Book Notes: Pok Pok
Posted on November 3, 2013
It’s here. Pok Pok: Food and Stories from the Streets, Homes, and Roadside Restaurants of Thailand, by Andy Ricker with JJ Goode. For the last few days, since my copy arrived, I’ve been reading and flagging and planning, and yesterday I dove in for real. I picked out a few of the simpler-looking recipes to start with, then hit 27th Street in search of ingredients. I had a lot of what I needed already, and most of the rest I was able to find, remarkably, in one Vietnamese grocery store (Little Saigon, if you’re local). I’d just run out of the fancy Vietnamese Red Boat fish sauce I’d gotten for the first time a while back, so I was happy to pick up a Thai version, Squid “premium,” which is indeed excellent and well worth the extra buck or so. Healthy Boy Thai thin and black soy sauces, a Thai-made maggi “seasoning sauce,” dried shrimp (size M), Key limes, the right rices, and so on. The only thing I could not find for this batch of recipes was a Thai-made fermented fish sauce, the murky, sediment-heavy kind; I could only find very old bottles of Vietnamese brands, so I left them there. Noted the availability of fresh pig’s blood, which I’ll need when I’ve worked my way up to the laap meuang, but not quite yet.
My plan: sii khrong muu yaang (Thai-style pork ribs) with jaew (spicy, tart dipping sauce for meat), kai kaphrao khai dao (stir-fried chicken with hot [holy] basil), jasmine rice, and tam taeng kwaa (Thai cucumber salad). The chicken dish and the cucumber salad, as it turns out, are the featured recipes on the book’s Amazon page, probably because they’re easy and broadly appealing—head over there to see the full recipes.
For the stir-fried ground chicken dish I bought a flat of boneless, skinless chicken thighs and dug our trusty meat grinder out of a packing box in the depths of the sewing room. I sent Thalia out to our little vegetable garden to pick all the holy basil she could find; I figured I should make this dish right away, before our herbs freeze (true holy basil, which is not at all the same as sweet Italian basil or purple-stemmed Thai basil, is hard to find in stores even in Lincoln; best to just grow your own, as I do).
I used all fresh Thai chiles rather than a combination of fresh and dried, but otherwise I followed the recipe pretty much exactly (which is rare for me), and it was wonderful: lots of mortar-pounded garlic, a handful of sliced onion, a handful of diced long beans, a slurry of sweetened soy and fish sauces, lots of holy basil. Next time I’d probably use a little less sugar. The musky-smelling holy basil, sweet and molasses-y Thai black soy sauce, and the nubbin texture of the home-ground chicken made this humble dish quite special. I loved how the soft yolk of the fried egg melted into the stir-fry and gave some bites a silky richness.
For some reason (squeamishness?) I did not buy the cross-cut pork ribs at the Asian place, but went to the Hy-Vee supermarket instead, thinking the butcher there could just saw a rack in half for me. He said he wasn’t allowed to do that. I went ahead and got the uncut rack anyway, and just cut it between the bones into four sets of ribs, which I think worked just fine. I won’t be shy next time, though: I’ll get them at Little Saigon.
The ribs went into an interesting marinade of honey, thin Thai soy sauce, shaoxing wine, grated ginger, sesame oil, white pepper, cinnamon, and nutmeg (what?!). I let it marinate for just about two hours, but next time I’ll do it farther in advance—at least overnight. I don’t think a lot of the spice flavors came through after long, low grilling and last-minute basting with thinned-out honey. Ricker takes great pains to warn readers that these ribs will not be fall-off-the-bone tender, like some Southern U.S.–style barbecue ribs (which really shouldn’t be falling off the bone either, if you ask me), saying they’re supposed to be a bit chewy. They were, but not at all in an unpleasant way. I cooked them with charcoal in the smoker at 200 to 225°F for maybe two and a half hours.
The real revelation in this recipe, though, was the accompanying dipping sauce, which is a goddamn wallop of craziness: minced lemongrass, fish sauce, thin soy sauce, seasoning sauce, Key lime juice, palm sugar syrup, toasted and ground dried chiles, cilantro, and toasted sticky rice powder. It is out of control, bizarre, and delicious in all my favorite ways: spicy (not too spicy, though, as the sweetness counteracts it a bit), sour, salty, herbal, textured. I think I’ll be making this a lot and spooning it onto everything. (I made egg, bok choy, and leftover–pork ribs fried rice for breakfast this morning, and the jaew alongside it was just the ticket.)
Finally, a classic Thai salad, som tam, with Persian cucumbers, long beans, sweet grape tomatoes, chopped Key limes, toasted dried shrimp, palm sugar paste (the bane of my existence; I just loathe scraping it out of the tub; if there’s an easier way to deal with tub palm sugar, please let me know in the comments!), fish sauce (ideally half regular, half fermented; I used all regular), fresh Thai chiles, and chopped roasted peanuts.
I do not have a big clay mortar and pestle for making dishes like som tam (such as the more familiar green papaya salad), but I don’t think it’s necessary. I put everything in a bowl and used a little ceramic pestle to gently pound it in what I think was a good approximation of the way Ricker describes in such thrilling detail. For that matter, I have no wok (left it in Georgia when we moved and haven’t found another yet that’s just right), I have no granite mortar, nor a sticky rice steamer, nor a lot of other “absolutely necessary” kitchen tools. I’d urge you to go ahead and make these recipes, though, whether you have everything you need or not. Buy the book, or check it out from the library, or borrow it from a friend, and get started! There are pictures of all the unusual ingredients, and friendly, helpful tips for finding what you need. If you don’t have a wok, use a sauté pan. If you don’t have a clay mortar, use a bowl. If you don’t have a rice cooker, use a pan, for crying out loud. If you don’t have a sticky rice steamer thingy, figure something out! (Maybe try my makeshift couscoussier setup: perforate a round foil cake pan and shove it into the top of a large saucepan; line it with rinsed and squeezed cheesecloth, fill with the soaked rice, put the lid over the pan, and steam.) The point is, if you have a free weekend and a craving for sour, spicy, salty, sweet, funky, you should cook this food.