You can get nearly everything here at grocery stores, from fine luxurious ingredients to "health foods". Don't worry that coming to Thailand will mean your diet must change. However, you get a slightly better selection of groceries in the expat centers of Bangkok, for those who are very picky.
I prefer cooking at home than eating out. Most expats I know eat out, because Bangkok has a great variety of restaurants, ranging from cheap but delicious Thai food to foreign restaurants with the most luxurious food you can find in the world at far more economical Thailand prices, and everything in-between. Plus countless home food delivery operations. Thai street food is of relatively high quality health wise (high in lean meat and vegetables), and is available 24 hours/day.
However, unless I'm meeting someone, I usually would rather eat at home, because:
First, a list of grocery 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:
Two other good grocery stores are:
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:
WalMart does not exist in Thailand. This website has another page on Thailand's superstores.
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:
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.
In the late 1990s, the Thai Central chain merged with its very similar competitor, Robinsons, and somewhat held its ground in Bangkok against the onslaught of the foreign superstores. The rest of the Thai superstores are rather hard to find now.
Tops is an old American chain which started in upstate New York in the 1920s, a family business which eventually expanded to into 2 more states, Pennsylvania and Ohio, with more than 150 stores, but never attempted any nationwide expansion. Tops was acquired around 1990 by the Netherlands company Ahold, which helped fuel development in the 3 states, plus, I believe, these much less known overseas stores (people have told me there's also Tops in Hong Kong), but Ahold got way into debt shortly after 2000 and started selling off Tops stores in large batches. At the end of 2007, Morgan Stanley Private Equity (descended from J.P. Morgan) took over the remaining 70 or so Tops stores in the USA, now Tops Markets LLC. (In late 2008, Morgan Stanley's stock price suddenly plummeted by about half and that was probably not the bottom.) The old Tops stores in Thailand have the same Tops logo as in the USA, but newer Tops stores have a different Tops logo, so probably Central owns Tops in Thailand. Tops has only improved in Thailand, no signs of decay at all. (The Tops logo at the top left is from the sign of an old branch at Fashion Island in Bangkapi, whereby the logo is exactly the same as Tops in the USA.)
A standalone Tops Market branch in suburban Bangkapi as part of a shopping center, with the newer Tops logo in Thailand, the grocery store being the big building at the end leftside (and you can click on the photo for a larger one):
There are various health food stores spread around. These are small chains and tend to be family owned stores. They specialize in organically grown vegetables and various specially nutritious products, though I was not impressed with their selection compared to American health food stores. Lots of faddish "health" products. One chain has a website, www.LemonFarm.com , and you can get some good expert advice from independent stores in classy, educated niches in the suburbs. However, you also have some groupie fad followers with questionable advice, like health food "fanatics" in other parts of the world.
Finally, about pharmacies: Nearly all of the above stores include a pharmacy in most of their branches (except maybe Makro). It is my experience that the pharmacists there are not very good compared to independently operated pharmacies on the street. If you know exactly what you want, then the superstore pharmacy may be OK. But if you need good advice from a pharmacist, i.e., a pharmacist who keeps up in their technical field and puts out a really good effort to help you, then I would recommend an independent operator. I've been to pharmacists in many provinces, and this is one field where Thailand really impresses me on average, as typical ones have been good, and many have been really outstanding. Indeed, exemplary human beings. (Their English stands out, too.) Many are doctors who moonlight or live in the shop/townhouse above their pharmacy. But my experiences with pharmacists in the grocery stores and superstores has been at the bottom extreme, over and again. So look for this sign on the street:
Remember: In Thailand, you do not need a prescription from a doctor. You can buy anything they have. But you'd better have a good pharmacist's advice or else know what you're doing.
When in the fruits and vegetables section, just look for the scales. There may not be anyone waiting there. Go walk to the scales and stand there. Someone will come help you.
The things which can be found only at Villa Market and Foodland (and a few Tops) include the following, though the list seems to shrink every year as Thai grocery stores expand their selections:
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 of my favorite locally made products:
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.
If you like chocolate, then Thailand is a great place to be because there are so many brands of chocolate from around the world, it's crazy. However, most chocolates have hard oils in them which are not so good for you, and sugar levels typically over 40%. The best chocolate I've ever had, however, is none of the imports from around the world. It is from the innovative Thailand company Healthy Mate, a real export quality product (see also HealthyMate.com), specifically their Almond Chocolate:
The oils in the Healthy Mate products are mainly those from the nuts. The ingredients are 51-55% almond (or healthful black sesame), 20% cocoa powder, 17% brown sugar, powdered whole milk, and a little "bran rice oil", lecithin, and vanilla. When you open the jar, you must mix in the oil which has settled up to the top (with a fork or bread knife), but this oil is the kind your body needs, not the transfats or hard oils commonly used in chocolate bars. You eat this with a spoon, nice and soft and tasty. One jar is the size equivalent of several candy bars, so it's economical only if you don't pig out. I'm hoping Healthy Mate will come out with a small, cheap bite-size alternative for 7-11 candy shelves like Nutella, the latter brand having bad ingredients but popular due to its small package option.
Healthy Mate was previously known just for plain peanut butter, black sesame paste, white sesame paste, and almond butter for the past several years. The addition of chocolate products came in late 2008, an innovation I expect to take off.
Some things aren't made in Thailand but must be imported. This includes oats (Quaker, McGarrett, Australian brands) and wheat germ. They're cheap, despite being imported. The Quaker and some Australian oats you can just soak in Tipco boxed rice milk or soy milk and they go soft quickly without cooking, with more flavor.
Villa Market also carries frozen things from abroad. I don't like most of it, except the salmon and the Talley's vegetables. I love sushi, and frozen salmon and tuna is a bit safer than never frozen as regards potential parasites (though freezing does not kill all bacteria or viruses!). The farm raised salmon tastes much better than the more expensive Alaska wild salmon, and besides I don't like the harvesting of wild meat, only domesticated.
Some things to avoid:
Regarding my opinion on the cheap "Price Leader" brand carried in Big C, this covers not just meats but other Price Leader products as well. They are the ultimate in low price, but trying some will tell you why. After a few tries at various products, I didn't touch them for awhile, but one day I decided to go ahead and get a big jug of Price Leader water. How can you go wrong with water? So I picked it up and was halfway down the aisle when the handle broke off and the thin jug went SPLAT! on the floor, bursting open and drenching it. Big C also tends to run short on items which are a competitor to its Price Leader brand.
I pretty much stick to Tesco, Tops, and Foodland, and about once every two weeks I'll skytrain in to Villa Market (Phrom Pong station) and taxi out with bags of esoteric stuff.
Your Opinions Are Solicited
The above is mostly my opinion. Others opinions are welcome, too, and I'd like to add them here.
On my personal website at www.MarkPrado.com , I have a section on health food theory and my diet.
I've gotten a few expat men started on cooking, and here is some general advice: You can find good recipes on the Internet. I've done it since the late 1980s. From quick and simple dishes like macarone & cheese to really advanced stuff. Start on Google. Find good sources to bookmark from there. I plan to put some up here if much interested is expressed. Drop me a line.
If you buy an electric stove or oven (which are cheap), then you should read my section on electrical grounding
> Miscellaneous Tips > Grocery Shopping
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