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Thailand Travel FAQ | Grocery Shopping

▶ Stores

Villa Market is the best expat grocery store. You'll find the most things here that you cannot find anywhere else. For many years, only a few branches existed, all in the expat center, but now they are spread out more into suburban Bangkok, especially Nonthaburi. I've been to these:

  • Sukhumvit Road between sois 33 and 33/1 -- the oldest and still the best branch
  • Sukhumvit soi 49, approximately 1 km down the soi -- new and modern, nearly as good as the soi 33 branch
  • Sukhumvit soi 55, down to J Mall, a very good new branch, many Japanese clientele
  • Sukhumvit soi 11, by the Ambassador Hotel, a good branch with adequate parking
  • Sukhumvit soi 2, corner, in the basement of the small Ploenchit Center mall, a small branch
  • Langsuan Rd., ground floor of the Millenium building, a small branch
  • Aree, in the shopping center beside the skytrain station, a small branch
  • Nonthaburi, Grand Canal, a nice new branch of good size
  • Nonthaburi, Nichada Thani (near International School of Bangkok)
  • Nonthaburi, Seventh Avenue Mall (Chaeng Wattana Road), a new small branch

Two other good grocery stores are:

  • Foodland - popular with foreigners in the Bangkok CBD and Pattaya, also has many suburban outlets
  • Tops Market -- in Central and Robinsons (now merged) department stores; plus a few standalone Tops, some Tops good, some so-so

The Tops under Central Chidlom is one of the best grocery stores in Bangkok, with many imported products on the shelves which I haven't seen anywhere else in Bangkok, top quality meats, a very large deli with a wide assortment, and a small dining area.

For people who like to come to Thailand and shop at traditional Western chains, there are four Western superstores which are all over Thailand - mainly in the Bangkok suburbs and other provinces - and the grocery store section of these superstores carry most of the things that Villa Market (above) and Foodland (below) also carry. The selection and quality varies from branch to branch, and some are surprisingly at their best in the provinces. They are:

  • Tesco-Lotus (British) - has the best grocery stores of the four European chains
  • Carrefour (French) - second best
  • Big C (French) - the cheapest (e.g., Price Leader brand) and lower quality
  • Makro (German) - these resemble bulk sale warehouses

When I write of Tesco Lotus, I mean the big superstores of Tesco Lotus, not the new convenience stores of Tesco Lotus which are like a triple-sized 7-11. Those convenience stores are OK for quick pickups of mainstream meat, potatoes, and vegetables, but for the best selection go to the superstores.

There are some other chains which are Thai and other Asian:

  • Fuji, just a few, with Japanese clientele
  • Siam Jusco (a cut below the above, at least in the past)
  • Pata
  • Others

Villa Market started during the Vietnam War to serve expats in the 1970s, but it remained a niche one or two branch business until around the turn of the century. It has quickly expanded around central Bangkok and now into the part of Nonthaburi with three branches on and near Chaeng Wattana Road. Of the other chains, Foodland and Tops are the best, and I would rate these two as better than any of the superstores, but not as good as Villa Market, as regards the quality of the average store.

Thailand underwent a metamorphosis in the department & grocery store landscape in the late 1990s. First came the 1997 Asia economic collapse, which put Central and other inventory-heavy stores in deep financial trouble. At the same time, controversial WTO (World Trade Organization) negotiations and rules were scheduled to open the Thai market to foreign superstore chains, which had previously been blocked in order to protect Thai small and medium size chains and mom & pop shops from being blown away by the big corporate giants. The WTO rules came into effect at about the worst time for Thailand - when the domestic Thai companies were weakest due to the 1997 collapse.

The four European chains (Tesco, Makro, Carrefour, Big C) raced in - racing each other, with amazing numbers of stores going up all over the country. In some places, the shrinkage of the Thai stores was dramatic, sometimes obliterated, along with countless mom & pop shops.

▶ Specific Products

You can find nearly all other good food all the way out into the provincial superstores, including things like New Zealand cheeses, Talley's (NZ) frozen mixed vegetables, Flora margarine made of sunflower and canola oils without transfats, whole grain breads, and a lot of surprising things to find in the outer reaches. Many foreign food companies have built factories in Thailand to make the products sold inside Thailand, sometimes by multinationals (e.g., Dutch Mill, Meiji, Heineken, etc., etc.), sometimes by local manufacturers (e.g., Tipco, CP, S&P).

The fresh meats are excellent to good in most of the mainstream superstores - seafood (lots!), chicken, pork and beef (except ground beef). The selection of the good stuff isn't so wide at Big C or Makro, so I'd recommend you stick to Villa Market, Tops, Foodland, Tesco Lotus, and maybe Carrefour.

The Thai government and food industry have been working together on a program for "hygenic" meats, which means they are carefully inspected for hormone levels, antibiotics and other things, and participating farmers are supposed to feed the animals and birds only certain kinds of things. The meats are generally not cut and packaged by the store or superstore butcher but are cut and packaged at a participating slaughterhouse and rushed to the supermarket in well-refrigerated trucks. They have a standard label on them identifying the product as having been produced by participating sources, and are in a "MAP" (Modified Atmosphere Package, typically 100% nitrogen-packed, whereas the air we breath is 77% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, 2% other). The label is in Thai (except "MAP"), but you can figure it out.

Some egg vendors have carefully controlled feed to their chickens in order to get eggs rich in Omega-3 or DHA. It's often machine-written in English on the individual eggs within the clearly marked package. (I never saw a printed egg in the US.) The eggs are all brown here, and they aren't always cleaned completely of chicken poop, so I suggest washing your hands after cracking them open and discarding the shells.

Some favorite locally made products:

  • Meiji brand milk and yogurt, real Japanese level quality transplanted to Thailand, beats Western transplanted factories
  • Tipco brand fruit juices, 100% natural, no sugar added, and excellent quality, indigenous Thai company (but I don't like the Malee or Unif brands, their competitors)
  • Gourmet brand yogurt and cottage cheese (Villa Market and Foodland Sukhumvit only)
  • Healthy Mate snacks

I never liked skim milk until I tried the Meiji brand, and now it's all I drink. I don't know how they do it, but only trying is believing.

The fruit juice mixes in Thailand are carefully blended. You get some very healthful ones with a large percentage of beet root, purple carrot as well as ordinary carrot, blood orange, and other things. Look at the nutritional information on the side for the amounts of natural vitamin A, E, B1, B2, Folate, and other things. Pure carrot juice was previously made by all of them and then discontinued by all of them, but Harvey's is starting to be imported from California.

There are some good bean and seed juices, not just soy but also things such as "Jobs Tears", one of the most nutritious foods around. There are sweetened and unsweetened versions. Look for the Pro-Fit brand. Unfortunately, Tesco doesn't carry the unsweetened blue version of Pro-Fit even though Jobs Tears drink is already a little sweet, and they carry only the sweetened green version.

There is only one good brand of margarine -- Flora. It has no hydrogenated fats (transfats). Others do, such as Meadow Lea, an import I don't recommend. Flora is sold at Tesco, Tops, Foodland, and Villa Market.

The locally baked whole wheat breads available all over Thailand are excellent quality in terms of both pure ingredients and taste. The two main brands are Gardenia and Farm House. The latter fortifies its bread with a bit more extra vitamins. Both are tasty eaten right out of the bag just plain. There aren't many whole wheat breads in the U.S. which I can say that about (and no white breads). They're not only at supermarkets but also most convenience stores, normally very fresh.

You can get some esoteric breads at Villa Market, such as the 7 grain (my favorite), multiseed, sourdough, Bavarian, and others.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019