Andy Ricker is obsessed with northern-Thai cuisine. The James Beard Award-winning chef strives for accuracy, recreating dishes from northern Thailand—once considered the underdog of Thai cooking for its lack of representation in the Western food scene—in his five restaurants: Whiskey Soda Lounge, Pok Pok Noi, and Sen Yai in Portland, Oregon, and Pok Pok NY and Whiskey Soda Lounge in New York City. As he writes in his forthcoming cookbook, Pok Pok: Food and Stories from the Streets, Homes, and Roadside Restaurants of Thailand, “People often praise the food that we serve at Pok Pok and my other restaurants as ‘authentic.’ I’m flattered, but that word and its cousin in compliment, ‘traditional,’ are banished from my restaurants. The words imply that there is one true Thai food out there, somewhere.”
Like the revolutionary moment in the 60s when Julia Child revamped the cold meatloaf palettes of American cooks with her debut French cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Pok Pok is the first indubitably comprehensive collection of essays and recipes to capture northern-Thai cuisine for Western readers. The book features 70 of Ricker’s most popular recipes, and calls for a span of ingredients foreign to the Western palette like leuat (raw blood), phak chii farang (sawtooth herb), and Pandan leaf.
Yesterday I sat down with Andy’s co-author, JJ Goode, a food writer who has helped pen highly acclaimed cookbooks with other well-known chefs like April Bloomfield, Masaharu Morimoto, and Roberto Santibañez. When JJ came into the VICE office, he brought with him some of the most iconic—and smelly—northern-Thai pantry items that are used throughout the Pok Pok cookbook.
VICE: What did you bring to our office today? I’m getting stares from my co-workers.
JJ Goode: I brought in a couple of things: tamarind, phrik phon khua (toasted chili powder), palm sugar, pa lo (Chinese five spice), and the Vietnamese version of Thai naam plaa raa (fermented fish sauce).
That block of tamarind looks like brown Play-Doh.
This is really easy to find. It comes in fresh blocks that are really fibrous. To cook with it, you want to mix it up with hot water and strain out the fibers. The final result is a tart and tangy tamarind water, a staple seasoning of northern-Thai food, even more so than lime.
What’s this mysterious brown powder? It smells like toasted New Mexican chili peppers.
This is phrik phon khua (toasted chili powder), typically made in Thailand with a chili that we can’t get here called phrik kaeng. Andy has figured out how to replicate the flavor with Mexican dried Puya chilis—you toast all of the chili, including the stems and shit—to make a very course, dried chili powder. You can pound it out or use a spice grinder to get the powder result.
What are you supposed to do with it?
Sometimes the powder is really dark—almost burnt—like a muddy-tobacco color, and is used for certain soups. It also doubles as a condiment with noodles, since noodles are intentionally served on the borderline of bland.
"Borderline of bland"?
Eaters are expected to season noodles to their liking. So when you dress them up, you put in the four Thai flavors to your personal preference: vinegar, dried chili powder, sugar, and fish sauce. In a way, the toasted chili powder is sort of like table salt.
Why do you think regional northern-Thai cuisine is underrepresented in the US, as opposed to the dishes of, say, Bangkok?
My guess is that the flavors of Central Thai food—Bangkok is in the center of the country—are more appealing to Westerners. There's more of that sweet, sour, spicy thing going on. Thai food is very regional. Northern Thai food isn't particularly spicy or sweet, and it features some bitter flavors, so it's a bit harder for us to love. Andy picks the stuff that bridges the gap between our tastes and that of Northern Thai folks. After years and years of the same red curry and phat Thai, I think we're ready for something new.
What’s this, a crusty doughnut?
It’s palm sugar, the sugar of choice for a lot of Thai pantries. It’s an unrefined sugar made from coconut palms that’s got a nice, complex sweetness to it.
Do you grate it? It looks like a real pain in the ass to deal with in the kitchen.
You have to chop it up, which is super annoying. In the cookbook, Andy calls for stuff like this by weight, because if you tried to measure a tablespoon of it, it would be such a production that you might as well crack it in half and place it on the scale to see what you get.
This salted radish looks like pork rinds and smells like an opened jar of vinegar that’s been sitting in a cellar for 30 years.
The salted radish is made with daikon radish, preserved with sugar and salt that’s in a lot of noodle dishes. You soak it for ten minutes and chop it up. It’s a little crunchy, yet slightly sweet and salty, but it hangs out in the background of dishes like rice porridge, one of Andy’s favorite things to eat for breakfast. You’re not going to go crazy and make a roasted-radish salad with this stuff.
Andy has adapted northern-Thai cooking in his restaurants by substituting American for Thai ingredients whenever necessary. How did you tackle sourcing these ingredients for the home cook?
Andy needed someone dumb to decode how to locate these items for the home cook, which took me a lot of iPhone and Google searches, and constantly texting Andy to see if what I found was close to what he needed. So the good news is, you can get all of the stuff in this cookbook in the US, whether it’s online or in Asian markets.
Whatever is in that bottle next to you smells like it’s rotting.
It smells like delicious bleu cheese to me! This is a Vietnamese version of naam plaa raa, a popular northern-Thai fish sauce. It’s fish mixed with rice husks, and it gets fermented to a sludge that’s sold in outside markets in a danger zone at a constant 98 degrees. It’s popularly consumed in raw form in Thailand because the flavor changes dramatically when it’s cooked, but it’s also associated with liver cancer and parasites. I brought in the pasteurized liquid version for you today, sold here in the US. As you can see from the funky green, gray froth, it’s not the fish sauce that we’re used to—it’s a totally different ball game.
In a perfect situation, are there any specific ingredients that Andy can’t source here in the US, but wanted to include in the cookbook if he could get them?
He’s adapted everything that he can’t find, but there’s a really cool herb that tastes like grilled fish, referred to as “fish herb.” There’s also maeng da, a massive water beetle that tastes just like bleu cheese. Thai cooks use it in a lot of things including northern-Thai chili relish. You can get it here if you look carefully enough. I found it in the freezer section at an Asian market in Queens, where a case of it was labeled with a picture of three dead looking upside down beetles, marked, “fish bait.” Because it’s not USDA regulated, I think that’s the only way to legally import it.
In your process of exploring northern-Thai flavors, is there anything that you really detest?
Beef-bile soup. I always strive to take another bite, but I don’t like it because it’s too bitter for me. Blood soup is another one, a large bowl full of raw blood that has earthy flavors that taste like iron. The cool thing about Andy is that he’s been going to northern Thailand for so long that he understands the food in a certain way that you just won’t. Traveling there, you confront your assumptions about food—you’re used to judging things on whether you instinctively like them or not—but there’s this other part of yourself that tries to evaluate things based on authenticity, so you’re constantly competing with yourself.
Trying to fit in with locals and simultaneously struggling with the notion of acquired taste can be challenging. On the other side of the spectrum, what’s one of the recipes from the cookbook that you tend to make over and over again?
Khao soi khai, northern-Thai curry-noodle soup, a tender chicken-leg soup in the most incredibly delicious coconut curry that has fried noodles on top of the soup and boiled wheat noodles inside of it. It also gets topped with pickled mustard greens, cilantro, chili sauce, and hunks of raw shallot, so you get this perfect sharpness at the end of each bite. It’s a northern-Thai curry that’s both Muslim and Burmese in origin, a dish you wouldn’t realize is northern Thai without any signifiers, which is Andy’s whole thing.
Sounds amazing. Thanks for talking to me, JJ.
Pok Pok, the cookbook, is available on October 29, 2013, by Ten Speed Press.
More on Thailand: