Sunday, October 27, 2013

Cookery Bookery: Pok Pok, by Andy Ricker with JJ Goode

Title: Pok Pok
Author: Andy Ricker with JJ Goode
Publisher: Ten Speed Press
Publication Date: October 29th, 2013
Read: September 2013
Where It Came From: eARC from publisher via NetGalley*
Genre: Cooking
Rating: 5 Phrik

I almost went to Thailand once. While I was teaching in Japan, a friend and I planned to take a trip there one summer, but there was some unrest going on at the time we needed to be booking tickets. To err on the side of safety, we forewent our Thailand plans and visited Bali instead (a real hardship, I know). Bali was, of course, lovely and we had a great time. The food was lip-smackingly delicious, and I encountered my favorite rhizome, galangal, for the first time (it’s like ginger, only better!). Though I am no longer situated in that general area of the globe, I would still like to visit Thailand someday, and this cookbook has further cemented that desire in my mind. I love Thai food, but am by no means an aficionado. Pok Pok makes me want to become one.

How many chef/cook/restaurateurs can say they’ve appeared on Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives AND won a James Beard Award? I don’t know the actual number, but I would hazard to guess “not many.” I guess that’s to whole point of Triple D, though—you don’t have to go to a fancy, trendy, exorbitantly priced restaurant to get great food. For a long time I have wanted to eat at Ricker’s much-loved Pok Pok restaurant in Portland, and this cookbook, inspired by his adventures eating in Thailand and his desire to share the joy of Thai food with others, was my most anticipated cookbook of 2013.

He makes a point to say it’s not a Thai cookbook, though—rather, it is a collection of recipes, seen through the lens of his travels to Thailand and other places, that are the result of his drive to recreate something as close as possible to his favorite things that he ate in those countries. He spends a lot of time in Northern Thailand, so yeah, there are a lot of Northern Thai recipes. He explains that through much trial and error he has found how to replicate authentic Thai flavors using ingredients available in the Western world and how to convey these techniques and flavors to others, first through his restaurant Pok Pok, and now through this book with the same name. He describes his goal for the book thusly:

My hopes for this book are simple: to show you how to cook some of the dishes that made me fall for Thai food and to provide a sense of place—context for a country, culture, and cuisine that can be so inscrutable to an outsider, which I once was and in many ways still am.
Beautifully and simply put.

In the introduction, I loved reading about how Ricker got to this point in his life—how he came to fall in love with Thai cuisine, how he ended up opening a restaurant, and his hard-won success. He is very down-to-earth in his approach, and the whole tone of the book sounds like you’re just hanging out, listening to stories from a buddy who knows a lot on the subject of traveling and eating in Thailand and would like to share some of what he’s learned over the years. He dispels the myth of “authentic” and “traditional” with regards to food, explaining that there is no Platonic ideal, no “right” way to make a certain thing. People in one part of the country may add, say, tomatoes to a certain dish, and people in another part of the country may not. It doesn’t mean one is more “authentic” than the other. He also doesn’t look down on Americanized “pick-a-protein” Thai food either, instead viewing it as a gateway to get people interested in other Thai fare. He states that he doesn’t consider himself a chef and he’s not putting his own spin on Thai—he’s a “proud copycat,” and as this book is his best effort at replicating his favorite things that he’s eaten in Thailand, the credit goes to the Thai people who have cooked and perfected them. And I agree with him—credit to the Thai people for inventing and perfecting this stuff, but credit to Ricker as well for being fastidious, motivated, and perseverant enough to bring it stateside.

In the “How to Use This Book” section that follows the intro, he seeks to dispense with the notions that a) Thai food is too much work to make at home, and b) you can’t make Thai food in the US, but at the same time he wants to acknowledge the effort involved in making it. In his words, “You shouldn’t be dissuaded by nonsense, but you should know exactly what you’re getting into.” And there is admittedly a lot of commitment involved in making these recipes, whether it’s monetary (in buying the ingredients and investing in the equipment), or time (for completing all the steps to pull a recipe together), but he has convinced me that it’s both doable and worth it. This section covers a lot of important and thoughtful information, ranging from substitutions, to the difficulty of seasoning to taste in a cuisine where you might not be sure how it’s supposed to taste, to how to eat the food. He is thorough in his explanations and unerring in his choices to do things a certain way—he talks about why he made the choices he did in creating the cookbook and what he’s hoping to accomplish, and I was right there with him all the way. It all made sense and it all felt right.

The design of the book is great—very colorful, fun, and well organized. The photos of people and places in Thailand sprinkled throughout the book are both evocative of the culture and transporting, and I am a big fan of the simple photo staging for the recipes. The perspective is a bird’s-eye view looking down on a plate of the prepared food (plus any accompanying sauces and condiments you make to go with it), with the plate sitting on a simple, uncomplicated (often colorful or wooden) tabletop or countertop. This puts the focus smack-dab on the colors and textures of the food, which might as well be whispering eat me, eat me... As it is one of my cookbook pet peeves, I am happy to say that there are photos for all the finished dishes—yay!!! There aren’t photos with the rice cooking instructions or to go along with the recipes for condiments and sauces in the final chapter of the book. The rice—okay, fine, I’ll give him that one. But I would’ve liked some helper photos to go along with the sauce and condiment recipes.

In broad terms, the recipes in the book cover the categories of dishes eaten family-style with rice, one-plate meals, and sweets. Within the category of the smorgasbord family-style dishes, there are chapters dedicated to rice, the papaya salad and its brethren, other Thai “salads,” fish, stir-fries, Thai minced meat salads, grilled foods, curries and soups, and chile dips. Due to the inadequacy of single English words to properly translate and convey the meaning behind the Thai words for these groupings of food, there is often fascinating (to me at least, in all my language-nerdiness) discussion of what the names for these categories actually mean. Following those chapters are ones dedicated to the aforementioned one-plate meals, “foreign food” (including Chinese and Vietnamese dishes), sweets, and the final chapter of recipes for things like stock, condiments, and other pantry staples.

Here’s a rundown of some more components of the cookbook that I love:

  • For recipes with steps that can be done in advance, he includes a plan of attack for how to break it down and make it easier to accomplish.
  • At the beginning of each recipe he lists what special equipment will be needed to prepare it, so there’s no getting halfway through and then going, crap, I don’t have a granite mortar and pestle! or something like that.
  • For each recipe he provides a flavor profile, giving guidelines such as “slightly sweet,” “tart,” “smoky,” and so on, to help you nail the flavor for a dish you may have never tasted or attempted to cook before.
  • He also provides suggestions of other dishes to go along with each recipe.
  • Before getting to the recipes, he gives a rundown of the veggies, fruits, herbs, spices, noodles, and other ingredients (things like fish sauce and shrimp paste) used in Thai cooking, and there are labeled photos to help you identify them when shopping.
  • He also lists out the special equipment and utensils needed to make these dishes (things like woks and the above-mentioned mortar and pestle), and there is a picture showing them. The picture isn’t labeled like the foodstuffs one is, but it might be helpful if it were.
  • He gives a list of online retailers where you can buy many of these ingredients and equipment in case you don’t have a well-stocked Asian or Thai grocery near you.

As for negatives? Aside from my quibbles about wanting pictures included in the chapter of sauce/condiment recipes and labeling on the equipment/utensil photo, I’d be hard-pressed to find any. Probably the main negative, for some readers, at least, would be the complexity of many of the recipes, and the cost and effort (and in some cases, difficulty) involved in acquiring the ingredients and tools necessary to execute them. But having read through the book, I understand why it’s that way and I’m totally okay with it. More than that, though, I think the value of this book exceeds that of a simple cookbook. It certainly has great value as a book of recipes, but it’s more than just that—it’s a repository of Thai culture as experienced and seen through food and the human interactions surrounding that food’s preparation and consumption. It shows how culture, language, and food are all inextricably entwined, and it shines a light on the people, friendships, interactions, stories, events, adventures, and ingredients that all play a part, leading to the dish you have sitting on the table (or in the book) before you. Here, it’s about Thai food, but the same is true of food anywhere. And it is a pleasure to read.

If you buy this cookbook wanting to sit down tonight and make Thai food, you may be a little disappointed. But Ricker has convinced me that the wait and effort to get the necessary tools and ingredients for making these recipes will be worth it. Even if I had no intention of cooking any of the recipes in Pok Pok, I would still want it on my shelf. It’s so full of beautiful images, truly fascinating information, stories and anecdotes that draw you in, and sincere, funny, heartfelt writing. I absolutely loved it.

Two last things—pok pok is the onomatopoeia in Thai for the sound of a pestle hitting a mortar, and phrik are chiles.

*As ever, much as we are grateful for the copy, our review is uninfluenced by its source.


Susan said...

!!!! a FIVE STAR review!

It looks completely well-deserved. I love it when cookbooks suggest complimentary recipes, so you don't end up with mushy carrots as your balance to a main course dish from the book. As a fellow language nerd learning that pok pok is the sound of a pestle in a mortar has made my day.

My favorite cookbooks offer me more than recipes and even pictures. When I read them I imagine I live in the author's kitchen. I will check this one out!

Alyssa L. said...

DO IT. It's fantastic. :)

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