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Thai : MARKETS : The Big Bang Market

June 24, 1993|LINDA BURUM

When you walk into Bangluck Thai Market's newest branch in Pomona, the constant high-pitched beep of bar-code scanners and Thai convenience foods in shopper's baskets make the store seem a million miles removed from Thailand's traditional markets. But Bangluck hasn't lost touch with typical Thai shoppers.

In the old country, Thais for centuries bought their food at colorful "floating" marketplaces. Vendors in long, narrow, flat-bottomed boats hawked a kaleidoscopic array of tropical produce, seafood and flowers. Along the country's network of interconnecting rivers and canals, selling prepared foods and specialties was a thriving business. Rice from the countryside was transported down the Chao Praya River to Bangkok's central market at Ba Khlong Dalat on huge, flat barges linked together like a train.

Today most neighborhood shopping areas in Thailand are on dry land. Many of the waterways have been covered over and turned into highways. At Ba Khlong Dalat, trucks, which are swiftly replacing the rice barges, deliver their cargo to the market's landward side. Thailand has supermarkets now, but there are still open markets run by independent merchants and filled with the tempting scents of curry dealers and stands peddling all kinds of cooked foods. "If you really want to eat well," Thais will tell you, "try the noodle vendors and Chinese barbecue stalls at the night market."

So when Bangluck's owners opened their first store in 1985, they included a Chinese barbecue on the premises and next door a California version of market noodle vendors and rice-plate sellers that they called Sanamluang Cafe. To help customers feel at home, they also installed, at the corner of the parking lot, a beautiful Thai spirit house encrusted with a mirror mosaic (so people could pay respects to their ancestors) and next to that, a Thai bookstore.

That first Bangluck store opened at the center of the oldest Thai community in Hollywood--a neighborhood where you find Thai cabarets, after-hours rice-soup shops and other restaurants catering to Thais. But Thais began moving out of the congested Hollywood area to seek more affordable housing. And in 1987 Bangluck's owners opened a second store, in North Hollywood near Wat Thai, the Thai Buddhist temple. The newer store also had a Sanamluang Cafe and a much larger B.B.Q. Heaven in a separate shop next to a combination newsstand, video rental and cookware store.

That market was extremely successful, according to Topin Punyodyana, general manager of all three stores. Next the partners looked around for another location, which they found in a former Alpha Beta in Pomona.

"There was room for live fish in tanks and a 45-foot seafood and fish counter," Punyodyana said. The fish, which can be bought deep-fried to order, started to attract a rather international crowd from the neighborhood.

The owners responded by stocking more varied ingredients. The Pomona Bangluck is the first to carry an extensive selection of Mexican foods, including Mexican cornflakes. An Indonesian section, filled with all sorts of sambals and sauce mixes called bumbus , is much larger than at the other two stores and even includes a few Dutch items. The Filipino ingredients go way beyond the basics. And since Thais cook Chinese dishes and use Chinese ingredients in their own food, you find just about everything anyone would want for Chinese cooking.

The new Bangluck may be near an off-ramp of the Interstate 10 instead of a graceful canal in Thailand. It may have a '90s look to it, and by now the clientele is accustomed to American-style supermarketing. But Bangluck hasn't forgotten that Thais love to eat at the market. So they've built an even bigger food facility at the Pomona store--a combination B.B.Q. Heaven and Sanamluang cafe where you can get great Thai food. You can also hear lots of Spanish, English and Tagalog as people polish off their rice combination plates and bowls of Thai noodles.

SHOPPING LIST

* Coconut Milk: The liquid squeezed from fresh coconut meat gives a wonderful richness to certain soups, curries and Thai desserts. In Thailand, coconut meat scraped from the shell by a mechanical rotating scraper is sold fresh. But preparing coconut milk from whole coconuts--as many Thai cookbooks suggest--is an arduous task. Fresh-frozen coconut milk, however, is quite satisfactory, and in a pinch a good brand of canned will do.

At Bangluck, look for frozen coconut milk packed in flat plastic bags. Thaw it unwrapped in a bowl overnight in the refrigerator. If a recipe calls for coconut cream, chill the milk, undisturbed, in an open can or bowl for several hours, then skim off the rich portion that floats to the top. If this cream is too thick, simply stir some of the remaining liquid into it until it has the consistency desired.

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