Among Philadelphia’s many hidden charms are its neighborhoods. Some of those neighborhoods can transport you to other lands, complete with markets, restaurants, religious temples, and even street food–from sources that are commonplace in other countries. Though long gone for France, the colonial land of Indochina lives on in South Philly. Cambodian, Vietnamese, and Lao immigrants have formed little slices of home on 7th Street, largely in between Snyder and Oregon avenues.
For someone like me, looking for unique food items of Southeast Asia, this is a kind of heaven. There are no less than eight food markets on 7th Street, and there several Cambodian/Vietnamese restaurants, and even several Southeast Asian coffee shops. There is a lot to experience!
Let’s go for a walk. I’ll point out some of the main markets and sights. Walking south from Snyder, this is the first market on your right. It is kind of dark, but it has a basic selection of fresh and refrigerated items, with the standard non-perishables for Vietnamese and Cambodian cooking. Much from Thailand, as is true for every place in Philly. Thailand is the primary exporter for mainland Southeast Asia. There is no Thai market in Philly, though (to my knowledge). The next market is on the left side, the Rising Star Grocery. This one is interesting, it is a lot brighter, and there is a nice selection of obscure leaves and herbs. The 3 large markets on Washington Ave will have most of these items, but not all. Lemon basil and holy basil noted among an increasing selection of Burmese items. Today I picked up a pickled tea leaf salad kit. They have other Burmese items too.
Across Winton Street there is Phnoum Penh Tmay Market. This market is not bad, again, standard items for Cambodia/Laos tastes. I overheard Lao spoken here, could be Lao run. There are also many other shops in this neighborhood. In the above picture you can see “Angkor Pharmacy”. There are medicine shops, laundromats, hair salons, video stores (yes, still), traditional Khmer clothing stores, etc.
UPDATE 24 July: I didn’t mean to leave out the impressive Friendly Market! That market is in between these two, and it is so specialized with products from Nepal and Burma, that it deserves its own post.
Next up is Chai Hong Market. This market is well stocked, and there are some relatively obscure fresh vegetables and items from Thailand. The shop owner has a savory fruit dip tray set up near the cash register, like they do at Whole Foods for tasting new products. There are usually Cambodian karaoke videos playing. Today I bought some nice sawtooth coriander for a fish soup that I’m planning tonight:
I also found a few items here that I didn’t find at the larger Washington Ave markets, while preparing to make a master stock for a Chinese rice noodle dish (see Guilin noodle post). Moving on.
One more market that might be Lao (there were guys eating grilled meat outside speaking Lao anyway). This one is Koh Kong Market at the corner of Moyamensing Ave. Again, a decently stocked market in terms of basic necessities for Cambodian and Lao cuisines. Nice basic selection of herbs and veggies. I felt bad because I already had everything I was prepared to buy for the day. “Just looking,” I have to say. I should mention that all of the signage we have seen today is in Cambodian (Khmer), often translated in Vietnamese, and occasionally in Chinese too. More rarely can Lao be seen. I’ve already mentioned that I’ve been hearing Lao spoken at shops. Either some shopkeepers are bilingual, or the signs don’t represent the nationalities of the owners.
For me, Lao is a kind of “home”. I am barely conversational in Lao, but still, I feel very comfortable among Lao people. Beyond language, I can say that I am comforted by the flavors of this “home”: grilled meats, eaten together with sticky rice, papaya salad (mashed together with the super umami of fermented fish), and a funky spicy paste known as jaewbong. It is so good.
Much to my pleasure, I encounter some Lao folks on 7th street. Just south of Wolf Street, there is an enclave of sorts. It’s my lucky day, and they are grilling out, with all of the standard accoutrements. Grilled meats on skewers: beef, chiken wings, or Lao sausages (if you haven’t had Lao-style sausage, you should try, it is delicious–sour pork mixed with rice and spices and crammed into a tube). Too much to go on about here, about how good Lao food is. More coming later.
There is an unmarked Lao market on 7th, in between Wolf and Ritner, across from the Lao video store. It is a small selection, but I was able to find an obscure spice there, the Thai version of the Sichuan peppercorn, makhwaen มะแขว่น.
Around the corner towards the Delaware River you can find the Cambodian Buddhist temple and school. Its unique architecture and sculptures will also transport you to another place. It is an amazing complex, you should see it for yourself.
I hope you pay a visit to 7th Street. It is kind of like taking a trip to mainland Southeast Asia. If you have a particular need for a Southeast Asian food ingredient, you are sure to find it here!