Multi-cultural food in birmingham, Alabama
Chai Market (formerly known as Chai's Oriental Food Store) has been a part of the Birmingham community since 1973; When Mr. Chai, the original owner, decided that he would like to retire about six years ago, Thailand natives Kay and Golf saw an opportunity. “I've always dreamed of being a business owner.” Golf says. “Yes, my father was a businessman. It has always been a dream of mine too.” Kay nods. They were young, at only 26 and 27. Golf had come to Birmingham to study at Cumberland School of Law at Samford University and Kay was formerly a flight attendant with a Thai airline before moving to the U.S. Kay tells that it was a prestigious job in Thailand, but not the career she wanted. Mr. Chai had developed a loyal following in the community. “We thought it was a good idea, there was already an established customer base. It was less of a risk than starting a business completely from scratch.” That does not mean that it was easy for first time business owners Kay and Golf. They tell of how at first they ran the store just as the previous owner, Mr. Chai did. The customers were so loyal that they did not want change, at first. “We eventually came into our own and began to introduce new things. Before it was mostly Chinese foods, but now we have Thai, African, and Indian foods.”
The food scene has changed recently in Birmingham. People are becoming increasingly open to new ingredients and new nationalities of food. Thai, Korean, and Japanese foods are very popular right now, Golf and Kay tell. “People now want to try authentic dishes. Sometimes customers come in with recipes that can not be found in English. We are happy to translate and help them find all the ingredients that they need.” The small store is packed with products and the narrow, colorful aisles are a feast for the eye. Besides packaged goods, Chai's carries produce that could rival a farmer's market in freshness. “Some of the items we carry are not available anywhere else in Birmingham, such as Thai Basil.”
The true highlight of Chai's Oriental is the service that Kay and Golf provide to their customers. They love to share what they cook on their Facebook page and invite customers to recreate the meals for themselves. Though they have plans to renovate the store, Golf tells that, “It's not how big your store is. The most important thing is creating a good experience for the customers. We are here to assist and help educate on the foods that we know and love.” The initial introduction to international foods can be overwhelming. To some of us folks in the south, talk of kimchi, bok choy, and nori might make you scratch your head in confusion. But that doesn't mean you shouldn't try new things. We asked Golf and Kay to help (like they are so good at) and pick out five must try items from their store for us newbies. Take a trip down to Chai's and put a little adventure in your food!
Golf & Kay's picks
Gochujang Hot Pepper Paste (Great for marinating Korean BBQ!)
Megachef Thai Fish Sauce (Gluten-free and no MSG)
Wagh Bakri Indian Chai Tea (The most authentic Chai, a best seller)
Ting Caribbean soft drink (Lemon, grapefruit flavored)
S&B Nanami Togarashi Japanese assorted chili pepper (Great for rice!)
Chai Market is located on 2133 7th Ave S, Birmingham, AL 35233. Visit their Facebook page for more ingredient and meal suggestions.
Words by Stephanie Davis