In the markets I saw six different varieties of eggplant, several different kinds of basil, and countless types of chili, many of which I had never seen the likes in Asian food markets back home. Go to a market in the U.S. and you’ll find one kind of ginger. Here I saw three. There was Thai garlic, similar to what we get at home, but not quite the same, as well as a type of parsley I had never seen before. There were even a couple of items that even the chef couldn’t identify. Not only is there more variety, but I suspect that the ingredients are fresher than they are when they travel long distances to New York or even LA.
You might ask why aren’t these ingredients available in the U.S. “It’s partly climate,” chef Kakaew explained, “and partly demand. Some things grow better and more economically in our tropical climate here in Thailand, and if there’s no demand for a wide variety of ingredients in the U.S. there’s no incentive to import them.” So while you might be able to find some things in, say, Los Angeles if you look hard enough (lemon grass, kaffir leaves, etc.) you won’t find everything you’ll see in a typical Thai vegetable market.
All of which is to say, if you love eating, if you love Thai food in particular, it’s reason enough to visit (that and, of course, the people, the culture, the scenery, the wonderful massages for next to nothing, and the shopping).
I did find, sadly, that the North American propensity for making everything sweeter than it needs to be has seeped into some Thai regional cooking. If you love cooking in general or Thai cuisine in particular, taking a Thai cooking course makes a worthwhile break from sightseeing. Many hotels offer them to guests, and Bangkok's Blue Elephant Cooking School (it's a popular restaurant as well) is well known and reputable with small classes and morning or afternoon sessions. The Amita Cooking Classes (http://www.amitathaicooking.com) also come highly recommended. Both offer a great meal and perhaps a chance to meet fellow travelers with common interests. But most importantly, it's an opportunity to experience authentic Thai cuisine and to bring back culinary skills that will last a lifetime.
(George Hobica is founder of the low-airfare listing website Airfarewatchdog.com.)