Until yesterday, I’d never smelled a handful of kaffir lime leaves.
The ones I smelled were frozen, sheathed in a little plastic bag at the Inthira Thai Market in Woodside. Event through plastic the smell was unforgettable: sharp and green and sour like lime juice, with the flowery perfume of a lemon and maybe the grassiness of a curry leaf. I inhaled deeper and actually moaned a little, which might’ve scared my friend Vikas but I think made the Thai lady at the cash register smile.
The market, just a few subway stops from my house, had other goodies. Little cans of curry pastes with colorful labels lay stacked on a shelf, above packages of Mama-brand instant noodles that Vikas, who grew up in Bangkok, swore were loads better than Top Ramen. The freezer case had galangal in both chunks and thin slices, and the back fridge carried a half-dozen varieties of basil with names like “holy” and “Thai lemon.” They’d run out of most of them.
For nearly every item I pointed at, the Thai shopkeeper had an answer about how they’re used in Thai cooking, or what the item tasted like. Very few people have been this friendly to me so far in New York, particularly people in grocery stores. (My representative experience so far has been when I asked the cashier at my local Chinese market about the banana leaf-wrapped bundles near the register. She told me they were not banana leaves, and that was that.)
The shopkeeper chatted with my friend Vikas in Thai and in English, and she even gave me a bag of Thai lemon basil to try, just to see if I liked it. “Make sure you take off the brown leaves,” she advised. “And don’t eat the stems.”
I bought some massaman curry paste (interestingly one of the few Thai curries that does not call for bamboo shoots, she told me) and a few cans of coconut milk, as well as some sweets made with banana, coconut and palm sugar. I also bought Singha beer and chicharrones sealed in a Ziploc bag. The market’s open late every night — I’m sure I’ll be back.
Inthira Thai Market
64-04 39th Avenue (a few blocks from the 69th Street 7 Train Stop)
Open Mon-Thurs 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Fri-Sun 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.