November 12, 2013 / 5:13 PM / 4 years ago

World Chefs: Andy Ricker shares Thai obsession in first cookbook

American chef Andy Ricker, who specializes in Southeast Asian food, poses in an undated handout photo. Andy Ricker/Handout via Reuters

NEW YORK (Reuters) - American chef Andy Ricker shares his more than two-decade long obsession with Thai food and offers tips about how to cook it in his first cookbook, "Pok Pok."

The book, which Ricker co-wrote with food writer J.J. Goode, takes its title from the name of the Portland, Oregon restaurant he opened in 2005.

The self-taught chef has launched three more restaurants in the northwestern city and has two eateries in New York.

The 49-year-old, who was born in North Carolina, spoke to Reuters about his love for Thailand and why his chicken wings, which are also featured in the cookbook, are so popular.

Q: What do you want people to learn from your book?

A: People should realize that there's more to Thai food than what you typically see here in the west. This book is just scratching the surface of the sampling of the food I've had traveling over there over the years. It's interesting. It's approachable. It's not bizarre.

The other thing I want people to take away is that there is no easy short-cut to making really good regional Thai food. While a lot of it is not super-fast, it's also not technically difficult to do.

Q: How does it feel to be an American spokesman for Thai and Southeast Asian food?

A: I don't consider myself an expert. I'm a student like everyone else who's interested in Thai cooking. My experience with Thai cooking is concentrated heavily on northern Thai food. Central Thai is something I'm learning more about. Southern Thai is almost an entire mystery to me.

Q: Where did your fascination with Thailand came from?

A: It was 1987. It was the first time I was there. I was there as a backpacker. In those days it was a far different place. It was very cheap to be there. It was before the big onslaught of tourism. Even then, there was great infrastructure for traveling. It wasn't so intimidating. You could get on a bus and there's always someone who speaks enough English to get you where you are going. I think it was just the ease of access.

Q: What was first Thai dish you fell in love with?

A: It was the Kaeng Het Thawp (a mushroom curry). I was there with my friend Chris and his wife Lakhana. She wanted me to try this dish ... It was a revelation. It was bitter, herbaceous. It was kind of meaty because it was made with pork ribs.

Q: What are the kitchen essentials needed to cook the dishes in your book?

A: At the minimum, you need a mortar and pestle and probably some way of making rice. Those are the two most important things in terms of equipment. In your pantry at the minimum you need some soy sauce, oyster sauce, fish sauce. You need to get some yellow bean sauce. You need some shrimp paste. Other than those things, it's all recipe-dependent.

Q: What makes your chicken wings so addictive?

A: We spent countless hours tweaking the recipe. The thing that makes it so obviously addictive is the fish sauce and sugar together. With meat, that's umami (a savory taste). That's an umami bomb. The thing that elevates them over a regular mom-and-pop place is we are kind of obsessing over them. If you go to Vietnam, these people are obsessed over this dish, potentially for a couple of generations.

Phat Fak Thawng (Northern Thai-Style Stir-Fried Squash)

(Serves 2 to 6 as part of a meal)

Paste

0.25 oz (7g) thinly sliced green Thai chiles

0.21 oz (6g) peeled garlic cloves, halved lengthwise

0.18 oz (5g) peeled Asian shallots, thinly sliced against the grain

1 teaspoon Kapi Kung (homemade shrimp paste)

Stir-Fry

10 oz (284g) seeded unpeeled delicata or peeled kabocha squash, cut into approximately 2-by1- by 1/4-inch slices (about 2 cups)

2 tablespoons Naam Man Krathiem (fried-garlic oil), or Naam Man Hom Daeng (fried-shallot oil)

2 tablespoons Sup Kraduuk Muu (pork stock), or water

1 teaspoon granulated sugar

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

A small bowl of water

1 tablespoon Hom Daeng Jiaw (fried shallots)

Make the paste

Pound the chiles to a coarse paste in a granite mortar, about 20 seconds. Add the garlic and pound until it breaks down and you can see only small bits of garlic, about 30 seconds, then do the same with the shallots. Add the shrimp paste and pound until it's just incorporated, about 10 seconds. The paste should still be fairly coarse, not smooth or homogenous in appearance. You'll have 1 tablespoon of paste.

Bring a large pot of water to a boil, add the squash, wait 15 seconds, then drain it well.

Heat a wok over medium heat, add the oil, and swirl it in the wok to coat the sides. When the oil is hot, add all of the paste, take the wok off the heat, and cook, stirring constantly and quickly until the paste is fragrant but not colored, about 30 seconds to 1 minute.

Put the wok back on the heat, turn the heat to high, add the squash and stir-fry the ingredients for a minute or so to coat the squash and let the flavor of the paste infuse it. Add the stock, sugar, and salt and continue to stir-fry just until the squash is tender but not mushy or falling apart, 3 to 5 minutes. Every 30 seconds or so, consider adding a splash of water to keep the ingredients moist, though once the squash is ready, there should be no liquid in the wok. Transfer it all to a plate, sprinkle on the fried shallots, and serve.

Reporting by Richard Leong; Editing by Patricia Reaney and Krista Hughes

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