Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Finding ingredients in Bratislava to cook asian dishes

Okay, so you're living in Bratislava and you have a rabid obsession with asian food, especially Thai. Sadly, Bratislava's two Thai restaurants basically suck, and the nearest good Thai food (the amazing Sri Thai Imbiss) requires an hour-long train ride to Vienna. Restaurants featuring other asian cuisines are either in short supply or just not very good. What to do?

Fortunately, Tesco, one of the most prevalent big grocery store chains in Slovakia, has a fairly decent selection of asian food products, like different curries, coconut milk, fish sauce, jasmine rice, and more. In fact, we can make a good red or green curry chicken with stuff bought only at Tesco.

But they don't have everything. Let's say you want to make some wonderfully aromatic tom kha gai soup. Bratislava's Tesco will not have a few very crucial ingredients, like lemon grass, kaffir lime leaves, and galanga root, and they are frequently out of cilantro. Or maybe you've got a hankering for some pad thai? Tesco is unlikely to have the right kind of rice noodles, and may not have bean sprouts or decent shrimp. But damn, does this mean you have to go all the way to Vienna (again) to get all these ingredients at Naschmarkt?

Thankfully, no. Bratislava actually has three (that we know of) independently owned shops that specialize in asian ingredients. While there is a small place called Naam that's walking distance from where we live, in the center of town, we typically make the trek out to an unrelentingly drab neighborhood in the Nové Mesto (on Bajkalská, near the 'three towers' apartment complex) to Seoul Plaza, a Korean-run market that specializes in those hard-to-find asian ingredients. Whether you're going Japanese, Korean, Thai, Vietnamese, etc., Seoul Plaza has enough of a variety to cover all of the bases.




But there's something else that makes Seoul Plaza especially worth the trek: they have an amusingly random assortment of the kinds of junk food from America that expats yearn for, like Reece's Peanut Butter Cups, Aunt Jemima syrup and pancake mix (?!), cream soda and root beer, Skippy peanut butter, and most significantly, they have a small freezer with pints of Ben & Jerry's ice cream!

Discovering the Ben & Jerry's was a huge deal. Good ice cream is soul-crushingly elusive in Bratislava, and almost all of the store-bought varieties are total crap. One of the most prevalent and popular brands here is Carte d'Or, which has a couple of passable flavors, but mostly tastes very strange and chemically, and has an excessively light texture, like too much air has been pumped into it. There have been times here when we desperately pined for a pint of Ben & Jerry's, so discovering this little freezer was like striking gold. It seems Seoul Plaza is deliberately tapping into the niche market of the city's expats, and not just serving the local Korean or asian community. (They also have a wide assortment of asian candy, like Pocky and lots of other stuff with crazy, loud packaging).

At any rate, Seoul Plaza also has a very wide variety of noodles and curries, bags of frozen prawns that seem to be of better quality than what you can find at Tesco, as well as important herbs, like cilantro. Naam is considerably smaller, but it does have a decent selection of the basics, although their galanga root and lemon grass are frozen. It would do in a pinch, but Seoul Plaza's selection of asian specialties is more expansive.

Terezia's pad thai.

Seoul Plaza also has one up on Naam because - and this is huge, so cue drum roll - it's open Saturday afternoons and Sundays! Yes, in a country were all independently-run shops close unapologetically around noon on Saturday and stay shuttered for the rest of the weekend until Monday, Seoul Plaza seems bent on offering the kind of shopping hours that expats like us are accustomed to. And this offers further proof that they're trying to cater to the larger expat community.

The third place, Namasté India Exotické Potraviny, is run by an Indian family and specializes in ingredients for, you guessed it, Indian cuisine, though they have stuff to make east asian dishes too. We have yet to buy anything there, but it seems like the place to go if you were to make some tikka masala or chick pea curry. They have a big selection of Indian curries, naan, chick peas, herbs, tea, and much more. But I should note that this shop is a bit difficult to find if you've never been there. It's located in the sprawling, commie-era Istropolis complex at Trnavské mýto, but it's in a separate indoor shopping center all the way in the back, on Škultétyho Street, just past the Lidl on the corner. You'll see some glass doors beneath a barrage of ugly signage. You enter there and walk immediately down the drab stairway to the basement, turn into a hallway that looks like something from a mental institution, and make your first right into the shop.

Bratislava, like all of Slovakia, can seem culturally and ethnically homogenous to a stifling degree, but there are pockets of asian communities that call this place home. The Vietnamese community emerged during communism when people from that country would come here to study under exchange programs. Some of them liked it here and stayed, and the number of Vietnamese expats has been increasing since. A growing Korean community emerged with the presence of major Korean companies in Slovakia, like Kia Motors and Samsung Electronics. Of course, these communities are significantly smaller than what you would see in a typical metropolitan area in California, but they are here, hence the need for shops like these.

At any rate, if you're sick to death of halušky, the mere sight of another plate of schnitzel will make you vomit, and the relative dearth of good asian restaurants in Bratislava has got you down, these shops should have what you need to make some of your favorite dishes yourself.

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