Pok Pok: Food and Stories from the Streets, Homes, and Roadside Restaurants of Thailand (Anglais) Relié – 29 octobre 2013
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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.
Revue de presse
“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.”
—Publisher's Weekly Starred Review
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Alors oui on apprend beaucoup de choses sur les mets thaïlandais mais quant à les faire chez moi? Non. J'ai retourné le livre.
Commentaires client les plus utiles sur Amazon.com (beta)
The one star knock I gave the book is really less about the difficulty of the recipes and more about the needlessly jumbled layout. Graphically, the book has the same ramshackle hole-in-the-wall feel that most of the Pok Pok restaurants seem to have... bright colors, multiple typefaces, numerous wordy asides peppered all over the page. I get the charm of this grphical style, but it's certainly not helping us follow complex, multi-step recipes here. Nor is the constant referencing condiments, etc on other pages. A cleaner design with numbered step by step instructions would have gone a long way towards making these recipes feel more attainable.
Don't let that stop you from getting the book though if you are a lover of Thai food because there really are few other books out there that go this deep. Even if you use it more as a reference and less as a day to day cookbook its contains a lot of fascinating information. But even as an experienced cook of Southeast Asian foods I find this book daunting. its one I'll save for a rainy day when I have plenty of time to run around town gathering all my ingredients and a lazy afternoon to spend in the kitchen.
edit (01/09/14): To date I have made the Stir-fried water spinach, Stir-fried brussels sprouts, Whole roasted chicken, Salty-sweet mango coconut rice, and Pad see ew. Let me tell you how they went:
Stir fried water spinach: Didn't have a scale on the first try, big mistake, used too little spinach, too salty. Problem solved when I bought a kitchen scale for the second try and got the portions right, tasted delicious.
Stir-fried brussels sprouts: Mis-read the measurements the first time and used too much fish sauce, ended up stinky. Followed the book to the teeth from the second try on-ward, delicious results.
Whole roasted chicken: used a 1.75lb hen instead of two 1.25lb chicken because that's the only small chicken I can find at the grocery store, decided to cut all the ingredients to 70% of the amount listed in the book since that's how my chicken's mass compares to the ones in the recipe. Did not adjust cooking time due to my inexperience, the result was chewy and under-cooked, and the flavors were off. Totally my own fault. Will try again with the proper sized birds and report back.
Salty-sweet mango coconut rice: Couldn't find mangoes, just made the rice and sauce. Cooked the rice with the sweet rice setting on my zojirushi instead of the steamer called for in the cook, and the result was fine (just remember to turn it off approx 5 minutes before it finishes cooking). I know it says in the recipe but I need to remind you guys again that this recipe makes A LOT of rice. I cut the recipe in half thinking it'll be a good portion for me and my hungry roommate, I was wrong. I should have cut it down to 25% to feed two people. Besides my stupid portion control the dish was super delicious....would have been even better if I could find some Ataulfo Mangoes but such is life...
Pad see ew: This recipe I've cooked 6 times. I have to disagree with Andy's choice of pork sirloin in the recipe. I tried it a few times and it was way too hard and dry, no matter how I under-cook it(within reason). I found country-style ribs to be much more tender and suitable for this dish. Also, please tenderize your meat with baking soda and water, just trust me on this. Another thing is that in order to prevent the chow fun noodles from sticking to each other, you probably have to use way more oil than the recipe calls for. Hot pan and hot stoves are important, but so is a lot of oil. Avoid stainless steel pans like all-clad for cooking pad see ew because everything will stick to the pan and you will cry and your noodles will shrivel up and go to noodle heaven. Use a big non-stick pan.
edit2 (09/30/14): Since my last update I have mostly stuck to the tried and true water spinach and coconut mango rice, but I did make two new dishes. One is the Pork shank stewed with five spice, and I have to say, even though I followed the recipe to a T, the flavors were pretty mild. I expected chinese five spice braised meats flavors, instead I got sweet meats that were kinda one dimensional. Meh, not motivated to try it again as it was a pain in the rear to cook. The other dish I tried was the stir-fried brussel sprouts. The recipe is almost the same as the water spinach one, but the flavors just weren't as good for some reason, probably due to the lack of sugar and bean paste. On a side note, Pok Pok NY Just got a michelin star today! Wooooooohooooooo.
edit3 (01/14/2015): Made the Thai fried rice with pork and the chicken kra pow (holy basil with ground chicken). The fried rice was super easy, and the flavor was surprisingly good for a bowl of fried rice. I'm used to eating home style Chinese fried rice cooked by my family so this is a pretty welcome change. As for the kra pow, I replaced the chicken with ground pork, and it was super tasty. I like Andy's version better than Leela's from the Simple Thai Food cookbook. It just tastes better, ya know? Also made the mango coconut rice a couple more times, and let me tell ya, the mango carries the dish. Those green-red Tommy Atkins mangoes from the supermarket are not gonna cut it (trust me, I tried). You need proper Ataulfos, or even Alphonsos, and you gotta wait for the right season. Have cravings for this dish in the winter? Sucks to be you. Wait for late March like everybody else.
edit4( 06/13/2015) Since my last update, I've made the Burmese Pork Curry (Kaeng Hung Leh), Chicken Chowfun (Kuaytiew Kua Gai), both versions of the Papaya salad, Khun Op Wun Sen, and the Khao Soi Kai.
Burmese Pork Curry - pretty decent, but mine was too watery because I forgot to take off the lid to let the sauce condense. Also the amount of ginger called for might be a bit much, adjust to your tastes.
Kuaytiew Kua Gai - The key to this one is have a hot wok and keep the portion small so you don't overcrowd the wok. I tried to cook a double batch and the eggs didnt have room to cook on the wok so they stuck to the noodles....it was not at all pretty but it was tasty AF.
Both of the Papaya Salads are good, I switch between them depends on my mood. A few things: 1. small dried shrimp is kinda expensive, $6 for a packet. 2. the crab paste called for by the Isan papaya salad is really hard to find, thank god it's optional. The salted crab is slightly easier, although it might look intimidating in the jar. They are small crabs, so dont go in expecting to use a normal sized crab. 3. The plaara fish sauce called for by the Isan salad is thick and mud like, smells even worst, but don't be afraid to use it.
The Khun Op Wun Sen was great, but again the amount of ginger was a bit much imo. Also when you color the noodles, just use the amount specified in the book, don't listen to the part where it says "color it dark" because it will be way salty.
The Khao Soi took a bit. The tumeric/curry combo stains like no tomorrow. The puya chilies I had were leathery so they were impossible to pound into powder like andy suggested. I say you should boil them and them pound/food process them. Also I think the amount of sugar is a bit much, 2 to 2.5oz should suffice comapred to the 3 called for in the book. (I was using the mallable kind of palm sugar). Also, you might want to repalce some of that coconut milk with water because I found the broth way too thick, no matter if I put in the coconut cream at the end or not. I would say replace one or two cups of the coconut milk with water (that's used to rinse the coconut milk cans to extract the most out of them)
The book is also packed with every aspect of the dishes: making the oils, sauces, stocks, condiments, etc. etc. I give Ricker my full approval. Not only has he given up secrets to some truly delicious dishes but he does so in a way that challenges you as a cook and gives you not much other option then to start from scratch and do it the right way.
I consider myself a reasonably skilled amateur chef, though I've gone through a phase of doing less cooking. To get back into it, I have been trying to make some of the amazing recipes in this book. I've eaten at Pok Pok once, and it was enough to convince me of the value of trying to make my own Northern Thai food.
While the book is well made, full of lovely pictures and detailed explanations, when it comes to the actual cooking instructions I find it less than useful. To wit, for the last two days I have been working on the simple recipes for fried garlic (and shallots) in oil. Andy Ricker instructs you to finely dice garlic, heat 3/4'' of oil on high until it "shimmers" then drop in the garlic and cook it for five minutes until golden brown. On three attempts at this, the garlic burns to a black or dark brown within a minute. I have tried reducing the heat, but it still seems five minutes is a ridiculously long time to cook finely-minced garlic with very hot oil.
On to the shallots, similar recipe, but the book instructs you to fry them for 10-20 minutes on low heat. Again, followed the instructions to a T, but the shallots came out limp and soggy, not crisp and brown.
Interestingly if you look up some of the recipes online (for example Ike's Vietnamese Wings) you can find recipes by Ricker himself that differ considerably from the book. In some cases it seems to be to simplify, but in others cooking times and amounts are quite different, which makes me think that he got feedback that some of the book recipes just weren't right. Bad luck for people who bought the book!
Every cooking setup is different, and every chef needs to adapt recipes to his own gear and skills. But there is something lacking in these directions that has led to a lot of disasters already.