Give your cooking flair with ingredients from this Asian market
Cruising down Florida Boulevard, it’s easy to miss Vinh Phat Market.
There’s nothing showy about its storefront at the back of the Far East Plaza shopping center. Like many ethnic groceries, it’s a family operation—no frills, but plenty of focus on its loyal clientele.
The windows are papered with faded fliers for herbal teas and rare confections, and the conversations at the front register switch easily in and out of English depending on the customer.
On one side of the store, trinkets and gifts are crammed onto shelves and stacked up to the ceiling—shiny gold paper jewelry, fragrant incense, tea sets with cat faces, a potted tree of ceramic peaches. But most of Vinh Phat’s square footage comprises a wide stock of all foods East Asian and Pacific.
When asked to pick out a specialty item among the inventory, manager Michael Thai laughs. “Everything here is a specialty item,” Thai says, surrounded by boxes of instant noodles bearing labels of every name but the familiar Top Ramen. “You won’t find anything we sell in the typical grocery store.”
Since Thai’s parents Nam and Judy opened the store more than 30 years ago, Vinh Phat has become a hub for many ethnic communities in Baton Rouge.
“We stock for the community,” Thai says. There are many items in the store that his family doesn’t use personally but stock based on customer requests.
The centerpiece of the store is an aisle of fresh, seasonal produce carefully selected by Thai and his family. Hawaiian sweet potatoes with purple pulps entice Pacific shoppers, while yuca lends itself to Hispanic dishes. Beyond carefully wrapped, rare Korean pears and trays of three-foot-long winter melons for Lunar New Year sits a bucket of raw bamboo shoots, which Thai describes as a “staple of Asian cooking.”
“We started out with just Vietnamese and Chinese [stock], but now we have a lot of Filipino and Japanese, a lot of Malaysian and Pacific Islanders, some Hispanic produce. Everybody that’s coming to Louisiana and not native here, they’re looking for this stuff and we’re trying to provide it for them,” Thai says.
The store’s offerings come as large as 50-pound bags of rice and as small as tiny jars of bean curd, from the usual Asian imports like Pocky and milk candies to the unusual like cuttlefish tentacles and yellow snail. Sauces and pastes fill one long aisle, Chinese characters mixing with recognizable Kikkomans and Srirachas. Walk a little farther to find a seemingly endless seasoning selection and teas for everything from internal cleansing to sexual enhancement.
The bottom line? If it’s an Asian delicacy and you want it, Vinh Phat probably has five different kinds.
After helping a few patrons, Thai stands among the towering shelves of colorful bottles and boxes, a variety of languages on each package, and arranges a few bright yellow mangoes on top of their display. Though the store’s long hours wore him down in his younger years, the 38-year-old has grown to appreciate the job.
“It’s hard work,” he says, referring not just to the market itself but to building bridges between cultures and communities. “But we do love to do it.”
VINH PHAT SHOPPING LIST: Some unique items and how to use them
Korean pear >>> A fall fruit with the texture of an apple. These don’t darken quickly once sliced. Great for salads or as part of a cheese plate.
Miso by Hikari Miso
The Japanese classic. Use this soybean paste as a base for soups, glazes or dips.
From one of the world’s oldest companies (established 1637). Best for drinking, but can also be used similarly to white wine in cooking.