Lemongrass – Powdered vs Fresh

Lemongrass (also spelled lemon grass) is an Asian grass used throughout Thailand and Southeast Asia. It is commercially grown in Thailand, Australia, Mexico, and the US mainly in California and Florida.

I had to research this since some viewers may not have fresh lemongrass available but can typically be found in the spice section of most grocery stores, and the Asian stores should stock this regularly.

To use fresh lemongrass it is just stated by number of stalks, the stalks are then pounded and tied in a knot and are removed before serving the dish.

I found several sites that have stated a ratio and all seem to agree.

The ratio is 1 teaspoon powdered = 1 stalk fresh.

Minimarts, not all are the same…

I am not talking about 7-11’s or Family Mart’s, I am talking mom and pop minimarts. Not only do they have day to day items you may need, some can be quite surprising with what they offer.

When you get settled into where you are living, go out and check the local minimarts. Nearly all have the basics, cooking oil, sardines, eggs, soap, shampoo, evaporated milk, and coffee (and beer). Depending how rural you are, you may be able to walk to many minimarts or may need to ride a scooter to the ones 1-2 kms away, check them out, it is worth it.

I like to use several minimarts for common items, you are helping each of the families. On a clear day, I will ride my scooter for 1 km to get beer, soap, shampoo, even eggs, but they do not have evaporated milk. So at the minimart right across the road, I get milk, evaporated milk, yogurt (used is many recipes I cook), plus sugar, salt, and the common items when it is raining.

I found one minimart, that is almost on par with a 7-11, flour, baking powder, several types of cooking oil, plastic-ware for storage containers, etc. Any items in the minimarts is just a few baht more than what you would pay for in a Tesco, so use the local minimarts and save yourself a trip to town or to a Tesco. The few baht extra would cost you that in petrol, traffic, time, and on the plus side, you are helping the locals, not a corporation.

Grams to Pounds

When I started this site it was mainly aimed at expats living here in Thailand so measurements for meat, pasta, cheese I give in grams as that is how we buy it here. Smaller liquid and dry measurements are given in cups, tablespoons, and teaspoons.

To remove any confusion I use the following for meat, cheese, and pasta, think of the following when you read a recipe that states, say 500 grams of beef:

500 grams = 1 pound (actually it is 1.10 pounds, no one will complain).

Once you think like that, easy to remember, the recipes are much easier to follow.

For baking of pastries and bread, weight measurements are more accurate than cup or spoon measurements and may be listed by weight, I have a digital scale for this.

Chili Powder & Red Chili Paste

Chili Powder – When I first started cooking here one of the first things I made was a pot of Chili, good wholesome chow. I make mine with red kidney beans, ground pork or beef, tomato juice, cumin and chili powder. I needed to get chili powder so I went to Tesco in town and bought a small bottle of chili powder, very finely ground, and I would say it is on par with what is sold as chili powder in the states. Worked well.

I have started using a lot of chili powder so I decided to buy it in bulk in a bag. This is not a fine powder, it is course but on the package is “Chili Powder”. So I picked up three of these bags, got home and poured them into a container for the spice and dry goods cabinet. It will clear your sinuses just smelling it! This is real chili powder.

A few days later I made homemade Chorizo, recipe was followed exactly (I always follow exact before I start tailoring things around) and I made 6 patties. The next day I fried 2 to go with my breakfast of eggs and toast. Let me just say, HOT! Great flavor, but very hot.

So my advice is to check the chili powder if you buy a new brand. My tummy cannot take the really hot stuff anymore so I use the good hot brand I bought, I just use less of it in recipes. If not using the fine powder type chili powder and using this type of chili powder, cut back on the amount used until you get a taste of dish you are making, then adjust as needed.

Red Chili Paste – Paste is used to make coconut curries, and for where I live in the south, paste can be used to just flavor a dish, no coconut milk involved. Every mom and pop minimart that has fresh vegetables will more than likely have chili paste, this is homemade and in small bags, usually for 5 Baht/bag. However, there is a difference in ingredients for curry type, and the non curry type, so be clear on which one you are getting for the intended use.

Egg Noodles

dscn4048I lived in Phuket since Dec 2005 and I was always trying to find Egg Noodles, to which I could never find, but always found some wide flat Italian pasta and have always used that. Today, I was doing some research on the brand of pasta I buy, and come to find out, they are in fact, egg noodles, it is Fettuccine from Italy, and this is the brand that I buy at Makro. There is a wide version and a narrow version.

This pack is 250 grams, and surprisingly inexpensive. The pack has 6 spirals of pasta, about 40 grams each. I normally use 2-3 spirals for 2 servings.

Next visit to Makro I will get a price for this. I am also going to try out making home made egg noodles then I can compare the prices between ready made and home made.

Update 1 Sep 2017, I have successfully made egg pasta (used in homemade ravioli) and my next batch, I will cut strips and dry them. If that works well, store bought egg noodles will be a thing of the past for me.

There is Hotdogs and then there is Hotdogs

A hotdog is a frankfurter, it is a sausage, nothing more, just the meat grind is much finer. The imports, the world brands I like to call them, have a lot of additives and fillers. Real hotdogs can be found in Thailand, from Thai producers and local butcher shops. Finding these, however, can be a challenge. I found that Makro does carry Thai made hotdogs, next time I go and pick some up, I will take photos.

Update 4 Jan 2017, Tesco has a brand of Frankfurters called Mr. Sausage, they are good. These will be regular items for me now.

Update 1 Sep 2017, Tesco also carries a hotdog brand called Betagrow, they are also good.

Real Cheese versus Processed Cheese

The differences between these items is huge. Real cheese is made from milk, rennet, and salt.

Pasteurized process cheese can be made from a single cheese (solid, or powdered), or a blend of several cheeses. Cream, milkfat, water, salt, artificial color, oils (for consistency and texture), and spices may also be added. The mixture is heated with an emulsifier, poured into a mold, and allowed to cool. Think about that, powdered cheese, that does not even sound good. And when it comes to color, Cheddar is not glow in the dark orange, that is loads of artificial colors. Neither powdered cheese or the colors used can be good.

Many processed cheeses cannot even be labeled cheese in most countries.

ShotType1_328x328This photo shows the import from New Zealand, Mainland Real Cheese, this is their Mild Cheddar, aged 18 months. This is 185 Baht/250 gram block, you just need a knife to slice it. This cheese has 3 ingredients, milk, rennet, and salt. I use this to make grilled cheese sandwiches, sauces, etc.

Mainland makes many types that are widely available in Thailand, such as Cheddar, Extra Sharp Cheddar, Edam, Swiss, and Epicure. When you read through the recipes that involve cheese, this is my go to cheese!

Any glance at a cheese display in Thailand will show processed cheese slices. For lack of better words, it is plastic, nothing more. Most contain more oil than milk.

When cooking, using a real cheese will really turn your recipe from ok, to excellent.

Products I Buy and Don’t Buy

This is my standard list of the most common things I buy and don’t buy. Common items, such as eggs and milk are not listed.

Products I Buy

Dry beans – I can make refried beans, chili beans, baked beans (pork and beans), and various soups and chilies. It does take time to cook and prepare these, ingredients list on a bag of dry beans is just beans. I keep a stock of Red Kidney beans, Pinto beans, Black beans, and Great Northern beans.

Potatoes – I can make hash browns, mashed potatoes, potato salad, use in soups and stews, french fries, fried potatoes, etc. Healthy, it is a potato, nothing more. I also leave skins on except for my potato salad which is just personal preference.

Evaporated Milk – I use this for making condensed cream of whatever soups for use in various recipes. Takes about 5 minutes to make cream of mushroom (plus you can decide on types of mushrooms and amount used), cream of celery soup or cream of chicken soup. (Condensed milk is normally sweetened so I avoid that unless a recipe calls for it.)

Real Cheese – I buy this in blocks, Cheddar, Swiss, and Edam, these come from New Zealand, and the ingredients are milk and rennet, nothing more. Can be sliced or shredded, and real cheese will melt much much better than packaged shredded cheese. Cheeses are used in many of my recipes listed on this site. The Thai produced cheese I use is Cream Cheese, Mozzarella, and Parmesan, all good quality at half the price of imported. For Cottage cheese, I make that myself from whole milk and some vinegar, easy.

Dry Pasta – Just the pasta, not the prepackaged meals. Pasta is cheap, stores well and for a long time, useful in many recipes on this site as well as for side dishes. I keep a good stock of pasta on hand.

Fresh Fruits and Vegetables –  You know exactly what you are getting, fresh. If making a stew, nothing is better than fresh potatoes, carrots, celery, etc.

Tomato Paste – I normally have about 20 cans on hand, used to make tomato sauce for pizzas, for pasta, soup, ketchup, and even juice to just drink and enjoy or for making a good hearty chili. Very versatile.

Spices – Most of these I buy in the small bottles but for regularly used items, I buy in large bags, not only does it cut down the price, there is less packaging. There is many spice mixes you can make if you have a large variety of spices available.

Pre-made Spice Packets – I do buy the Thai made, particularly Lobo brand spice packets for things such as chicken and rice, northern Thai sausages, Chinese five spice, and even gravy mixes.

Canned Whole Tomatoes – Used in a variety of dishes from Chili to some skillet dishes, and even as a base for salsa, which is excellent. I keep these stocked as they are almost as versatile as tomato paste. Reason for the canned is during the rainy season we cannot get to the market for fresh tomatoes.Canned tomatoes are excellent for tenderizing beef as well.

Tuna – I like canned tuna and I keep that stocked at the house for emergency use. Fresh tuna, now we are talking! Want a great tuna salad sandwich, use fresh tuna, making a tuna and noodle casserole, use fresh tuna. One can of tuna, which the ingredients are normally tuna and water (or tuna and oil) is about 30 to 45 Baht a can, a fresh whole tuna is about 40-60 Baht each. One fresh tuna will make about 2-3 cans of canned tuna, without the can or waste. One can of tuna, on average, is 1/2 cup of tuna.

Frozen or Canned Vegetables – Used in many recipes. For canned veggies, I do stock some items for emergency use but mainly buy when I need a particular item. Canned or frozen vegetables are basically prepared items, not processed.

Canned beans – Although convenient, canned beans for the most part are just beans, water, and some salt, we do keep canned pork and beans for emergency use.

Products I Don’t Buy

Frozen Hash Browns, Tater Tots, and Fries – All very convenient, all very processed. Tater Tots are hash browns with natural flavoring added. Adding natural flavoring to a product that is supposed to be potatoes just does not seem right. I have been known to use frozen fries once in a while but that is rare. Hash browns, dead easy to make.

Cream of Anything Soups – Convenient but highly processed, and are mainly made of water flavored to taste like the soup. There is lass than 2% cream in these soups, then if you just wanted to make a pot of soup with these, you have to add a can of water as well, so you are watering down a water based product. Doesn’t make sense.

Processed Cheese – Probably the most hideous product ever created, it is basically a soft plastic and most of it cannot even be called cheese, has to be called Singles, Slices, etc. I have not bought processed cheese in over 10 years.

Prepackaged Pasta Meals – Think Kraft Mac and Cheese, Cheddar cheese is not supposed to be glow in the dark orange! And most packages like this use powdered cheese, that just does not even sound good!

Tomato Sauce / Spaghetti Sauce / Pizza Sauce – These are easily made from paste, you control the spices, salt and sugar. No need to stock these, I just stock tomato paste.

packetPre-made Spice Packets – Think imported Taco Seasoning or Cajun Seasoning or even Stew Seasoning to name a few. Not only are these are heavily processed items, they are also expensive as well compared to what you can make from a shortcut on this site. Spice packets are well know to be heavy on the salt as well. This is the ingredients for a common taco seasoning packet, the 3rd ingredient is Maltodextrin, right after, you guessed it, salt. I have no imported prepackaged spice packets in the house.

Cottage Cheese – For starters, this is not available where I live unless I go up to the city (50 km away) and it is also very expensive. Three liters of whole milk, some vinegar, and a bit of time and you can make 3 cups of Cottage cheese, dead easy and foolproof.

Sour Cream – Think strained yogurt and you have sour cream, it is that easy. A little yogurt size cup is about 150 Baht, yogurt is much much less for 4 yogurt cups, makes a lot of our cream.

Salsa – I make mine from scratch using canned whole tomatoes as the base, half the cost of jarred salsa.

Tartar Sauce – I make mine from a shortcut on this site, well less than half the cost of prepared tartar sauce, and you know what goes in it.

Pickles – I make refrigerator pickles, very simple recipe listed on this site, foolproof. Reuse jars with lids you already have instead of paying a much higher cost for a jar of pickles, since you are paying for packaging.

Food Labels

Everyone is aware that processed foods have a greater chance to have numerous ingredients that are just used as fillers and add nothing to the final product.

campbells-condensed-cream-of-mushroom2Here is my example, now keep in mind, ingredients listed on products are listed from highest quantity to lowest quantity.

This is a label from a can of Campbell’s Condensed Cream of Mushroom Soup. Now, if you have ever had this and most people have, the label lists water as the major ingredient, followed by mushrooms. Now I did not wake up yesterday, there is about a thimbleful of tiny mushroom pieces in the soup. Third ingredient, vegetable oil. And it states, less than 2% of cream (milk). So in reality, this is cream of water soup, flavored to taste like cream and mushrooms. Remember, this is “condensed” soup, to make soup out of it, you need to add a can of water, get the point? It is water flavored to taste like cream and mushrooms.

Now look at what my shortcut for Condensed Cream of Mushroom Soup is: evaporated milk, handful of chopped mushrooms, corn starch, vegetable oil, white pepper, onion powder, and salt which is always optional. Pretty clear which one might be healthier. Evaporated milk does have vegetable oil added, other than that, it is milk that is reduced. You can use whole milk for this but be warned, whole milk will not stand up to long term cooking like a slow cooker, so it has a high chance to curdle, evaporated milk will not curdle.

Minced Meat / Ground Meat

This may seem like a no brainer to some, but I am assuming there is folks that do not know how to do this.

Where I live, Nakhon Si Thammarat Province, I can get minced pork at Tesco in town, there is no beef offered, and certainly no ground or minced chicken. Well one day I was going to make me a pot of Chili using minced pork (minced is just a courser grind of ground meat). But alas, when I got to Tesco, they were sold out of minced pork, so I just picked up some pork butt and figured I would make a slow cooker something. I got home and told my wife the mince pork was sold out, so I got several large pieces of pork butt. My wife said no problem, about 10 minutes later, she handed me a large bowl of minced pork and asked is that enough.

I asked her to show me how she did this as I always used a hand grinder when I was growing up. Large chopping block (think the large wood, thick, discs you see at the markets) and a cleaver. About 3 minutes of effort and you have minced anything, keep chopping and you have ground. It is really that easy!

I have a couple of chicken recipes lined up I am going to try using ground/minced chicken, as well as next time I order beef, I am going to mince some to make some good beef burgers.

Update 25 Nov 2016, I have purchased an electric meat grinder, Thai family is amazed at the speed. There is 3 plates for fine, medium, and course ground. It can grind 1 kilo per minute with the fine plate, bit faster with the course plate. I no longer buy minced pork, I grind everything myself and can control the fat content.