What food items to bring back from Thailand?
I'll be going to Thailand in about a week. What items (that are legal) are good to bring back. Mostly stuff one can't find here or better quality items. Preferably things that one can find throughout Thailand. The recent article on what's legal to bring back suggested curry paste and a mortar and pestle. What else?
To some extent, it would depend on where "here" is.
In Los Angeles, for instance, there is very little in the way of Thai products that can't be found, although they often cost a premium.
Packaged, prepared items are your best bet
Regional sauces and pastes that you like are a good idea.
Some of these might come under scrutiny though (make sure the packaging looks copasetic).
You might come across some interesting tableware, cutlery and cooking utensils.
Chatuchak Weekend Market is a good place for this stuff.
You might ask your favorite local Thai resto where they buy there supplies. Any large Asian market will have a samll but competent Thai section as well as a lot of crossover items.
Try Battambang Market in Lowell, I'd hate to see you go halfway around the world and lug back things you can buy in your own backyard.
Set aside time for visits to a local wet market or two, bec the quality will almost always compare favorably to what you'd get in a grocery store. When in Thailand I always pick up
1)Palm sugar (namtaan pip) - sometimes it differs region to region. Ask a local at a wet market for the tastiest (ah-roy tee-soot), bec quality varies.
2)ground chili and ground *roasted* chili (the latter is esp nice as table condiment), and whole dried chilies
3)if you're in the north, eg Chiang Mai, laab "mix" - a small bag of various ground spices (chili, long pepper, a variety of Sichuan peppercorn, etc) to mix with ground pork, garlic, fish sauce, and a dash of lime juice for northern-style (not Isaan-style) laab
4)pla raa (puh-lah raah), which is 'super-fermented' fish sauce. It's been in the barrel for a year and is unstrained ... slightly thick, usu with chunks of fish. Very stinky but essential for northern-style Thai food.
5) shrimp paste (gah-pee) - you can get better quality in Thailand than you'll find in the states
6) tamarind paste - Thais I know turn their noses up at any that's not Thai-origin
7) 'drinking food' nut mixes - look for bags of roasted cashews and/or peanuts mixed with deep-fried kaffir lime leaves, shallots, and whole chilies. These will keep a long time in the fridge and their delicious (or, you could make your own at home)
In Bangkok, Aw Taw Kaw market is a hassle-free place to pick these items up. In Chiang Mai, Warorot Mkt is convenient. Other options in Bangkok would be Sam Yan market (near the university, convenient to Sukhumvit/Silom Roads) and, if you like a real wet market experience, Klong Toey market.
Take along plenty of ziploc bags (or find them at the grocery store in BKK)
Bronze tableware! Not exactly food, but food related and significantly cheaper there. Between my brother, my parents and myself we have service for 50+. We've been buying from the same place for over 30 years, and they back their stuff forever. They package everything you buy for checkin and deliver it to your hotel. Not the cheapest, but still dirt cheap and worth every baht.
As far as true food, bottled or canned goods are going to be the easiest to get in the country. I'm in the bay area so there are darn few things I can't get, YMMV Mekong whiskey is fun to have just to horrify your friends, the various hot sauces keep well and are great fun. Curry pastes are a good idea, I'd get many small ones of different brands. Mae Ploy is widely available in the states so you may want to try others.
I wish I had brought home more freeze-dried jackfruit. Light and airy, with an intense strawberry-ish flavor, I only found it at one market near the end of my time in Bangkok. (A recently remodeled market where celebrities supposedly shop.) Problem is that it is bulky and fragile. When I see dried jackfruit here, the labels mention oil, which seems to be a different process.