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Pok Pok: Food and Stories from the Streets, Homes, and Roadside Restaurants of Thailandby Andy Ricker and JJ Goode
by David Thompson
“One more plate of laap—please, Andy,” was my plea. I needed more. I had just finished a plate of this Northern Thai dish of chopped meat (pork, in this instance) mixed with spices and herbs. I have eaten laap many times before—it is a regional classic. However, this rendition was irresistible. The minced pork was rich and smoky, the spices bitter and tangy, the herbs enticingly aromatic. The combination of all these flavors left a wonderful taste that lingered long after I’d finished my last bite. I simply just had to order a second plate.
I confess I was surprised by how good it was; really, it had no right to be so delicious. After all, I was sitting in Portland, Oregon—a far, far cry from Chiang Mai, the Northern Thai city that is this dish’s home.
I guess I shouldn’t have been astonished. Andy may have opened his first Pok Pok restaurant in Portland, but the food he cooks has deep roots in Thailand. It might seem strange that this six-foot-tall Vermonter is cooking Northern Thai food so well, until you understand Andy’s love for the Thais, their cuisine, and in particular the hazy mountainous province of Chiang Mai. Andy makes regular visits to Thailand, where he trawls the markets—watching, asking questions, and collecting recipes. He chats engagingly with local cooks, who share with him tips and techniques—but he is also a keen observer, and gets ideas and knowledge from furtively watching other, unsuspecting cooks. Either way, by whatever means, Andy gets the goods.
Whenever Andy comes to Thailand, I see him in Bangkok, where I live, and occasionally we travel together up-country. Accompanying Andy as he pursues his culinary quarry can be exhausting. He moves quickly from shop to shop, market to market, or village to village with nary a regard for his fellow travelers. He walks past the stalls that don’t pass muster, refusing to stop, while those of us in his wake bleat plaintively, wanting to eat, looking longingly at dishes he dismisses and leaves untouched. Mr. Ricker demands the best and thus he commands my respect, even if I do often end up hungry, tired, and sulky.
Andy has turned his not being Thai into an advantage. He is not limited by an inherent belief, as many Thais are, that his mother’s is the best and the only way to cook. His approach is much broader and more encompassing; he casts his culinary net wider, across all of Northern Thailand and its verdant and fertile fields.
Andy first backpacked through Asia and landed in Thailand in 1987, around the time I was making those same laps. I am surprised I didn’t run into him. Although, given the similarity of our quests, our mutual love for Thailand, and our crazy partying ways, it’s quite possible we did. . . .
Andy’s moment of culinary epiphany came over a mushroom. Mine was over a serpent head fish, clearly demonstrating that we can’t choose our moments. The objects of our inspiration—some fungi and a fish, respectively—might seem silly, but in the end, they prompted both of us to change the course of our lives, including how we eat and cook.
I still recall that sour orange curry of serpent head fish, tart with tamarind leaves, plump with flavor. The seasoning, tastes, and textures of that curry transformed my understanding of Thai food. From then on I was hooked.
I moved to Bangkok to learn about the city’s remarkable cuisine, regal past, and sophisticated tastes, opening a few swank restaurants in the process. Meanwhile, Andy was researching up-country, eating his way through the north of Thailand. Later he opened the first Pok Pok restaurant in Portland on a maxed-out credit card, a mortgage, and with little capital. In the decade since then, he has established himself as an important voice in Thai cooking and an emissary of Northern Thai food internationally.
I remember working with Andy in both New York City and Portland and being amazed at his rather informal approach to cooking, kitchens, and restaurants. His very first restaurant was built out of his kitchen and partially demolished house, the food served through a window onto his porch and into the backyard—much like some small countryside restaurant in Thailand. You see, I come from the dainty world of fine dining, where certain things—such as grilling over charcoal in smoky forty-four-gallon drums, backyard coconut pressing, drinking beer on the job out of glass jars, fermenting mustard greens on the roof, and more beer drinking—were simply not done (unfortunately). But the casual appearance of Andy’s restaurants belies the rigorous, ambitious cooking that happens in his kitchens. He is obsessed with making the very best food he can. I admire the canny way he doctors his lime juice to approximate the taste of lime juice in Thailand, the resourceful way he finds and secures Thai produce, and his faithful adherence to Thai recipes, techniques, and tastes. The restaurants may not look terribly fancy, but inside, Andy and his Pok Pok crew are complete perfectionists, constantly adjusting and tinkering with their recipes to ensure everything is right.
Andy has almost singlehandedly created a market for regional Thai cuisine in the United States. Such food was practically unknown in the US before Pok Pok, but now, many of the dishes he cooks are the objects of cultlike devotion. For proof of his swashbuckling success, simply observe the lines that wind down the street outside of the Pok Pok restaurants. People clamor for his food—a style of cooking that they didn’t know existed before 2005. One excellent example is that delectable pork laap, which was as lip-smackingly good as any version I have found in Thailand.
While eagerly waiting for my second plate, I looked across our table—with its now-empty plates of grilled sausages, noodle salads, soups, curries, and chili dips—to the other tables of equally replete and happy diners. I couldn’t help but wonder, what would this damned skillful cook do next?
Well, you’re now holding Andy’s latest project: the Pok Pok cookbook. In it, Andy chronicles Chiang Mai’s wide-ranging culinary repertoire—including my longed-for pork laap, a sour orange curry quite similar to the one that first enthralled me so many years ago, and many other Northern dishes. This book is the product of years and years of research, practice, and experience, and clearly demonstrates why Andy and Pok Pok are so successful: great food; honest, practical advice and guidance; and a sincere desire to please without compromising the integrity of the cuisine. It’s a winning recipe.
Naam Phrik Kha
Dry-fried galangal-chile dip
Even in Thailand, where restaurants often don’t resemble restaurants, Pa Daeng Jin Tup doesn’t initially look like a place where you’d want to eat.
This dirt patch on the side of the road, about 15 minutes northeast of Chiang Mai, is scattered with tables covered with oilcloth, folding chairs, and benches haphazardly nailed together. Tarps, blankets, and overhanging trees form an improvised roof.
There are no less than five stray cats slinking between the tables, looking for scraps.
Diners here hang out in T-shirts in front of tall bottles of beer and ice-filled glasses, leisurely emptying pastel-colored plastic plates filled with fatty slabs of charred pig teat and sour fermented pork sausage served beside tiny garlic cloves and alarmingly tiny fresh green chiles. There are banana leaf packages of custardlike, curry paste–slathered pig brain, and, of course, baskets of sticky rice and local herbs.
This is aahaan kap klaem, or Thai drinking food, which tends toward the charred, chewy, and funky. It’s awesome stuff, and I devoted the menu at Whiskey Soda Lounge, in Portland, to its pleasures. Specifically, Pa Daeng specializes in the Northern subset of this genre.
I’ve been coming here since my friend Sunny absent-mindedly pointed it out on a drive to Chiang Mai. I love to watch the cooks work in the outdoor kitchen, if you can call it a kitchen. It amounts to a few pots and a couple of grills fashioned from oil drums. There’s an old fan perched on a stool stoking the coals. The cooks operate a crude pulley system, raising and lowering a meat-strewn rack over the embers.
On my first visit, a sustained banging caught my attention. A woman was using a mallet to attack a piece of beef on a thick wood slab. Our waitress and Sunny both looked entertained by my bemusement. Sunny let loose a string of Northern Thai, the dialect still common in these parts and virtually unintelligible to me, that I thought would never end. He was ordering. Soon our table was filled with pink, blue, yellow, and green plastic plates.
Of all the wonderful foods that appeared, one of my favorites was the least conspicuous: a few tablespoons of coarse powder fragrant with chiles and citrusy, almost soapy galangal. I watched Sunny as he grabbed a small hunk of meat, swiped it through, and ate it. I tried it, too. It was awesome.
Two hours later, I was busy with two things—polishing off another round of fermented sausage and trying to figure out what was in this incredible powder. As soon as Sunny told me its name, naam phrik kha, I could place it in the family of relishes called naam phrik, which are typically eaten as a sort of dip for vegetables and meat. Yet unlike those I’d encountered before, this one was not a wet paste. It was not moist. It was completely dry. After a boisterous conversation with Pa Daeng herself, Sunny explained that they pound massive amounts of the naam phrik in a massive mortar, then they cook the fibrous paste in batches in a dry heavy wok set over a charcoal fire until all the moisture is gone. My best guess is that this preserves it, though they burn through so much of it here that I doubt leftover naam phrik stays around for long.
This stuff is salty and intense, so the 1/2 cup this recipe makes goes a long way. In Thailand, you often see it served with steamed beef or steamed mushrooms. Typically, I’m disappointed that the younger, more delicate galangal you see in Thailand is so tough to find in the US, but for this recipe, there’s good news: it’s meant to be made with the older, more fragrant stuff.
Flavor Profile: Salty, highly aromatic, spicy
Try It With Sii Khrong Muu Yaang (Thai-style pork ribs), page 128, or other grilled meat and Khao Niaw (Sticky rice), page 33.
A Thai granite mortar and pestle
A wok (nonstick highly recommended)
A wooden wok spatula (if using a nonstick wok) or a metal wok spatula
Makes about 1/2 cup, enough for 4 to 6 as part of a meal
14 grams stemmed dried Mexican puya chiles (about 8)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
14 grams thinly sliced lemongrass (tender parts only), from about 2 large stalks
21/4 ounces peeled fresh or frozen (not defrosted) galangal, thinly sliced against the grain
11/4 ounces peeled garlic cloves, halved lengthwise
TO SERVE ALONGSIDE
Assorted steamed mixed vegetables (such as oyster mushrooms, long beans, cabbage, chayote, or winter squash), for dipping
Combine the dried chiles in the mortar with the salt and pound firmly, scraping the mortar and stirring the mixture once or twice, until you have a fairly fine powder, about 5 minutes. Pound in the lemongrass, occasionally stopping to scrape down the sides of the mortar, until you have a fairly smooth, fibrous paste, about 2 minutes. Do the same with the galangal (about 4 minutes), then the garlic (about 3 minutes), fully pounding each ingredient before moving on to the next. You’ll have about 1/3 cup of paste.
Next, you’re going to slowly cook the paste in a dry wok until all the moisture has evaporated and you’re left with a completely dry, coarse powder. The trick is using very low heat (if you can’t get your heat low enough, try occasionally removing the wok from the burner) and, in this case, a nonstick surface. A wooden wok spatula will allow you to scrape the pan without scratching it.
Preheat a wok over very low heat. Add all of the paste and cook—stirring constantly, breaking up even small clumps where moisture might be lurking, and scraping the pan often to make sure the paste doesn’t clump or burn—until the paste has transformed into a very coarse, completely dry mixture, 30 to 50 minutes.
Transfer the mixture to a shallow bowl or plate. Let it cool completely and use it right away or store it, covered, at room temperature for up to a month.
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