When you walk into Vinh Phat Oriental Market on Florida Boulevard near Flannery Road, you feel as if you have crossed a portal into another world and are suddenly far from home.
Tightly packed shelves are crammed from floor to ceiling with more than 15,000, mostly Asian, food items that seem strange and exotic to Western eyes but are, of course, quite commonplace in their countries of origin.
They remind you of products you might buy in your own neighborhood supermarket and, yet, are so very different - and intriguing. Pickled mud fish. Artichoke tea. Dried lily bulbs. Kabocha pumpkins. Frozen durian. (Be glad it’s frozen; we’ll explain later.) And gallon after gallon-size drums of soy sauce.
“We go there when we get homesick,” said LSU kinesiology professor Li Li, who is active in the local Chinese-American community and has been a regular shopper at Vinh Phat since moving to Baton Rouge 13 years ago. “There are things we can buy there that you just can’t find anywhere else.”
If you’ve never been to an Asian market, you need to visit Vinh Phat just for the experience. If you have been to other Asian markets, it’s still worth the trek out Florida Boulevard into the heart of the local Vietnamese community to see this 10,000-square-foot store because of the sheer variety of international food products it carries.
Though its Vietnamese owners opened it more than 30 years ago primarily to serve the city’s then-new Vietnamese community, Vinh Phat has since expanded its merchandise to cater to a growing and diverse Asian population.
Reading the labels on the jars of banana sauce or spicy-sour coconut paste you get an idea of just how diverse that Asian community is. Products come not only from China, Japan and Vietnam, but from Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, the Philippines and Taiwan.
“They (the owners) are very astute because they carry things that are particular to many Oriental populations, not just Chinese and Vietnamese,” Li said. “They are sensitive to all the different Oriental cooking needs.”
“They” are Nam and Judy Thai, who own and operate Vinh Phat with their son, Mike Thai, 38, who was just 5 years old when his immigrant parents opened the store in the aptly named Far East Plaza shopping center.
“Back then, there were only one or two other Asian restaurants out here,” said Mike Thai, who does the English-speaking interviews on behalf of his family. “There was nothing else here. The landlord named it the Far East Plaza because there were no other businesses here.”
For the first few years, sales were slow. The local Asian community was a lot smaller in the early 1980s than it is today, and most non-Asians either didn’t know about the store or weren’t interested in finding out about it.
Over the years, that has changed. The Asian population in Baton Rouge increased, growing from just 1 percent in 1990 to nearly 3 percent last year, according to U.S. Census data. Like Li, many of them shop at Vinh Phat because it carries hard-to-find Asian products that remind them of home.
Like moon cake, for example, a rare confection you’re unlikely to find anywhere else around here. It’s a round pastry filled with thick, sweet custard typically made from lotus seed paste. The cake is traditionally served at the mid-Autumn Chinese Moon Festival and is to the harvest celebration what pumpkin pie is to Thanksgiving.
“That’s the only place that carries a moon cake, as well as the ingredients to make one,” Li said.
But many of the regular shoppers these days at Vinh Phat are non-Asians. They come because of their interest in Asian cooking or, perhaps, because they want to try out a dish they have seen on one of the many ethnic cooking or food-related travel shows on Food TV or the Travel Channel.
“Our business has really been helped by celebrity chefs and cooking shows with people like Andrew Zimmerman and Anthony Bourdain,” Thai said. “People will come in and say they saw it on TV and want to try it.”
What they come for varies. Thai said many customers seek out the root vegetables that are delivered from Houston- and California-based distributors several times a week. Among them are the aforementioned kabocha pumpkins (a Japanese winter squash), malanga root, (a starchy vegetable reminiscent of potatoes) and taro, a Hawaiian root that is a common ingredient in spring rolls.
Dragon fruit is another popular item. It’s a gorgeous, brightly colored member of the cactus family that hails from South America and can be used in a variety of salads and desserts.
Sales of a fruit called durian are also quite brisk, particularly with local chefs, according to Thai, who said several come in regularly and buy it for their own personal consumption.
If you know anything about durian, this may surprise you. For the uninitiated, durian is a pineapple-size fruit with a spiky, wooden-looking shell. Nature was kind to make the shell so thick because when you crack it open, it emits a nauseating, sulfuric odor.
Thai keeps it in his freezer to prevent it from stinking up the rest of his store, and Li said its putrid smell is so widely reviled, it is banned from the lobbies of hotels and buildings in Hong Kong, where it is less appreciated than in its native Malaysia.
Among the other products at Vinh Phat that are almost as exotic as durian, though considerably more aromatic, are the teas. These include Vietnamese artichoke tea, an herbal tea that acts as a diuretic, and gohyah tea, which is made from bitter melon.
Then there are rice noodles of every imaginable size and shape, egg roll wrappers, prepackaged spice blends, dried soup mixes, sauce mixes, cereals, candies, cookies and a whole section of Asian cooking tools and implements.
The store also carries other Asian household items - detergents or diapers from Asian manufacturers, for instance - the kind of little things that makes regular Asian customers feel a little closer to home.
It’s one of the reasons Li said he and others shop there. Every year, for instance, the store gives away free Chinese calendars for the Chinese New Year. It’s the kind of item that goes a long way toward endearing native Asians to the store, and keeps them coming back.
“If you shop there, they will give you a Chinese calendar,” Li said. “That’s a very small thing but it’s very important to us.”