When customers enter Soi Thai, co-owner Nopphawan Papa (who also goes by Sherry) wants them to feel like they’re stepping into the hustle and bustle of Bangkok, where she was born and raised. “The word soi means small alley, and we want to be like an alley off College Street. It’s like a mom and pop shop: I’m cooking in the kitchen, my husband is out front making drinks and my mom is taking care of our baby,” says Papa. “So once you walk in, you’re walking into our convenience store.” The restaurant’s centrepiece is a shelf stocked with Thai goods, many unavailable in Canada, that Papa and her family brought over from Thailand in suitcases. The items are for display only, but they make for interesting conversation pieces. We had Papa tell us about them.
Pretz Bread Sticks are sold around the world by the Japanese company Glico, but larb and tom yung goong flavours are sold only in Thailand. “Just like Lay’s ketchup flavour potato chips are only sold in Canada,” says Papa. “Japanese people fly to Thailand to bring these back home.”
A bottle of magenta-coloured, floral-smelling liquid is labelled as an herbal thirst quencher. “It’s really hot in Thailand and people in the past didn’t have fridges at home, so they used this with water and it helps a lot,” says Papa. “It doesn’t really do anything—but the smell and the colour are nice. It’s just to make you feel fresh.” Whether it quenches thirst or not, Thais have found another use for the pink product: lip tint.
Canada has Mr. Noodles, Malaysia has Maggi and Thailand has Mama Noodles. “This is what Thai people grow up with—everyone, every home has to have this,” explains Papa. “We call all instant noodles Mama Noodles. Someone might ask for Mama Noodles, but then we say, ‘Okay, which brand do you want?'” The desiccated snack can also be used as a sort of financial index for the country: “If the sale of Mama Noodles is up, then it means the economy is not good.”
Instead of Tums, Papa and other Thais rely on turmeric pills to ease the pain of heartburn. “When I was young, I would put two or three spoonfuls of chili flakes in a bowl of noodles! We love to eat spicy food, but it hurts our stomachs. So this is a miracle—and it’s natural.”
Viset-Niyom tooth powder is a traditional take on Crest and has been keeping teeth clean in Thailand since 1921—but it has many other uses, as well. “It’s like toothpaste, but in the kitchen we use it when somebody has a cut—it stops the bleeding right away,” says Papa. “If you get a mosquito bite, rub it on. If you get bit by an ant, rub it on. If you get a burn, rub it on. If you cannot think of anything, just rub it on.”
Three Lady Cooks’ canned mackerel is a popular addition to instant noodles. “Thai people, when we’re hungry, just eat Mama noodles and some fish. That’s a meal already,” says Papa.
What looks like a flat square of chocolate is actually a compressed (and very strong) mint. “This kind is very hard to find now. My mom got these from a really old market, but the new packaging is different. People in the past would put this in their shirt pockets,” says Papa. “The new versions are sweet with different flavours and people are addicted to them—even if you don’t feel like anything or have nothing to do, just pop some.”
One Thai indigestion remedy is made with baking soda, powdered rhubarb, peppermint oil, camphor and glycerin. Just like Pepto-Bismol, the stuff is good for all tummy troubles. “One or two tablespoons and it helps. When you cannot really burp and you feel so uncomfortable, it helps you burp,” says Papa.
These three-in-one coffee packets by Khao Shong are the most popular kind of instant joe in Thailand. “This is my mom’s favourite, that’s why she brought so many,” laughs Papa.
Fruit-flavoured syrups are used as shaved-ice toppers. Familiar flavours include pineapple and cream soda, but sala (or salak) is meant to mimic the taste of snake fruit.
Koh-Kae snacks are Thailand’s answer to Pringles. Cardboard tubes filled with crunchy, cracker-coated peanuts come in a variety of flavours including coffee, chicken and barbecue.
Forget everything you know about sriracha: this is one of the O.G. recipes. “Sriracha is the name of a district in Thailand where the sauce is made, and this brand has been in Thailand forever,” explains Papa.
Papa and her husband also export and package rice, so their own brand of rice, Papa’s Select, has a spot on the shelf. “We want to help farmers, so we buy rice from cooperative farms. In Thailand it’s hard for farmers to grow organic rice—they can’t guarantee how much they can grow and if they don’t grow enough, they receive a penalty.”
These Thai tiffins made lunches portable in the past, but aren’t used as much anymore.
“It’s funny how Thai people like to give fish sauce names like Squid, Clam or Shrimp. But it’s fish sauce,” says Papa.
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