s the perfect snack in between lunch and dinner and comes in so many flavors. There’s a tempura crusted version, a giant roll of seaweed that you can eat like a beef jerky stick, and even spicy flakes. Pick this up and crumble it over your Emily Mariko salmon rice bowl.
You can call these cookies, you can call them crackers. Whatever the case, these pineapple jam sandwiches are one of my favorite things to pick up at the Thai grocery store. The cracker part is so buttery and sweet while the pineapple jam is chewy and a little bit tart, making for a great balance of flavor. I don’t have a specific brand I buy. Every grocery store is different, and the crackers come in different shapes like regular rectangles or adorable flowers. If you see these, get them. Trust me.
Pretz biscuit sticks
So technically Pretz, which is under the Glico umbrella, is a Japanese brand. But the Thais went ahead and made these savory Pocky sticks into flavors like larb, tom yum, and Thai chili paste. The larb one has always been my favorite—it’s worderfully salty, a bit tart, and herbaceous just like the Thai salad—but they’re all delicious.
Thai tea is a given. It’s the bright orange drink loaded with condensed milk that you get at your local Thai spot and now you can finally make it from home. But aside from the standard Thai tea, I also love to buy the Thai version of green tea. Similar to the Thai tea you know and love, it’s prepared with condensed milk and supremely creamy, but a bit more floral thanks to the green tea. I like the ChaTraMue brand for both types of tea, which is also sometimes referred to as the Number One brand.
Mae Ploy sweet chili sauce
You know this sauce. You’ve had it before accompanied by fried wontons, crackly egg rolls, and chicken wings. Mae Ploy is the one found in most Thai homes—sticky and sweet, with the subtlest flicker of heat. My mom always keeps this stocked in our pantry for grilled chicken dinners. Personally, I like to dip spheres of sticky rice I rolled into it and pop them in my mouth.
I’ve never met a Thai sausage I didn’t like. Isaan sausage loaded with chilies and vermicelli noodles or sticky rice, sai oua or Northern Thai sausage filled with chopped lemongrass and streaks of galangal, and naem (tangy fermented pork sausage) all have a place within my heart, and in my freezer. They should have a place in yours, too. Whenever I get a craving, I just pull them out, defrost, and pop them in the air fryer. You can pretend you’re at a Thai night market.
Where to go shopping for Thai groceries
There isn’t a national Thai grocery chain in America like the Patel Brothers or Mitsuwa. However, if you live in a city with a large Thai population—Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Dallas, DC, New York, to name a few—you’ll be sure to find a spot.
Growing up in Los Angeles, we always went to Bangluck Market and Silom Supermarket for general groceries and Lax-C for bulk items. When I lived in New York, I would stop at Bangkok Centre Grocery on the way home from work or venture out to Woodside in Queens for 3 Aunties Market at Pata (which also serves amazing hot foods and Thai desserts).
Outside of Washington DC, Bangkok 54 is small but mighty in its selection, and also has a variety of hot noodle soups to slurp up when you stop in.
If you don’t have a Thai grocery store in your neighborhood, lots of these items can be found at Vietnamese, Lao, Burmese, and Chinese grocery stores as well—so get to stocking.