Podcast Episode 64: Chef Andy Ricker of Pok Pok on Dining in Thailand


An interview with Andy Ricker


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In this episode of the Find Dining Podcast, Chef Andy Ricker of Pok Pok in Portland, Oregon, shows us how to take a culinary adventure in Thailand. We discuss mortars and pestles, boiled buffalo fetus and Ike’s Vietnamese fish sauce wings.

Regions of Thailand to Explore:

  • The South / Peninsula
  • Central Thailand
  • Isan / Northeastern Thailand
  • Chiang Mai / Northend Thailand

Food for Thought:

  • Q: What is a seasoning that Thai food and Italian food share?
  • A: Fish sauce.

Out of the Frying Pan Picks:

  • Must-Visit Places in Thailand: Chiang Mai and Bangkok
  • Thai Dish for Comparison: Pad Thai
  • Favorite Chef: David Thompson
  • Thai Drinks to Try: Sugarcane Juice, Hibiscus Juice, Chrysanthemum Tea, White Lightning
  • Best Place in the U.S. to Buy Thai Ingredients: Thai farmers in Florida
  • Where to Buy Mortars and Pestles: Temple of Thai

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Transcript

Seth:  This is Episode Number 64 of the Find Dining Podcast.  Welcome to Thailand by way of Portland, Oregon.

 

Hello, and welcome to the Find Dining Podcast.  I’m your host.  My name is Seth Resler, and this is the podcast for foodies who love travel and travelers who love food.  Right at the top of the show, I do want to ask you please, please, please join us through social media.  I am making a very concerted effort to post as many of these episodes to YouTube as possible, so check out our YouTube channel.  Also, find us on iTunes.  Please leave a review that helps other people find the show and we’re on Pinterest as well, so head over the Pinterest and you can see tons of photos from the 2013 Taste Trekkers Food Tourism Conference.  You can follow us on Twitter.  We’re Taste Trekker or find us on Facebook.  Any of those ways, please connect with us.

 

All right.  Let’s get on with the show.  And today, we are talking to Chef Andy Ricker who owns Pok Pok in Portland along with several more in Portland, Oregon and now in New York City as well.  This is a man who has won the James Beard Award for Best Chef Northwest in 2011.  Bon Appétit loves this guy.  They actually name his restaurant the 8th most important American restaurant.  And he’s the author of a cookbook called Pok Pok, Food Stories from the Street, Homes and Roadside Restaurants of Thailand.

 

This guy is really known for his cuisine.  Andy, thank you so much for joining me.

 

Interviewee:  It’s my pleasure.

 

Seth:  So you’re doing a lot of really exciting things in Thai food and I want to talk to you about that.  I want to talk to you about how you got started and how you wound up working in Thai food.  I know that you go over to Thailand and travel and that’s how you discover a lot of the cuisine and then bring it back here in America.  So we’re going to talk to you about all of that.  But before we do, I know that you’ve got a trivia question for me.  So tell what it is.

 

Interviewee:  This shouldn’t be too difficult for you, but what is one seasoning that is used both in Thai cooking and Italian cooking and it’s not chilies.

 

Seth:  It’s not chilies.  Uh-oh, I’m in trouble.  That was by guess.  See, now you preface this by saying that this is easy but I’ll have you know that I have a perfect zero for probably 60 something record at these questions.  What is the one ingredient that both Thai food and Italian food share?  All right, as always, I’m going to think about that.  We’re going to come back to that.

 

And we’re going to talk about you.  I mean, you’re doing amazing things in the realm of Thai food.  And I guess my first question is you are a guy who is tall, white, blonde from Vermont and named Andy, how did you become such an authority on Thai food?

 

Interviewee:  Well, first of all, I would say that I don’t consider myself an authority on Thai food.  I consider myself student of Thai food and it all started, you know, back in 1987, I think it was, the first time that I went to Thailand as a backpacker.  And, you know, I was eating kind of the same thing that everybody else was at the bungalows and kind of guest houses and stuff like that.  I didn’t speak Thai or read Thai or anything like that.  So I was kind of at the mercy of what other people told me or where I would go to eat at a restaurant or a guest house that had English menu that I could read and I was basing my knowledge of the food on what it had already in the west.  So I had, you know, typical things that you would have with that experience.

 

The first time I went it wasn’t really so much about food, it was more about being 20 something year old backpacker having fun.

 

Seth:  So you were a traveler first.

 

Interviewee:  Yeah, exactly.  Instead of going to college of – I was a ski bum for four years.  I was still getting an education and I learned how to cook during that time, you know, became a professional cook at the age of, you know,16 or 17.  And, you know, later on, the travel became my education.

 

Seth:  And so when you went, you were not necessarily going to explore food the first time, you were just looking to travel the countryside.  And how long where you abroad the first time you went?

 

Interviewee:  Well, the first time I went, I had no intention when I left United States of being going to Southeast Asia.  I left with, you know, 800 bucks in my pocket and a roundtrip ticket to Australia that stopped in New Zealand and Fiji and that turned into almost a four-year long trip that took me around the world just, you know, working.

 

In those days, you could – it wasn’t that hard to find a job on the road, you know, so I spent time in Australia and New Zealand working in Europe for towards the end of it.  And the time I spent in Asia was just kind of like, “Oh, everybody is going to Thailand, I guess I’ll go to Thailand, too.”

 

Seth:  Talk to me about how it started to center around food and some of the things that you discovered while you were there.

 

Interviewee:  The next trip I took was in 1992 and I went there with a girlfriend and we went up to Chiang Mai to meet my friend Chris who I grew up with who was living in Chiang Mai.  He’d actually got married to a woman he met while he was working at the university there.  She was a professor there as well.  You know, the time I got there, they had two kids.  They were living near the university where they both worked or where she worked and he was working somewhere else.

 

And he just kind of started showing me the local food, Lakhina’s, Chris’ wife’s family, lot of talented cooks in that group.  I learned stuff from her dad.  I learned stuff her sister.  And then a bunch of their friends who are also university teachers and librarians and whatnot kind of took me under wing and I started learning from them as well.

 

Seth:  What were you discovering that was different about Thai food in Thailand versus Thai food in America?

 

Interviewee:  Well, first of all, what I learned was that, you know, when you say Thai food, that’s like saying Italian food, right?  And at this point in time, we know that it’s not a monoiculture, Italy is not a multiculture, there’s different languages, different regions, you know, people eat entirely different styles of food.  And, of course, Thailand is exactly the same.  You know, there’s four distinct regions there.  There are hundreds of ethnic groups that live there.  The food varies from region to region and then from province to province, from city to city, from town to town and from house to house.

 

So what we consider Thai food in America is this menu that we’ve been getting here for the last 40 years and while that’s all very good, there’s also a wide world out there that isn’t really that well understood by us in the west.  And that’s what I started to learn about by being introduced to some Northern Thai food.

 

Seth:  Walk me through the four regions and some of the differences between them.

 

Interviewee:  The four distinct regions in Thailand are the South, or the Peninsula part of Thailand which, you know, below Bangkok and leads all the way down to Malaysia.  A lot of the people, the further south you go, you start getting into folks who are ethnically Malay and they have their own language, Bak Thai, the people there and the food tends to be very, very spicy.  It’s where most of the coconut palms are grown so there tends to be really rich coconut trees around the ocean, so a lot of seafood and the staple rice is Jasmine rice.

 

When you get to Central town and that’s where Bangkok environments around there, the Chao Phraya River Delta.  And essentially, that’s where the folks that we call Thai lives, that’s the Thai people.  And the food that they eat there is – a lot of the dishes we see in Western restaurants come from that region.  It’s a heavy Chinese influence.  It’s where the seat of power and money is, so there’s also a lot of the royal cuisine is in that area.  Their staple rice is Jasmine rice.

 

Then you have Isan or Northeastern Thailand which is borders Cambodia and Laos.  A lot of the folks there ethnically Lao and speak Lao and also Khmer, to a lesser extent there’s Khmer people on the border of Cambodia.  And the food there tends to be very, very simple as it’s kind of the poorest part of the country, so mostly arid climate outside of the Mekong River area.  And the food tends to be very simple, hot, you know, spicy…funky, they used fermented fish sauce called Pla ra and the state for rice there is sticky rice.

 

And then you head into the northern region which is Chiang Mai area in north and that’s bordered by Burma and Laos and there’s, you know, the Golden Triangles up there, the famous place in Chiang Mai where there — a lot of the opium trade has happened over the years.  And this is a more mountainous jungly region cut off from the ocean.  And food up there tend towards the herbaceous and salty and lots of soups, not a lot of coconut because historical coconut palms didn’t grow in enough abundance up there for them to have coconut cream and coconut milk, lots of wild game: pig, chicken, domesticated farm animals and river fish.  And there’s a bitter element to the food that is more pronounced than anywhere else in the country and their staple is sticky rice.

 

Seth:  So somebody’s going on a trip to explore the cuisine of Thailand, you’d recommend that they visit all four regions to get a broad overview?

 

Interviewee:  I would.  I mean, it’s not a huge country but there’s a hell a lot to see and really, it’s pretty diverse ethnically and geographically and the food is fascinating, it changes from place to place.  And the trick is finding way to get somebody to show you this stuff.

 

Seth:  Right.

 

Interviewee:  That’s a whole another conversation.  But if you have like a full month, I’d try to visit all the regions.  If you only have a couple of weeks, there’s no point.  You’re just going to be running from place to place and not really getting much information.

 

Seth:  So at what point did you decide that you wanted to bring this back to America and specifically Portland?

 

Interviewee:  Well, I live in Portland so that was a no brainer.

 

Seth:  What brought you out in Portland originally?

 

Interviewee:  I moved out there about 20 years ago now.  I moved there.  I’d come off that four years of travelling overseas and without going into too much personal detail, I had reason to head towards the Pacific Northwest.  And initially, I was shooting for Seattle and this is by a couple hundred miles and it was combination of convenience.  And then, you know, I had a brother in Portland and, you know, hang out with for a little while and I just kind of fell in love with the city.  It was such a welcoming and easy place to move to and I just kind of fell in love with it and have been there ever since.

 

So that was why I chose Portland and, you know, there’s been a lot written and talked about how the food scene in Portland kind of exploded around the time Pok Pok opened and afterwards, it has a lot to do with the price of real estate and the adventurous attitude of the people who live there.

 

Why did I actually decided to open this restaurant is because I didn’t know what else to do.  I’d been a painting contractor for about 10 years.  I was sick of doing that.  The only other real skill that I have is cooking and I certainly didn’t want to go back to working for somebody else, so it kind of left me with opening a restaurant.

 

Seth:  And what are some of the challenges as you try to open that restaurant and particularly in terms of ingredients?  I mean, are there ingredients that are difficult to get or ways that you have to adjust things for the terrior of Portland as opposed to Thailand?

 

Interviewee:  As far as getting ingredients for the dishes, I had spent, you know, years before I opened a restaurant.  I had cooked this food at home so I’ve been scanning the Asian markets and looking up wholesalers.  And, you know, basically instead of kind of deciding on the menu and then looking for the ingredients, I had a pretty good knowledge of what was available and I was able to make a menu based around what I could get.  So instead of going, “Oh, we got to do this dish but I can’t get that ingredients, so I’ll substitute something else,” you know, I simply just wouldn’t make something if I couldn’t get the ingredients for it.  And the good news is that, you know, the West Coast we’re between California and Canada.  There’s a huge Southeast Asian population in California and in Canada.  So, you know, Portland is along the tracking route so we do get a fair amount of pretty good Asian produce there.

 

Seth:  Was there anything that you can’t do there that you can get in Thailand or any particular dishes that you would recommend that people get while they’re in Thailand?

 

Interviewee:  Oh, sure.  I mean, to put a caveat on it, we don’t get the same quality of ingredients that we would in Thailand by any means, so we have to doctor the recipes to make up for the fact that, say, the ginger is too dry or too hot or that the galangal isn’t fragrant enough or that the lemon grass is too woody and not, you know, not fragrant enough and that the limes are actually tend to be bitter instead of kind of mildly sweet and the aroma is different.  That kind of stuff.

 

So there are things that I’d certainly like to have in the menu and, for instance, one of my favorite things in the North of Thailand is called Thapak. “Tha” means salad in the Northern Thai dialect.  It’s kind of a broad term to cover a bunch of different things but Thapak is kind of a raw herb and vegetable salad that’s pounded in a mortar and pestle and it’s one of the most delicious things I’ve ever had.  It’s got like sour leaves and, you know, you make chili paste that’s grilled shallots and garlic and there are shrimp paste and stuff and then you pound these leaves and these raw vegetables all together and it makes this beautiful like delicious dish.  But the problem is like a lot of those – you know, the leaves that they just gather in the jungle there or cultivate don’t grow in the climate and it’s extremely difficult to come by this stuff.  So we just don’t make Thapak, all right.  That was a pretty easy one.

 

But if you’re in the North, you actually have to be there at the right time of the year for it to be available anyway because as with any great cuisine, there are seasonal changes and what’s available.  There’s a dish also called Tha Yot Maham and yot means like shoot and maham is tamarind, so it’s young leaves of tamarind tree.  They are really tart and they’ve got a really nice texture and you make a Tha with this that’s similar to Thapak but just made of this and maybe some grilled fish or canned sardines and tomatoes and, again, a paste that’s made with grilled vegetables and chilies and stuff.  One of my favorite things in the whole world.  But young tamarind leaves are not so easily gotten in Portland, so we just don’t put that on the menu.

 

Seth:  Right.

 

Interviewee:  But if you happen to be in Northern Thailand during the time of the year when tamarind trees are putting out new leaves and that’s a wonderful dish to try.

 

Seth:  Now I know you now have restaurants.  You’re bicoastal.  You’ve got restaurants in Portland and New York.  But are you still making it over to Thailand regularly?

 

Interviewee:  Yeah, I make it to Thailand a couple of times a year, like I’m leaving December 24th.  I’m leaving, I’ll be there for a couple of months.  It’s not really an option for me not to go at this point.  I consider it just, you know, actually a third home.

 

Seth:  And when you put a trip to Thailand together, what are you trying to do or accomplish with it and how do you put it together and where you’re going, what are you visiting, that kind of thing?

 

Interviewee:  Well, I tried to mix it up a little bit.  I spend most of my time up in Chiang Mai.  You know, got good friends.  I love the lifestyle there.  The food from that area is what interests me the most.  I usually try to put together some time in Bangkok to visit with friends that live there and go run around and experience what Bangkok has to offer.  But I also try to make it out to either, you know, outlying provinces nearer to Chiang Mai or, you know, occasionally, I’ve driven to Wanchai and Laos before.  From Chiang Mai you can also shoot up to Burma, so – and I haven’t done anything more than quick visa run across the border there.  I’m really keen to go to Burma.  I’ll make it this year, or fly up to Yunnan province in China.

 

Seth:  And how do you discover the new places that you want to eat at when you’re out there?  I mean, where are you finding them?  Is it all just word of mouth?

 

Interviewee:  Yeah.  There’s various different avenues to find new places to eat.  Most of it requires at least a working knowledge of language and a network of people you know but, you know, Thai people blogged about food just as, you know, voraciously as the Americans do.  So if you know somebody who reads Thai, you can actually look up blogs and will lead you to places.  Word of mouth is probably the best way and at this point, I have lots of friends up there.  This is tricky though because as a tourist, when you arrive in Chiang Mai and you want to go and eat hyper local food, you’re kind of at a disadvantage because hyper local food isn’t that – the best of it isn’t that visible and even if it is visible, you wouldn’t know by driving by what kind of restaurant it is, right.

 

So for instance, there’s a type of food there called larb which a minced meat salad that’s spelled L-A-R-B on American menus larb, right.  Northern Thailand, and Chiang Mai in particular, is known for this dish and there are restaurants that are just all about larb.  But if you drove by a restaurant that is specialized in larb, it’s extremely unlikely there’s going to be any signage in English and it might just look like a road side shack and with, you know, obviously restaurant but there’s no indication if you don’t read Thai of what might be on the menu.

 

Seth:  Have you just picked up with the language over the years?

 

Interviewee:  So I speak Thai conversationally but I don’t read it which is a source of, you know, shame and kind of like a bummer for me because if I did, it would really open some doors for me because every time I need the people to kind of tell me, you know, we’ll be driving by a place that looks interesting that I can pretty much guess what’s going on based on what the sign looks like, what the kitchen looks like, you know.  But I have to ask this, you know, what is this place and then they can tell me the name of the place.  And if it’s a larb restaurant, I’ll just walk in and start talking to them and order some food.  But I can’t read the menu either.  I have to ask, you know – I mean, I know what’s going to be on the menu at a larb restaurant but they might have some specialty that I have no idea about.  I’d have to find out by talking and asking questions.

 

So if you’re a tourist with no Thai language skills and no Thai reading skills and no working knowledge of what might be available, you’re kind of screwed, you’re kind of at the mercy of whoever you’re with or whatever they give you.  And it wouldn’t be unusual to talk into a larb restaurant and for them to serve you a plate of noodles because you’re a foreigner.  You know what I mean?

 

Seth:  And is that because they think that that’s what you would expect?

 

Interviewee:  It’s because they want you to enjoy your meal.  They want you to have a good time to have food that you like so you have a positive experience.  Thai culture is all about making sure that their guests have a good time and enjoy it.  And they’re, you know, afraid and with good reason that you might not be in to eating, you know, chopped raw buffalo with blood in it and raw, you know, stomach organs chopped into it with bile as a flavoring.  Understandably, that’s something that typically a westerner isn’t going to like, but that’s what they specialize in.

 

Seth:  So it’s really incumbent upon the traveler to make it known if they want to be adventurous and want to try new things.

 

Interviewee:  Yes, it is.  It’s great if you can find a Thai person to take you who trusts that you’re able to eat this stuff.  I have very good friends who I’ve known for, you know, 15 plus years who, to this day, I mean, just this year, I went to a restaurant, this larb restaurant I’ve been to like probably half dozen times with my friend and, you know, then I went with a friend of mine who’s American but is completely fluent in Thai, this guy Austin Bush, who was the photographer of my cookbook, reads Thai and he says, “Oh, they have gang hawk.”  And I was like, “What is gang hawk?”  Because I’ve never heard of that before.  It turns out it’s buffalo fetus, boiled buffalo fetus, yam haw, and it’s considered a Northern Thai delicacy.

 

But my friend who had went with who is Thai didn’t tell me it was on the menu because he thought it was gross himself and he didn’t want me to feel grossed out by a food that his people ate.

 

Seth:  Oh, that’s fascinating.  All right.  So we’re going to come back in just a moment here and we’re going to get an answer to your trivia question.  We’re going to talk more about Pok Pok, about the restaurant and the cookbook as well.  And then we’re going to play a game called Out of the Frying Pan.  It’s coming up in just a sec.

 

Before we get back to Chef Ricker, I do want to ask once again, please follow us on social media.  We are doing our best to get all of these podcasts up on YouTube so you can find us there.  You can also follow us on Pinterest.  I have now posted tons and tons of photos of the 2013 Taste Trekkers Food Tourism up at Pinterest so you if you haven’t checked it out, go check it out.  Please head over to iTunes.  Leave a review for this podcast there.  That helps other people discover the show.  You can follow us on Twitter.  We are Taste Trekkers.  We are on Instagram as well and, of course, we on Facebook.  So please check us out through any number of ways.

 

We are talking to Chef Andy Ricker of Pok Pok in Portland and also several other restaurants both in Portland, Oregon and in New York City.  He is the James Beard Award Winner for Best Chef Northwest and he’s really known for Thai cuisine.  You described yourself, you said, as a student of Thai cuisine but you’re really influential in bringing it back here to the U.S. and I think opening a lot of doors and showing a lot of people that there’s a lot more to Thai cuisine than previously thought.  You asked me a trivia question earlier.  Give it to me one more time.

 

Interviewee:  There’s a seasoning that both Thai and Italian foods regionally share that’s not chilies and it’s not salt or pepper.  So something a little bit unusual that both Thai and Italians used to season their food.

 

Seth:  You said it’s not chilies which would have been first guess.  You know, I’m thinking something like dried shrimp or fish.

 

Interviewee:  You’re getting warmer, you’re getting warmer, you’re getting much warmer.

 

Seth:  Is it seafoodish?

 

Interviewee:  Yes, it is.  Seasoning.

 

Seth:  Seafood seasoning.

 

Interviewee:  You said one of the words.

 

Seth:  So shrimp paste, I don’t know.  Is shrimp one of the words?

 

Interviewee:  No, that’s not but you did say another word right after you said shrimp.

 

Seth:  It must be fish.

 

Interviewee:  That’s half of the title.

 

Seth:  I’ll take a half victory.  What is it?

 

Interviewee:  Fish sauce.

 

Seth:  Fish sauce.  Really, they use that in Italian cuisine a lot, huh?

 

Interviewee:  Yeah, and apparently, Roman cuisine, they used a fish sauce goes back, you know, a couple millennia.  They found an earthenware pot, apparently they found fish sauce that was made, you know, 2000 years ago or something like that.

 

Seth:  So tell me, what exactly is fish sauce and where does it come from?

 

Interviewee:  Yes.  So fish sauce is essentially whole little tiny anchovies basically and they ferment them with salts and whatever the liquid that’s left over is extracted from it and that’s the fish sauce.

 

Seth:  Does fish sauce vary from region to region in the world?

 

Interviewee:  Yeah, they do, like for instance, I’m not a fish sauce expert but being very kind of like general about, I found that, for instance, the Vietnamese fish sauce tends towards the lighter and sweeter side of things.  The Thai fish sauce is a little bit funkier and saltier.  There’s also the Lao stuff called pala which is the fermented fish sauce where they actually take whole fresh water fish and ferment it in rice and they make a very, very pungent flavored sauce out of that.  it’s quite different from your typical nam pla or regular fish sauce.

 

Seth:  All right.  Well, let’s talk about Pok Pok.  First of all, we’ll start with the restaurant.  Tell me where you came up with the name.

 

Interviewee:  The way I came up with a name for restaurant was, you know, when you’re trying to name something like a restaurant or a band or something, you can end up kind of – you know, go on running around in circles biting your tail just trying to figure out something that’s the right amount of catchy and make sense and all that kind of stuff.  And, you know, I started by getting my notebook out which I still have to this date and writing all these different names down kind of go on, what about this, what about that.

 

And Pok Pok kept on coming back up and the reason it did is I’d had this experience traveling from Isan back to Bangkok onetime years ago like 10 plus years ago, 15 years ago and it was on a diesel rail car which is kind of a high speed train.  That was in like second class or something and I met this itinerant workers who are coming from home in Isan, they’re going back to Bangkok after a holiday to go back to work.  And they started to ask me, you know, “What are you doing in Isan,” because back then and even now, it’s not a very touristic region and so they’re curious like, “What are you doing.:  I said, “Well, I went to eat,” like, “Really?  You like to eat Isan food?”  And I was like, “Yeah,” and they said, “Do you know how to cook?”  And I said, “Yeah, I can cook a few things,” and then we were talking like a combination of really rudimentary time, really rudimentary English.

 

And I asked the guide, “Do you know how to cook?’  And he said, “Yes, I can cook, pok, pok, pok, pok, pok”, making the motion of hitting a pestle and a mortar.  And that just stuck with me because this guy equated cooking with the use of a mortar and pestle and the sound of the pestle strike in the mortars, “pok, pok, pok, pok, pok”.  It’s not a hard P sound, pok, is pok.  Pok pok is an onomatopoeia and it represents the noise of cooking to a Thai person.

 

Seth:  Are you actually using mortar and pestle is what you’re doing?

 

Interviewee:  Every single day, every single day.  Yeah.  There are several different kinds of mortars and pestles and we used most of them in the restaurant.  So there’s the granite mortar and pestle that’s used to pound pastes like curry pastes and stuff like that or grinding spices.  And then there’s a clay mortar with a wood pestle that’s the Isan style or Northeastern Thai version that you use to make salads in.  There’s also a wooden mortar with wooden pestle which is more of a Northern Thai version that you use to make salads in.  And we’ve got all of those and we use them every day.  Every papaya salad we make, it’s made in a mortar and pestle.

 

Some of the smaller scale curry paste, we make in a very large granite mortar and pestle because there’s no other way to really make it.  And then we do make large quantities of the curry paste using a meat grinder that’s kind of the commercial way they do it in Thailand but they used mortars and pestles as a daily, you know, like all day long every day.

 

Seth:  Anything else unusual that you’re using back there that you wouldn’t normally find in other restaurants?

 

Interviewee:  Sure.  There’s two really good examples of that, one is the sticky rice steamer which consist of a pot that’s kind of got almost kind of like a pot belly kind of look with a wide rim, so it stars out wide, it chokes down to a narrower top and then has a wide rim.  And you set a basket basically, a bamboo basket sits in the mouth and you put your sticky rice in there and the rice literally steams.  So that’s one thing.

 

Another piece of equipment that we use which is relatively unusual is a squid press which is – it looks kind of like a printing press with two cylinders that are stride that have like ridges in them and you put a dried cowfish in there and squeeze it back and forth until it stretches it out and makes it stride so you can tear  it up.  And then we also have larb knives, the knives you use to make larb with which are these scimitar-shaped heavy butcher knives that are use to chop meat very, very finely.

 

Seth:  Well, tell me a little the physical layout of the restaurant.

 

Interviewee:  The way the Portland restaurant is laid out is — I bought a house that had a commercial kitchen in the basement that was used to make sushi and it had a little shack out on the driveway that the people who owned it used to sell the sushi just like a retail space.  And we converted the – first, that shack converted into a cooking space and we opened up with just that area out there with a little charcoal grill behind it and there’s little, you know, 8 by 12 shack and the commercial kitchen inside.  So that was the beginning of the business.

 

Since we’ve opened the shack, we then moved into the house, built that out into a, you know, a dining room and a bar downstairs and a full commercial kitchen upstairs and converted the old commercial kitchen into bathrooms.  So, we have a kitchen inside and we got a kitchen outside and we’ve got seating outside on what used to be the driveway and we got seating on the front porch and we got seating down the basement which is the main dining room and bar.

 

The whole property essentially is the restaurant.  The garage has walk-in coolers and storage and that kind of stuff.

 

Seth:  And this is in just a residential neighborhood, right?

 

Interviewee:  So the neighborhood that Pok Pok sits in is actually in old commercial thoroughfare called Division Street that slowly became more and more residential as the businesses has died out and it has been resurrected as a very, very busy commercial district at this point.  But when we moved in, it was still pretty quiet.

 

Seth:  Let me ask about some of the items on the menu, starting with the Ike’s Vietnamese fish sauce wings which I know are very popular there.  Tell me about those.

 

Interviewee:  Those are obviously not Thai food.  They’re actually Vietnamese fish sauce wings which leaves me to need to explain that we don’t call Pok Pok a Thai restaurant for a bunch of different reasons.  One of which is the fact that we don’t just serve exclusively food from Thailand and second of all, because when you say Thai restaurant, it’s got a certain connotation to American people show up expecting all the things that you can get at “Thai restaurant”.

 

The wings themselves came about because I was traveling in Vietnam and, you know, the year before I opened the restaurant and I was in Saigon and I went to Bia Hoi stand which Bia Hoi is like a fresh beer in Vietnamese and this little stands where you can sit on the plastic chair that’s about 6 inches off the ground and, you know, a table that’s maybe 12 inches of the ground made of plastic and they serve you sort of jugs of this cheap weak beer and then they are often offer some sort of snack to go with it.  And stopped at one and they had, you know, a little paper menu with a few things written in English and one of them was fish sauce wings.  And I thought, how could that be bad.  So I ordered that amongst other things and it turned out to be – it was one of the tastiest things I have on that trip, like hands down.

 

That trip I went to a lot of places.  I went to Vietnam, north and south.  I went to Cambodia.  I went to China I believe.  I went to Thailand.  But this was kind of like one of the best things I have on that whole trip.  So when I got back to the States, it took me about a year until we actually, you know, we’re in a place to start cooking those because we needed a full commercial kitchen to do it.  So I started – in advance of opening the main restaurant of Pok Pok, I started trying to figure out this recipe and it wasn’t working.  I wasn’t quite getting the ratios right; I’d guessed what was in it and had gotten pretty close but I was missing a couple of finer points.

 

Luckily, there’s a fellow named Ike who had been working with me as a painting contractor and then had helped me build the restaurant and then was my first employee and still is my employee actually.  His real name is Ik Throng and Ik, like, was too difficult a name for us honkies to say, so I started calling him Ike and it stuck at least at the restaurant, he’s still called Ike.  So I said, “Ike, do you know how to make these?”  And Ike at that time spoke maybe three words in English and one of which is “yeah” and the other one is “man”, so he’s like, “Yeah, man.”

 

So I got him some chicken wings and he started making it and he started putting stuff and that I was like “yeah, that makes sense”, put fish sauce, sugar…  And then he did a couple of moves that I had missed, one of which was he – I was trying to get garlic into it and I kept on, you know, garlic would burn when I’d fry the  chicken.  So what he did was just, you know, put some water and chopped garlic together and he’d squeeze the garlic and get this water that was, you know, that had garlic in it and then used that as part of the marinade.  That was number one.

 

And then he just kind of showed the ratios a little difference than I had them.  And, you know, my instinct as a western cook is not to make things too sweet and he called “{bleep}” on that right away.  So, you know, in went the sugar more than I thought that should be there and went the garlic, water and that was it.  So out of two pounds of chicken wings, you know, in about half an hour worth of work, we ended up extrapolating the recipe that we have now and at this point, we process, you know, up to 4,000 a week in Portland of this stuff.

 

Seth:  Wow.

 

Interviewee:  Batches of up to 1,200 pounds at a time.  So the recipe has changed, you know, ratio wise to get it – we’ve refined it over the years but it all came back to, you know, Ike’s half hour lesson to correct the {bleep} that I had gotten wrong.  And so we named the wings after Ike.

 

Seth:  Nice.  That was a nice nod to him.  What else do you recommend on the menu?  I mean, if somebody is coming in for the first time, what are your favorites that you would tell people that they should definitely try?

 

Interviewee:  I would say try some of the Northern Thai stuff because at this point, Northern Thai cuisine is still relatively unknown that’s starting to show up on menus more and more.  Isan food at this point is pretty well known in America.  It started to really infiltrate the Thai menus at various restaurants which is great.  So I’d say, if you want to be adventurous, try some of the Northern Thai dishes like the larb or the khaeng hang leh or sa… – if we have a special on Northern Thai, especially try that or maybe khao jinn naam muu, the Northern Thai soft rice with Vermicelli with it like a soup/curry of steamed blood cake and pork rib and ground beef and tomatoes.

 

And it’s, you know, the food that I find the most interesting is the Northern Thai stuff.

 

Seth:  And let’s talk about the book, Pok Pok: Food and Stories in the Streets, Homes and Roadside Restaurants of Thailand.  And I know that this is not just a cookbook but it also, in a lot of ways, a travelogue and you sharing some of your travel experiences.  Tell me a little bit about the impetus for the book and why you wanted to put it together.

 

Interviewee:  I didn’t set out to write this book.  It just kind of came about.  I was approached long time ago by a publishing company that asked if I was interested in doing a book and I was like, “Yeah, maybe, you know, I kind of wrote a moldy kind of proposal on a piece of paper and look at it and thought “no, this is {bleep} I’m not going to do this”.  And then, you know, a couple of years later, I got approached by a couple of writers and one of them was JJ Goode and we met through friends and he’s like, “Hey, do you want to do a cookbook?”  And I was like, “Well, you know, you’re like the second or third person who’s asked me so maybe I should look into this,” so we started talking about it.

 

And initially, I had this idea that I was going to do a Northern Thai cookbook and then we realized that at this point, Pok Pok had started to get pretty popular and it would make sense to try to keep it on brand.  So I thought, “Nah, I don’t want to do the Pok Pok cookbook with all the recipes,” and I changed my mind, so I ended up doing the Pok Pok cookbook.

 

Seth:  And what can people expect to find inside it?

 

Interviewee:  There’s about 70 recipes in there and it’s all stuff that we either have on the menu at Pok Pok or have had on the menu at some point and probably will have again, like kind of the greatest hit stuff that people go to Pok Pok for.  So you can get the chicken wing recipe, you can get the Phak Kat recipe, you can get the Khao Soi recipe, all that kind of stuff, like the roasted game hen.

 

But there’s also recipes in there for stuff that I haven’t really seen recipes foreign English much in the past.  If it all, it’s, you know, some of the Northern Thai dishes like for instance, Kaeng Khanun which is a young jackfruit curry from Northern Thailand.  I’d learned that by having friends show me how to do it.  And a combination of kind of like the greatest hits of Pok Pok plus some of the stuff that we’ve had on the menu over the years but a little bit more, you know, specific and obscure, so of course, those are the things that I’m the most interested in.

 

Seth:  Well, all right, Andy, are you ready to play a little game?

 

Interviewee:  I supposed so.

 

Seth:  Okay.  This game is called Out of the Frying Pan.  Here’s how it works, I’m going to ask you for a series of rapid fire questions.  We’re going to ask you about Thailand and you just tell me the first thing that comes to your mind, okay?  Are you ready?

 

Interviewee:  I’m ready.

 

Seth:  All right.  If I’m going to Thailand for just a week or two, tell me where I really need to go, where I need to start.

 

Interviewee:  I’m biased but I would say, go to Chiang Mai and Bangkok.  Chiang Mai is the Northern Thai capital.  It’s kind of like cultural center of the country and Bangkok is just as amazing megalopolis with endless variations of food and sights and smells and sounds.  And both places are fascinating.

 

Seth:  While I’m in Thailand, are there any signature dishes that I could try, I mean, particularly that compare against each other and sort of see how different people do it?

 

Interviewee:  It’s just kind of a really thought answer but I’m going to say try Pad Thai because you’re going to be very surprised at what Pad Thai is in Thailand compared to what it is here in America.  Seek out the oldest Pad Thai shops you can find, smaller ones and that size and watch how they make it and taste the difference between what you get here in America that tends to be very, very sweet and kind of made with ketchup and stuff and see what you get there.

 

Seth:  Do you have any favorite chefs when you’re in Thailand?

 

Interviewee:  My favorite chef in Thailand, it’s got to be David Thompson who has a restaurant called Nahm at the Metropolitan Hotel and it’s Pellegrino top 50 restaurants in the world.  I think it’s number 32 right now.  And the level at which he’s cooking is astounding.  His career is very well documented over 35 years and lots of success including the Michelin star for his London restaurant.  And what he had able to do now with the ingredients that he’s able to get in Thailand is simply astounding.

 

Seth:  Talk to me about Thai drinks, is there a favorite drink or two that we should try?

 

Interviewee:  In Thailand, I would recommend trying some of the fruit juices and other types of juices.  So you can try to make a sugarcane drink is delicious, Hibiscus drink called Nam Krachiap which is really good.  And I would also try the local Lao Khao or White Lightning.

 

Seth:  Let’s say I just bought your cookbook and I’m looking to get into some Thai recipes, where is the best place in America to buy Thai ingredients?

 

Interviewee:  The best place in America, it depends on what coast you’re on but you’re probably going to do really well if you’re in California and LA, just go to Thai Town and look around the markets there.  And if you’re in New York, you probably are going to be going to Flushing or Jackson Heights or Sunset Park in Brooklyn and looking at the larger markets there.  But I’m going to say that the best place to get Thai produce in America is going to be in Florida and go to the local Thai farmer.  They’re growing stuff that is just like it is in Thailand.

 

Seth:  What about mortar and pestle, where do you pick that up?

 

Interviewee:  Mortar and pestle can be picked up at almost any Southeast Asian market.  They might not have a large one.  The other option – better option is probably to go online to a online retailer like Temple of Thai and buy one from there.

 

Seth:  And last question, what is the most common mistake that people make when they are trying to cook Thai food that you could help us avoid?

 

Interviewee:  The most common mistake I think people make is not necessarily a technical move, it’s probably just a misunderstanding of Thai food in general and that is that all Thai food is spicy and it’s just simply not true.  If you’re looking at a recipe and doesn’t call for chilies, don’t put any chilies in because it’s not supposed to have them in there.  Thai food can run the gamut from blend to ultra spicy and it’s based on what dish you’re cooking.  If you like spicy food, choose a recipe that is meant to be spicy like a Southern Thai curry.  If you want something that’s blander, then choose a blander dish like maybe kaeng djuut, a bland soup from the center of Thailand.

 

Seth:  All right.  Well, Andy Ricker, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us.  This was fascinating.  It’s great to hear from an expert and somebody who spent a lot of time traveling and exploring the cuisine of Thailand.  Pok Pok in Portland, people can find it online at PokPokPDX.com and people can also check out the cookbook Pok Pok: Food and Stories from the Streets, Homes and Roadside Restaurants of Thailand in bookstores, on Amazon and things like that.

 

If people want to follow you on social media, how can they do that?

 

Interviewee:  On Twitter, I’m @Pawkhrua and then on Facebook, you can look at Pok Pok and my name both of which on there.  And Instagram, I’m also @Pawkhrua.

 

Seth:  And you spend most of your time in New York or Portland these days or you’re back and forth between the two?

 

Interviewee:  I’m back and forth but most of my time right now is being spent in New York because there’s a lot more activity here right now.

 

Seth:  Well, thank you again so much and this has been fascinating.

 

Interviewee:  Well, thank you so much.

 

Seth:  My name is Seth Resler.  This is the Find Dining Podcast.  Couple of notes before we go, you’ll find links to many of the things that we mentioned in this episode up on our website at TasteTrekkers.com/Podcast.  Please go to iTunes, leave a review, let people know about the show.  It helps us out and you can also follow us on Facebook or on Twitter as well, We are Taste Trekkers on Twitter.

 

Thank you so much and we’ll talk to you next time.



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