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I open Andy Ricker's Pok Pok cookbook and almost forget that it’s written in English. My mind is playing a trick on me and I feel as if I'm reading a transcribed recipe from my mother, a Thai immigrant. It’s full of phonetic spellings, random measurement conversions, and a maze of steps and techniques I feel like ignoring.
But in this case, I don’t ignore them. I measure every ingredient as directed (even though, in any one recipe, I find amounts listed in ounces, grams, cups, and inches). I follow the recipes step by step, including the helpful sidebars of what can be prepped a week, day, and hours ahead.
My book has post-its on almost every other recipe. The pictures aren’t food-porned out with mood lighting in a studio. They are presented the way you might encounter a noodle soup with tripe and a cube of blood -- at a dusty roadside stand, with mopeds carrying whole families (none wearing helmets) whizzing by and elephants sauntering along -- and in that moment, it is authentic to this particular time and place.
I choose 3 recipes to make. The first is familiar -- a noodle dish that I make on a regular basis: Phat Siew. The ingredients are pretty straightforward, the only annoying one being the Naam Man Krathiem, a garlic oil that you have to make ahead of time. The instructions don’t warn you about this, so if you haven’t studied the recipe ahead of time, you wind up either making it at the time (getting hungrier and hungrier for your noodles) or skipping it altogether. I would vote for the latter. In a stir-fry, the key is to add the ingredients in a certain order, which Ricker painstakingly specifies -- and it took longer to read the directions than it did to actually make the dish. It’s not the order I usually follow, but it works. The cook times and technique are precise, and the result is probably better than what you would find at a restaurant. After you’ve made this once (and have the requisite thin soy, black soy, and fish sauce in your pantry), it’s a very easy and satisfying anytime dish.
More: Try a week's worth of recipes from Pok Pok.
Het Paa Naam Tok, on the other hand, was a dish I've never eaten or seen, on the menu at a Thai restaurant or even in Thailand. It's a vegan version of the popular Beef Waterfall Salad, making use of mushrooms to provide umami, and it even offers a vegan substitute for fish sauce by combining soy sauce and mushroom juice. It’s a clever recipe that makes you believe you can eat vegan and still enjoy great flavor and texture.
Finally, I made Sai Ua, a dish I’ve eaten and always wanted to know how to make. Sai Ua is a sausage, sometimes served on a stick from street vendors in Northern Thailand. Reading the recipe, you know you’re in for a project. There’s making the curry paste, and then there’s grinding and stuffing a sausage. On first look, it seems overwhelming. The ingredients will be difficult to find; the measuring is a pain in the ass. But it's more manageable if you follow the instructions step-by-step and break up the process. Once you have your mise en place, it’s just a matter of dumping and stirring. Combining the smoky ingredients of a Thai curry and an Indian curry created a totally new flavor -- one that isn’t spicy, but is deep and layered. Along with the fresh herbs, it’s bright and rich -- like nothing I had ever tasted. With this recipe, I felt I had been given a gift. A flavor that, up until now, had eluded me. I remembered eating this sausage in Thailand and not being able to find it again once I left that pocket of the countryside. Until now. And I think I can expect more gems like this through out the book.
The recipes aren’t easy. Ricker is uncompromising in his ingredients and offers few substitutions. But he provides explicit direction on techniques you wouldn’t otherwise know. I still think some of the steps overcomplicate, though I'd try the recipe once exactly as written before omitting anything.
The beauty of Pok Pok is that it isn’t just a bunch of recipes. It illustrates the time the author spent immersing himself in Thai cuisine and the respect he shows to its people and culture. The recipes are tasty, and so much more: they transport you. For me, it was back to Thailand and back to my childhood. If you’ve never been to Thailand, Pok Pok is almost as close as taking a trip. At first, it's dizzying and uncomfortable. Then it seduces you, and you find yourself addicted, chasing endless flavor combinations. It’s sometimes spicy, sometimes sweet, sour, salty. Often, it’s everything at once.