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.
“In this groundbreaking masterwork, Andy Ricker weaves together superb recipes, enlightening cultural narratives, meaningful personal essays, and an incomparable insight into the essence of Thai foodways. But perhaps this book’s greatest achievement is the honest, uncompromising way it brings real Thai cookery right into American readers’ homes. The bar has been set for ethnic cookbooks going forward.”
“Everything I know about Thai food I learned from Andy Ricker—how to order it, how to eat it, and now, how to cook it. Pok Pok
is destined to be the Thai bible for every adventurous home cook. Part memoir, part cooking manifesto, it beautifully and passionately shows Ricker’s no-nonsense approach to one of the world’s most exciting cuisines. When my daughters ask why they grew up eating so much khao soi kai, papaya salad, and laap pet isaan at home, I’ll tell them they have Andy Ricker—and this book—to thank.
—Andrew Knowlton, restaurant and drink editor, Bon Appétit
“More than a Thai cookbook or even a regional Thai cookbook, this is a book about people: the street and market vendors, home cooks, and restaurant owners who Andy Ricker has met and studied with for over two decades in Thailand. In Pok Pok
, Andy shares their stories, skills, and ideas—and his own passion for discovering a cuisine by going door to door. Oh yeah, and he makes some insanely delicious food along the way.”
—Francis Lam, writer and judge on Top Chef Masters
“You’d be hard-pressed to find better Thai food than what Andy Ricker is serving at Pok Pok. And now, with his cookbook, we finally get to see the people, places, and experiences that were the inspiration for it all.”
—David Chang, chef/owner of Momofuku
“This book, as far as I’m concerned, is an argument ender. When Andy says ‘make som tam lao like this,’ it’s like Jacques Pépin telling you how to make an omelette. The matter is settled. Previously, I would never have even attempted to prepare most of these dishes in my home. I had always felt that Thai food was best left to the experts. But this book has given me hope and confidence.”
"In his introduction, Ricker makes the modest proclamation that his cooking knowledge is limited when measured against Thailand’s vast cuisine. However, this limitation has had no visible effect on his success, given that his eatery, Pok Pok, was recently rated by Bon Appétit as the eighth most important American restaurant. All one really needs to know about Ricker, and this finely detailed cookbook and travelogue, comes at the start of his recipe for fish-sauce wings. Sounding like a gourmand Allen Ginsberg, he writes, “I’ve spent the better part of the last twenty years roaming around Thailand, cooking and recooking strange soups, beseeching street vendors for stir-fry tips, and trying to figure out how to reproduce obscure Thai products with American ingredients.” He spills out his acquired knowledge here across 13 chapters and nearly 100 recipes. Lessons learned along the way include the beauty of blandness as exhibited in his flavor-balanced “bland soup” with glass noodles, and waste not, want not, as showcased in recipes for stewed pork knuckles and grilled pork neck. Ricker’s prose, as aided by food writer Goode, is captivating, whether he is discussing America’s obsession with sateh, or when profiling characters he’s encountered in his travels, such as Mr. Lit, his “chicken mentor” and Sunny, his “go-to guy in Chiang Mai.”