Cookbook: Pok Pok: Food and Stories from the Streets, Homes, and Roadside Restaurants of Thailand by Andy Ricker with J.J. Goode
Overall Impression: The Thai cookbook I've been waiting for. A little maddening in the demands it makes on the cook, but oh the food!
We all have have gateway foods and recipes, the ones that led us into a deeper interest in cooking. Mine was Thai food. Coming from a white bread Midwest background, I hesitated for years before trying spicy foods, and then a friend introduced me to great Thai food on a trip to Los Angeles, and it was all over. I found I craved the salty, spicy, sweet, and sour pungency that many classic Thai dishes elevate to a sustained pitch of perfection. But Thai, like many East and South Asian cuisines, lacks, in my mind, a great translator to bring those flavors to Western kitchens.
So when chef Andy Ricker's cookbook, named after his Pok Pok restaurants, came out last fall I couldn't wait to get my hands on the book. Was it the manual to Thai food that I was waiting for?
Paper clips marking recipes to make.
Recipes I Tried
I've cooked quite a few dishes out of Pok Pok. I don't have photos of them all, unfortunately, since by the time I've sourced ingredients and cooked all evening there's just no energy left! But here's a rundown of the recipes I've made:
- Som Tam Thai (Central Thai-Style Papaya Salad) - p. 38
- Tam Taeng Kwaa (Thai Cucumber Salad) - p. 45
- Yam Samun Phrai (Northern Thai-Style Herbal Salad) - p. 65
- Phat Kanaeng (Stir-Fried Brussels Sprouts) - p. 91
- Laap Pet Isaan (Isaan Minced Duck Salad) - twice! - p. 117
- Kaeng Khiaw Waan Luuk Chin Plaa (Green Curry with Fish Balls and Eggplant) - p. 161
- Phat Si Ew (Stir-Fried Rice Noodles with Pork, Chinese Broccoli, and Soy Sauce) - p. 218
- Phat Thai (Stir-Fried Rice Noodles with Shrimp, Tofu, and Peanuts) - p. 221
- Khao Niaw Mamuang (Sticky Rice with Mango and Salty-Sweet Coconut Cream) - p. 257
Sunny - one of Ricker's main teachers and guides to Thai cooking.
The Look of the Book
When I first cracked open this book I practically screeched in delight. This looked like the Thai cookbook I have been waiting for. Ricker's voice is plain-spoken yet vivid, downplaying his own expertise in these dishes (he's just a white guy from Portland, after all) and playing up the teaching from his friends who have taught him all he knows about Thai cooking.
The book limits the quantity of recipes to about 70. I applaud this wholeheartedly. I think that publishers often want to stuff as many recipes as possible into a feature book like this, but when teaching a new cuisine it's better to stick to fewer recipes and spend more time instructing in the basics.
I've seen some grumbling on Amazon about the photos in this book — they get called garish, or not appealing. I couldn't disagree more. The photos are frequently styled with the colorful melamine dishes found in budget Thai eateries, or shot on a bright background that looks like a vinyl tablecloth. Others are shot on dark wood or plain white backgrounds. They aren't overly propped or accessorized; the food is usually shot straight on from above, and I feel that they do a good job of showing what to expect, while also making me hungry. The bright colors reflect real Thai restaurants without feeling kitschy or overdone.
Ricker starts the book with several chapters that discuss ingredients and sources, and differences between Thai regional cuisines. I found all of this interesting and well-written; Ricker's voice drew me in. However, the ingredient chapter is where I got my first clue that this book was going to take some work.
He gives a pretty good glossary of some of the unfamiliar but commonly-used ingredients, like dried shrimp and betel leaves. Some of these are illustrated in photographs; there's a nice two-page spread showing the herbs, for instance, which are among the most important ingredients and the hardest to source. But this was one place I didn't appreciate the styling; they were shot on a dark wood background and the tones in the photos were so dark that they made it hard to distinguish between the herbs.
Also, there is no illustration of the recommended sauce brands which, for all of us who have stood, slightly stunned, looking at a patchwork wall of choices in an Asian grocery, would have been much appreciated.
I also would have really argued for more photos of the techniques used throughout the book, like dry-frying shrimp. How do I know when it's done? I say this sympathetically, though, as someone in the middle of finishing up a big, complex cookbook; it can be really tough to budget in all the photos one might want in a cookbook like this.
Some of the sauces called for. I think I bought the wrong sort of oyster sauce. Oh well!
So, the big question: how hard is it really to find all the ingredients needed to cook out of this book? I live in Columbus, Ohio, which is not New York City, but it's also not a tiny rural town. We're lucky to have quite good Asian markets here, including two that cater to Cambodian and Thai immigrants. When I cooked out of this book I went to both, and also to a large Chinese grocery. I bought meat, including the duck for the laap, at my local butcher.
All in all, both times I cooked from Pok Pok, I spent all day shopping. It's particularly challenging to find all the herbs he mentions; I felt like I had experienced a small shopping miracle when I stepped into the Cambodian grocery and saw a cooler full of exotic herbs!
But I was cooking ambitiously out of this book — each time I made five recipes. Many of the recipes could be made with fewer, more easily-found ingredients.
Personally, I didn't mind the hunt. It took me to new parts of town, meeting new people, discovering new resources. That was half the treat of cooking out of Pok Pok — the adventure of it. But of course, if you're looking for a weeknight dinner, not an adventure, be forewarned.
And I should mention: Just because I shopped all day doesn't mean that I spent a lot of money. We loaded up at the Cambodian grocery with a serious haul for a multi-course feast with our friends, but we spent less than $50.
Getting ready to make duck laap.
The Cooking Experience
After the challenge (I mean, adventure!) of finding ingredients, the cooking process for most of these dishes was challenging as well. Coming to Thai food as an experienced cook, but not one with a lot of experience in Thai cooking, I found that my instincts were of no help. It was hard to predict where a recipe would go or what I could do ahead.
To be fair, Ricker does a good job of explaining each step, with vivid language, although there were some editing issues here and there (like telling me to add "the remaining herbs" to the duck laap when I hadn't used any of them yet, then telling me again to add "the remaining herbs" to the finished salad).
When making quite a few dishes and trying to get them on the table at once, I ran into a lot of difficulties. I don't feel that Ricker does a great job of highlighting things that can be made ahead, or held for a while. The recipes are also arranged by type of dish (like Grilled foods, Chile dips, Thai minced-meat salads) and I might have wished for a little more guidance on the best ones to start with (as a newbie) and the process of putting together a menu.
Having said that, he does offer ideas for accompanying dishes in each recipe, which I am going to pay more attention to next time I cook out of the book.
How Did It Taste?
OK, OK, enough with the quibbles about hard-to-find ingredients and challenging cooking. How do the recipes out of Pok Pok taste?
In a word: extraordinary. The flavors of the duck laap exploded my previous attempts at this spicy-sour salad, practically singing in the mouth, nutty with the nubs of rice I had carefully toasted and ground into bits. The green curry was rich and spicy, with the sweetness I associate with a good curry. The phat si ew turned out to be actually quite easy — a quickie evening noodle dish that I am going to add to my weekly rotation.
It's a challenging book but it's a delight! My husband swooned over every dish and so did our friends who ate with us. As I worked through the recipes I could slowly feel my instincts developing and my sense of the tempo and needs of each dish evolving.
Overall, if you are a cook determined to bring Thai food into your kitchen and to learn how the flavors work, I can't recommend this book enough. It's an adventure, and a time-consuming one, but if you're up for it, it will reward you.
More on Pok Pok from The Kitchn:
(Image credits: Faith Durand)