Jeremy Becker is half Thai and grew up running around the numerous Thai restaurants that his parent owned, including Siam Cuisine on Park Road in West Hartford.
He loves to cook and one might imagine that Thai entrees would be a specialty of his. “Not so much,” Becker laughs. “I was born in the United States and I love to cook barbeque. I like to create my own barbeque sauces and I have a knack for doing slow-cooked ribs.”
Even at home, his mother, a native of Thailand, would cook steaks and spaghetti with clam sauce. At his parents' restaurants, Becker would eat the Thai food but it was “Americanized Thai,” as he calls it. “The dishes are not very native. They were adapted to American tastes with recognizable ingredients and common American vegetables like broccoli and snow peas,” he notes.
Becker and his wife, Eve, decided that they wanted to open a Thai grocery store that offered traditional food products of Thailand so that people could buy and cook authentic Thai cuisine at home. Six weeks ago, My Thai Oriental Grocery opened on Park Road just a few doors down from where his parents had their restaurant.
“My mother suggested this location because there is a fairly decent Thai population in this area.”
Eve, who came to the United States from Thailand three years ago, mentions the “Karen” people, a group of Burmese refugees who were welcomed in Thailand. Some of them have settled in Hartford and Eve observes that they are so grateful to the Thai people that they want to give back by supporting Thai businesses.
Many of them are frequent customers in the store and Becker is always happy to see these “nice, respectful people.”
The store is stocked with a colorful and varied assortment of vegetables and fruits, rice, canned goods, spices, frozen foods, drinks, kitchen housewares, and even some little gift items and clothes. There appears to be everything a home cook would need to make the dishes that Becker thinks are “a lot lighter and healthier” than other Asian foods.
He stocks the essential Thai herbs and spices; among them are coriander, cumin, chili peppers and white and black pepper corns.
While so many of the Thai ingredients are immensely appealing, flavorful and enticing to the American palate, there are several items that could prove more challenging.
Eve displays a bag of cha-om, a green vegetable that grows in central Thailand and is a staple of its native cuisine. The smell is strong, reminiscent of sulfur – yet Eve says the Thai people use it frequently in omelets and when cooked, the prominent aroma abates.
Durian, or “ugly fruit” as it is also called, is well-known for its penetrating odor, so pungent that it has been banned from public transportation and hotels in some Asian countries. Yet, many people in the Asian community enjoy eating its flesh. Thailand is the largest exporter of the fruit.
Becker proudly holds up one of the large spiky fruits, explaining that because of the weight and the fact that they grow high on trees, the fruit must be wrapped and tied with netting so that once ripe, it does not fall off the tree and seriously wound someone below.
Becker stresses that all of his customers are encouraged to try samples because, he explains, they will never buy something they have not tried and they are more apt to buy it if it tastes good. Admitting that he had not tasted many of the items he stocks before he opened the store, Becker says that sampling his own products has “opened his eyes” to many Thai specialties.
That might include lychee nuts or Thai eggplant – little eggplants that are frequently put in a curry sauce. Exported from Thailand, they are a bit more costly for many grocers to carry. Becker says he will stock them in the store as long as there is demand.
“I look to what my customers want. I am always asking them – what do you want that we don’t carry?” In fact, so many customers came in asking for lime leaves that Becker bought a lime tree which sits behind the front counter. “Now, when customers ask for fresh lime leaves, we just pluck them off the tree,” notes Eve.
It’s hard to imagine that there will be anything that they don’t carry. The shelves are lined with numerous chili sauces, dressings, pickled items, Thai drinks and an impressive selection of canned curries. There’s frozen fish such as Swai – a white water sweet fish, Sour Talapia, Snake Head, Gourmey and Sardines.
A Taiwanese tea drink called "Bubble Tea" brews in the front of the store. Most bubble teas contain a tea base mixed with fruit or fruit syrup and milk. Becker explains that Bubble Tea also contains small, frozen tapioca pearls on the bottom of the drink. Originating in Taiwan in the 1980s, the drink has spread throughout Asia and Europe, and has become increasingly popular in New York City. Becker welcomes people into his store for a taste of the sweet treat.
The doors to the store have only been opened a short time but the young couple is looking to the future. There is a corner of the store they call the café with a counter, table and chairs and a television. Customers can grab a snack, sit and enjoy free Wi-Fi.
Eve says that down the road they would like to offer a menu with a few Thai entrees. A liquor license is in the works so that they can sell Thai beer, as well.
A few Japanese items are stocked also and Chinese products will also be added soon so that customers will not have to hop from store to store to stock a pan-Asian pantry.
Becker wants everyone to know that his store is not strictly for Thai customers. “I’m trying to reach out to all ethnicities.”
My Thai Oriental Grocery is located at 268 Park Road. More information is available on their website, www.my-thaigrocery.com.