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We're sitting down with our favorite writers and cooks to talk about their upcoming cookbooks, their best food memories, and just about anything else.
Today: This week's guest editor, JJ Goode, interviews Pok Pok's Andy Ricker about Thai food: why he loves it, why he wrote a book about it, and why you should cook it at home.
There is a big difference between what we know as "Thai food" and what actually moves from plate to mouth throughout Thailand. Andy Ricker's new book, Pok Pok, is here to introduce us to the latter.
Ricker calls himself a "proud copycat:" intent on recording and replicating the food he's eaten in Thailand, not riffing on it. His book proves that we can create real Thai dishes at home with the right tools, the correct ingredients, and a bit of dedication. Ricker provides recipes that you can handle on a weeknight, as well as plenty that require a weekend's worth of shopping, pounding, and simmering. Whichever you decide to cook, know this: Follow his meticulous directions, and you'll get to know foods that taste nothing like the sweet, greasy noodle pile that you've always known as Pad Thai.
The book was written with this week's guest editor, JJ Goode, whose pen was also behind last year's Piglet winner. We asked him to interview Ricker about the road to Pok Pok, and he's nice, so he agreed. Read on; then gather up some courage, get yourself a book, and start cooking.
JJ Goode: When did you fall for Thai food?
Andy Ricker: Probably on my first trip there, in 1987. I was backpacking around and eating at the bungalows, guesthouses, bus stops, and markets I went to along the way. But it wasn’t until I went back in 1992 that my interest really kicked off. I was visiting my friends Chris and Lakhana, who were living in Chiang Mai at the time. They took me out to eat some local, seasonal stuff. I had never eaten anything like it before. I didn’t even know this kind of food existed. I thought, I have to learn more about it. It wasn’t quote-unquote Thai food. It was the food of the North of Thailand, but that’s a much longer story.
More: Get Andy's recipe for Salt-Crusted Fish.
JJ: What are some misconceptions we Americans have about Thai food?
Andy: The biggest is that it’s a cheap commodity food, that you should pay $7 for a complete meal with enough left over for lunch the next day. That’s just not doing the food a service. Another is that all Thai food is spicy, which is just not true.
JJ: Why did you decide to open a restaurant?
Andy: I didn’t know what else to do. I had been working as a house painter and I was over it. I couldn’t keep going. At the point I decided to open a restaurant, I was pretty sure it was going to be Thai but there were still other contenders, like the food of the Yucatán. I definitely never thought it would be as successful as it’s become.
JJ: What was your goal in writing your cookbook?
Andy: To try to shed some light on Thai food that you don’t see much in the States. To celebrate the cooks of Thailand and introduce people to some of the friends I’ve made in Thailand who taught me what I know. And to try to help demystify the cuisine a bit. I wanted to address some of the myths that keep people from cooking Thai food at home and also give them detailed recipes that will guide them through what might be an unfamiliar process.
More: Make a Thai salad -- with fried eggs! -- from Andy's new book.
JJ: Can people really cook from it?
Andy: Absolutely. The food isn’t necessarily difficult. Much of it is actually very simple. You just have to invest a small amount of money to get some equipment you might not have (like a $10 sticky rice steamer), spend a little time locating some of the ingredients, and commit to more than a half an hour of cooking.
Book photos by Austin Bush. Photo of Andy via Matt's in the Market.