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When I started working with Andy Ricker on his first cookbook, Pok Pok, I set about convincing him to simplify his recipes to appeal to the home cook. Sure, I thought, he can make duck laap (Isaan-style minced meat salad) and khao soi (a northern Thai curry with noodles) at his restaurants, but mere mortals can’t fix them at home. Yet no matter how hard I pushed, Ricker wouldn’t adapt the dishes. And he was right.
One reason he gave for his refusal is that recipes aren’t just instructions: They’re records of how food is made. Since Ricker’s cooking aims to replicate the dishes he fell for during almost two decades of traveling in Thailand, his recipes help tell the story of the cuisine he loves. His main reason, however, is more straightforward: Despite my assumptions, you really can make real-deal Thai food at home. It just takes a little extra effort. I now know this to be true, because I’ve prepared every last recipe in the book.
Here are three misconceptions I had, and tips on how to get past them.
Claim 1: You can’t find all of the ingredients.
Ricker crossed this bridge when he decided to open a restaurant in Portland, Oregon: The restaurant’s existence couldn’t rely on ingredients in suitcases sneaked through customs. He developed his recipes using ingredients he had access to in the US, and when he had to, Ricker found substitutes—but only if they wouldn’t sacrifice flavor. Mexican puya chiles, for instance, stand in for a hard-to-find dried Thai chile. He replicates the flavor of Thai limes by adding a squeeze of Meyer lemon to regular lime juice. If he can’t get an ingredient or find a proper alternative, he just doesn’t make the dishes that rely on that flavor.
Tip: Expand Your Search to Chinese, Latin and Other Ethnic Markets
OK, I thought, of course he can get the right ingredients, but can I? So I went shopping in New York, where I live. Hitting the few dedicated Thai markets was helpful, but not always necessary. I located most of my Thai ingredients in unexpected places. Big Chinese markets sold not only general Southeast Asian staples like lemongrass and green papaya, but they also had shelves devoted to Thai pantry items like palm sugar, fish sauce and coconut cream. Often, harder-to-find Thai ingredients—galangal, durian flesh, pandan leaf—were hiding out in the market’s freezer case. I found phak chii farang (sawtooth herb), a common ingredient in northern Thai cooking, at Vietnamese markets, and also at the more numerous Latin ones, where it’s sold as culantro or recao. Good Indian markets carry fresh turmeric (both yellow and white) and kaffir lime leaf.
Outside New York, my friends have had similar success. One of them rightfully bragged about his haul at Hong Kong Food Market in New Orleans (not to mention, he gets to drive there). Recently, I’ve been emailing with Liana Kristoff, a cookbook writer and Pok Pok fan who lives in Lincoln-freaking-Nebraska, and seems to have better access to fresh betel leaf and young ginger than I do. And let’s not even talk about places like L.A., where great Thai markets abound and where people have kaffir lime trees in their damn backyards. (Yes, I’m very jealous of both their access and their backyards.)
Or just go online! As my dad says, nowadays the Internet will send you just about anything. Temple of Thai can ship everything from a Thai granite mortar to fresh holy basil leaves. Ricker even worked with Temple of Thai to create a couple of one-click Thai ingredient kits for making sateh and papaya salad with coconut rice and sweet pork.
Claim 2: Thai Food Is Too Hard to Make at Home
Some Thai recipes—khao soi, northern Thai laap—do take serious effort. But so does making cassoulet or sourdough or fresh pasta. As Ricker explained to me, he’s eaten too much incredible food cooked in ramshackle kitchens with single-burner stoves to buy this line of thinking.
Tip: Start with the Basics
The Thai repertoire is full of grilled meats served with simple dipping sauces, noodles tossed in a hot wok with just a handful of ingredients, and salads made with four-component dressings. Once the prep is done, many dishes take just minutes to cook. There aren’t a ton of long-simmered stews. You don’t have to cut vegetables into tiny, perfect cubes. During the process of writing, Ricker constantly reminded me to think less like a cook with a MAC knife and aspirations to work at the French Laundry, and more like a rice field worker with a $4 blade.
Claim 3: It’s Best Reserved for a One-Off Thai Night
No! Once you start cooking, every dish gets easier to make—even the complex ones. And not just because you get familiar with the techniques, but because you begin to build a pantry. Once you do, your shopping trips become less onerous and less frequent. Your pantry fills up with store-bought stuff like fish sauce, tamarind pulp, palm sugar and coconut cream, which basically last forever, as well as staples you’ve made yourself in large batches like toasted sticky rice powder and chile powder.
Tip: Fill Your Freezer
Many fresh Thai ingredients freeze well. So when you spot them in the market you should always buy galangal, yellow turmeric, kaffir lime leaves, cilantro roots and fresh Thai chiles. Then, since you have everything on hand, you might decide on a weekend to watch some TV and pound a curry paste, since it keeps in the fridge for a week or the freezer for six months. When friends come over, you can serve them khao soi that tastes like it’s straight out of Chiang Mai and pretend it took you no time at all.