In his preamble to his affogato recipe, one of the last in Pok Pok: Food and Stories from the Streets, Homes, and Roadside Restaurants of Thailand (Ten Speed Press), restaurateur and chef Andy Ricker writes that he doesn't usually invent recipes. He's better suited to playing the "grateful imitator." This is as noble a task as any, and Ricker tackles it with style and reverence.
This cookbook isn't about Ricker's inventiveness. It isn't about Portland (along with New York, the home of his restaurants), the Pok Pok state of mind, or even the popularity Ricker's excellent restaurants enjoy. In references to the availability of local ingredients, like Dungeness crab, that compliment the flavors he celebrates, there are nods to the Oregon backdrop of Ricker's original enterprises. But the place shared here is Thailand -- from Chiang Mai to Bangkok -- which the chef shares enthusiastically, articulately and broadly, with all the heart an eager scholar can muster. Ricker does not so much re-invent as he endeavors to approximate the cuisine for which he harbors passion, and the effect is refreshing.
If you've been to Pok Pok, you're probably enamored of the lip-stinging pork neck with iced greens, the psychedelically flavorful fish sauce wings, the heady fermented black crab-spiked papaya salad, and pretty much any laab you might order. These recipes are now yours.
Pok Pok's strengths are myriad. A picture accompanies each recipe. You can actually see what everything is supposed to look like. Each recipe includes a simple, clear flavor profile description -- so you're told how what you might cook should taste. The home cook can reach for the right flavors of a particular regional specialty, and hone his palate.
When it comes to ingredients, the author lists worthy brands for products that might be unfamiliar to home cooks. When traversing the aisles of a Thai grocery, readers can take solace in an expert's recommendations -- Tiparos for fish sauce, Healthy Boy for sweet soy sauce.
Ricker also notes on a sidebar the equipment needed for each recipe. There's nothing like knowing you need a strainer three seconds after you actually needed it.
This book is designed to get a reader to understand the diversity of Thai food and feel comfortable attempting to cook it. A guide to regional variations opens the affair. You're not encouraged to whistle at the pretty pictures and remind yourself to stop by Issan Station next week, but instead to simply shop and cook and enjoy. Ricker is in the position of being a white guy teaching Americans about Thai food. He probably knows he might not be the most qualified person on the planet to do this, despite the years of research logged. He shares paeans to his culinary guides and precedes many a recipe with a colorful, engaging story of its discovery.
Region-specific Thai food may be having a national moment. Soon, in places besides Los Angeles, the question may no longer be whether or not to order in some Thai food but instead to enjoy Southern or Northern, laab or khao soi kai, sour or sweet. Mainstream America's sense of the Thai flavor profile is expanding beyond the realm of sweet and heat. Ricker's Pok Pok may be the book to put the reality at our fingertips.
Turn the page for Ricker's recipe for grilled pork neck with iced greens...