From the Introduction
I've accidentally spent the last ten years preparing to write this book. It is, I suppose, the Pok Pok cookbook. It's a collection of recipes from the restaurant, but it also includes food that reflects some of my fondest memories and moments of discovery before and since that day in November, 2005, when the shack's window first opened.
One thing that it's definitely not is a Thai cookbook, in part because Pok Pok is not an exclusively Thai restaurant but also because Thailand is a vast, diverse country that even after two decades of eating and exploring I still have much to learn about. The range of recipes in this book is severely constrained by my knowledge, experience, and ability. I've included recipes from all over Thailand and other countries to which my early travels took me, though many come from Northern Thailand, where my first revelation occurred and where I've had many since.
After people eat at Pok Pok, they often assume I have an army of Thai women in my kitchen pounding pastes and simmering sauces that they've made since they were girls. Me, the big white guy? I probably just taste whatever they've made and give it the thumbs up. No such luck.
I've researched every one of the dishes we serve at the restaurant. I've tried and failed and tried and failed to make them come close to my favorite versions in Thailand. And I've at last deciphered a recipe, a way to replicate real-deal Thai flavor using ingredients available in the West. But more important, I've figured out a way to communicate the techniques and flavors to my new cooks, who at first think papaya salad is something you'd find in the deli cold case next to the cubed watermelon. Because not so long ago, I was like them (and if I may be so bold, like you): someone who loves Thai food but doesn't know how to cook it.
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.
This book is a tribute to the cooks of Thailand. Which leads me to disclaimer number one: I'm not a chef. I didn't invent this stuff. The food at my restaurants is not my take on Thai food. It isn't inspired by Thai ingredients. I'm not riffing or playfully reinterpreting. There are American chefs who have successfully managed to apply their creativity to the flavors and ingredients of Thailand. Not me. I'm a proud copycat. The recipes in this book are my best approximations of some of my favorite versions of my favorite Thai dishes, which have been created, cooked, and perfected by Thai people.
Disclaimer number two: I am not a trained scholar of Thai food or culture. My knowledge is largely anecdotal, gleaned from twenty years of observing, eating, cooking, wandering, and wondering. There are aspects of Thai life and food that I may never understand. I still learn something new on every trip I take. The more I learn, the more I understand how much I don't know. I heartily recommend that anyone interested in a scholarly English-language paean look up David Thompson, the Australian-born chef of Nahm in Bangkok and the author of several excellent cookbooks, including the incredibly informative tome Thai Food. He has learned to read long-defunct Thai script, unearthed long-forgotten recipes, and generally devoted his life's work to the study of Thai history and culture as seen through its cuisine. If this book joins his on your shelf, I'd be thrilled and honored.
I do realize some of you won't cook through every last dish in this book. Some of my favorite cookbooks have sauce-splattered, dog-eared pages. Others are pristine. So another of my goals in writing it is to provide a glimpse of Thai life and culture. I hope the book helps illuminate why the food is the way it is, not from a preponderance of historical facts, but from the ingredients and techniques used to make it, and from observations about where and how it's eaten, from me and from the mouths of some of the characters who have taught me what I know.
These characters, I should mention, are getting older and their knowledge is being threatened with extinction. Many members of the younger generation of Thais no longer want to take over their parents' food stalls or learn the secrets of their grandmothers' bamboo shoot salads. They want to go to college, move to Bangkok, or leave the country. And like kids just about everywhere nowadays, they're eager to eat at KFC. These changes aren't bad or good. They reflect a changing economy that has created new opportunities for young Thais. It is what it is. Many of this book's recipes embody traditions that are rapidly disappearing. Even if you don't cook through the recipe for Northern Thai laap, at least it will be on paper. At least there will be a record in English of its existence.
From Pok Pok: Food and Stories from the Streets, Homes, and Roadside Restaurants of Thailand by Andy Ricker. Copyright 2013 by Andy Ricker. Excerpted by permission of Ten Speed Press.