This week marks the release of the Pok Pok cookbook, Andy Ricker's beautifully designed, deeply personal, and entertainingly educational ode to Thai cuisine, written with powerhouse collaborator JJ Goode. It's one of the most exciting cookbooks to come out this year, thanks in part to what our Cook the Book columnist Kate Anderson calls Ricker's "hands-on, no substitutions manner of cooking," which requires practitioners to get comfortable with a mortar and pestle and fish sauce, among other things.
But Ricker's message is not one of intimidation: as a student of Thai cooking himself, he's eager to share the knowledge he's acquired from two decades of experience to help home cooks have the best possible experience of Thai food. With that in mind, we talked to the chef to help clear up some widely held misconceptions about Thai cuisine. Take a look, allay your fears, then grab a pestle and start pounding.
Myth #1: All Thai food is spicy
"There's a lot to talk about here. First of all, Thai food isn't inherently all that spicy. Chilies aren't used for heat in Thailand. They're used for flavor, to balance dishes, and potentially to kill bacteria. Chilies have only really been in Thailand since the late 17th century or early 18th century. And when chili is used, it's not the same kind in every dish.
The idea of going to a Thai restaurant in America and ordering a dish with three out of five chilis on a 'spicy scale' makes no sense at all. To have a system, you need to have a standard, and there is no standard. That's just not how you order food in Thailand. So when you go to a restaurant here and order 'Penang curry, 4 out of 5 spicy," they just take some crushed dried chilies and throw in as much as they think they need to make it really hot.
Having said that, there are certain regions, like Southern Thailand, that are known for spice, and certain dishes across the country that are supposed to be spicy. But the idea that Thai food must be spicy is completely false—it has no bearing on historical reality. There's an ignorance of the fact that chili isn't there for heat, it's there for flavor. That's really one of the biggest misconceptions about the cuisine."
Myth #2: Thai food is greasy
"Here's a secret: in most American Thai restaurants, there are only two stations: the salads and the wok, which is where pretty much everything that's hot gets cooked. Some of the less-skilled places might overuse oil because it makes cooking in a wok easier and cleaner. But stir-frying is only one part of the way you cook Thai food, and arguably, you really only stir-fry the kinds of dishes that are Chinese in origin. To me, a really great stir fried dish, like a phat si ew (literally "stir fried with soy sauce"), is cooked with very little oil at a high heat to get a nice char.
There are tons of other dishes that are grilled, steamed, or made like a salad. There are some dishes that are oily, like a Thai omelet, which is basically eggs beaten and deep fried, so they absorb a lot of oil. If you have a curry made with coconut milk, it's inherently oily, because coconut milk has a lot of fat in it—it's rich, but it's not greasy. There are some dishes that are deep-fried and they're delicious, but that's not the only part of Thai cuisine."
Myth #3: You need a ton of fancy equipment to make Thai food at home
"You do need some special tools, but they're not expensive. The typical Thai kitchen is pretty bare bones. You'll need a sticky rice steamer pot, a stone mortar and pestle, a flat-bottomed wok, a Chinese steamer, and an electric rice cooker. If you want to go deeper, get a charcoal grill, like a Hibachi. Apart from that, it's not much —mostly small hand tools. I did all my recipe testing and photographing in Thailand using two propane burners, the tools sitting in this photo on our Facebook page, and a charcoal grill outside. That's it."
Myth #4: You need all sorts of hard-to-find ingredients to make Thai food at home
"You will need to stock your pantry properly to make Thai food at home. You'll need at least two kinds of soy sauce —thin soy and black soy, plus maybe sweet soy; oyster sauce; palm sugar; fish sauce, yellow bean sauce; rice powder; dried chiles, dried shrimp, and fresh ingredients like galangal and kaffir lime leaves, to start with. [Ed. note: Check out our shopping trip with Andy last year for more of his pantry picks.] The good news is that many of the ingredients are available online, and can be purchased in one big shopping trip. We're actually pairing with TempleoOfThai.com to offer complete recipe kits for some recipes, and the book has a whole list of other mail-order resources, including Importfood.com, Kalustyans.com, and Wokshop.com."
Myth #5: Every Thai dish needs an equal proportion of hot, sour, salty, sweet, and umami tastes
"Those flavors are usually all present in a full meal, but not necessarily in one dish. If you sit down to a balanced Thai meal, you'll have something like this: a yam [salad] has a tart, sweet element; a bland soup is mostly umami; a curry is hot and rich; and a stir-fried vegetable dish is mostly salty. That's all balanced by the rice you're eating it with. When you get into one-plate meals, it's very rare to find something where all those flavors are developed.
We have the four flavors. If you get a plate of phat si ew, it's served with dried crushed chilies, fish sauce with Thai chilies, vinegar with mild green chilies, and sugar, which you can use to adjust the dish to your individual taste. It's kind of difficult for us to grasp as Westerns —the idea that the plate arrives in a baseline state that you're expected to adjust yourself. But if you don't have an understanding of the parameters, it's difficult to arrive at something that tastes good.
At Pok Pok, we force the issue a little —we'll add sauces or seasonings to the dish if they wouldn't be right without them, to make sure people experience the food the way it's best eaten. We always walk a tightrope between being condescending and being educational, because the whole experience changes when you take food out of its natural context."
Myth #6: On chopsticks...
"Chopsticks are only used in Thailand when you're going to a Chinese restaurant or a noodle restaurant.
We have a saying: 'it's up to you,' which is a very Thai idea. You can use chopsticks to eat rice. But the person who uses a spoon will have a better experience. We have a paragraph on the back of our menu saying, 'if you want to really enjoy this, use a spoon and fork. It's easier, and it changes the sensation of eating of this food.' At the end of the day, all we can do is offer the information and let people do what they want. We just want you to have a good experience."