JJ Goode co-wrote Pok Pok with Andy Ricker. Bon Appétit's recent nominee for a food-based Nobel Prize, JJ has worked on, both openly and clandestinely, several high-profile cookbooks. But I suspect that the Pok Pok book was, in many ways, not his usual assignment.
JJ flew to Thailand for the shoot -- only his second time in the country -- which was also seen an opportunity for him to get immersed in the food and observe the dishes being made firsthand. During our month up in Chiang Mai, he maintained a throne-like station in the corner of the kitchen:
where he sat for hours each day, furiously taking notes and asking questions. When Andy cooked something, JJ was also furiously taking photos, videotaping, asking more questions and prodding Andy to weigh even the most minute ingredient and to explain his reasoning behind every single step.
By the end of the month, I suspect that Andy's desire to kill me was only overshadowed by his desire to kill JJ.
But his insistence paid off, and the result of their collaboration is a cookbook that is not only clear and patient, but one that's eminently readable, with a distinct voice and an engaging narrative. With the book due to be released at the end of this month (it's currently available for pre-order here or here), I asked JJ a few questions about the process of putting it together.
-You've worked on quite a few cookbooks spanning quite a few concepts and cuisines. What makes this book different?
The biggest difference was in writing the recipes. Most of the books I work on are with chefs who create food, who come with dishes or interesting takes on classic dishes. Andy, however, does not create dishes. He tries to replicate dishes that he's had in Thailand. Not only that, the food is totally unfamiliar to most of us. It was really fun to try to figure out a way to introduce the food to readers that wasn't too filled with facts and dates. So instead of acting as an all-knowing authority or expert (a role in which, to his credit, he's not entirely comfortable), he acts as a sort of tour guide, one who understands where you're coming from, because he was once just like us: new to the country and to the food.
-Some of the dishes profiled in Pok Pok are relatively unknown, even here in Thailand. What were the challenges in writing a book about such an obscure cuisine?
The recipes were the big challenge, for sure. Again, he's not creating food. He's replicating it. He works really hard to do it with ingredients available in the U.S. and he wants to do it faithfully, so shortcuts or substitutions that change the proper flavor profile are a no go. The recipes have to provide a lot of extra details, because so many of the techniques and ingredients are unfamiliar. Most cookbooks tell you to "peel carrots" or "blend until smooth"; all of us can do that, no problem. In this book, however, we had to consider that people might not just know how to, say, get at the tender heart of lemongrass or to properly pound green papaya in a mortar for som tam (aka much more gently than I initially assumed). Not only that, but once you get the recipes right, you also have to convince the reader of two seemingly contradictory things: that recreating real-deal Thai food is totally possible and doable at home, but that getting it right takes some real effort.
-Based on your experiences cooking Thai food at home in New York City, can someone in the US really expect to be able to make all of the dishes in the book?
One hundred percent yes. Some dishes take more work than others. But every ingredient he calls for is available here, and we offer advice on how to find it. For the rare ingredients, like makhwen [prickly ash; a type of dried spice], he provides substitutions that don't sacrifice flavor.
I've done a lot of shopping while working on this book. And I'm always shocked at how much is available, at Chinese and Southeast Asian markets mostly but also at farmers markets and even major supermarkets. For instance, Whole Foods (at least the one on Houston Street in Manhattan) sells not just lemongrass but fresh Thai chiles and fresh turmeric root! Then there are awesome online sources like Temple of Thai, which will ship you ingredients, even fresh stuff like green papaya, chiles, galangal, and hot basil.
And once you build up a pantry, the shopping trips become less frequent and the cooking gets easier and easier. Right now, my pantry has palm sugar and tamarind pulp and black and thin soy sauces and other stuff that will last forever. In my freezer, there's frozen galangal, kaffir lime leaf, pandan leaf, fresh chiles, and cilantro roots. I barely have to leave the house to make some of the dishes in the book.
-You chose khao soi as the recipe to feature here. Why? Any tips on making the dish?
It’s a dish I've made at home many times, even after the book was finished. It shocks me every time I cook it: I'm like, I can't believe I made this! The key for the home cook is breaking the dish up into steps. You can pound the paste a few days before you want to serve it (or you can freeze it for months!). You can fry the noodles the day or two before. You can even make the curry a day or two before. So when your friends come over, all you really have to do is warm it up, boil the noodles, and accept the inevitable high-fives.
Khao Soi Kai/Northern Thai Curry Noodle Soup with Chicken
Reprinted with permission from Pok Pok by Andy Ricker with J.J. Goode, copyright © 2013. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc.
Makes 6 bowls (each a one-plate meal)
Curry paste 1 pod black cardamom (often labeled cha koh, tsao-ko or thao qua) 1 1/2 tablespoons coriander seeds 1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds 14 grams dried Mexican puya chilies (about 8), slit open, seeded and deveined 7 grams thinly sliced lemongrass (tender parts only), from about 1 large stalk 1 (7-gram) piece peeled fresh or frozen (not defrosted) galangal, thinly sliced against the grain 1 (14-gram) piece peeled ginger, thinly sliced against the grain 1 ounce peeled garlic cloves, halved lengthwise 4 ounces peeled Asian shallots, thinly sliced against the grain 1 tablespoon Kapi Kung (Homemade shrimp paste)
Curry 1 tablespoons vegetable oil 1 tablespoons turmeric powder 1/2 teaspoon mild Indian curry powder 2 tablespoons Thai thin soy sauce 3 ounces palm sugar, coarsely chopped 1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt 6 small skin-on chicken legs (about 2 1/2 pounds), separated into thighs and drumsticks 5 cups unsweetened coconut milk (preferably boxed)
To finish the dish Vegetable oil for deep-frying 1 pound fresh or defrosted frozen uncooked thin, flat Chinese wheat noodles (sometimes called wonton noodles) 1 1/2 cups unsweetened coconut cream (preferably boxed), gently warmed
To serve alongside About 1 cup drained, chopped (into bite-sized pieces) Thai pickled mustard greens (stems preferred for their crunch), soaked in water for 10 minutes and drained well About 1 cup small (about 1/4-inch) wedges of peeled shallots, preferably Asian 6 small lime wedges (preferably Key limes) About 1 cup very coarsely chopped cilantro (thin stems and leaves), lightly packed Roasted chili paste Thai fish sauce
Make the curry paste Use a pestle or heavy pan to lightly whack the cardamom pod to break the shell. Pry it open, take out the seeds, and discard the shell. Combine the cardamom seeds in a small pan with the coriander and cumin, set the pan over low heat, and cook, stirring and tossing often, until the spices are very fragrant and the coriander seeds turn a shade or two darker, about 8 minutes. Let the spices cool slightly and pound them in a granite mortar (or grind them in a spice grinder) to a coarse powder. Scoop the powder into a bowl and set aside.
Combine the dried chiles in the mortar with the salt and pound firmly, scraping the mortar and stirring the mixture after about 3 minutes, until you have a fairly fine powder, about 5 minutes. Add the lemongrass and pound until you have a fairly smooth, slightly fibrous paste, about 2 minutes. Do the same with the galangal, then the ginger, then the garlic, and then half of the shallots, fully pounding each ingredient before moving on to the next. Pound in the dried spice mixture, then the rest of the shallots. Finally, pound in the shrimp paste until it’s fully incorporated, about 1 minute.
You’ll have about 10 tablespoons of paste. You can use it right away, or store in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 1 week or in the freezer for up to 6 months. You’ll need 5 tablespoons of paste for 6 bowls of khao soi.
Make the curry Heat the oil over medium-low heat in a large, heavy- bottomed pot until it shimmers, add 5 tablespoons of the curry paste and the turmeric powder and curry powder, and cook, breaking up the paste, then stirring frequently, until the paste smells very fragrant and loses the smell of raw garlic and shallots, about 8 minutes. Knowing when it’s done takes experience, but as long as you’re cooking at a low sizzle, the curry will taste great. Some of the paste might brown and stick to the pot, so occasionally scrape it to make sure it doesn’t burn.
Add the fish sauce, soy sauce, palm sugar, and salt to the pot, increase the heat to medium-low, and cook, stirring often and breaking up the sugar once it softens, until the sugar has more or less fully melted, about 2 minutes. Add the chicken, tossing to coat the meat in the liquid. Cook for about 2 minutes so the chicken can absorb the flavors a bit, then stir in the coconut milk.
Increase the heat to medium high. Bring the liquid to a simmer (don’t let it boil), then decrease the heat to maintain a gentle simmer. Cook, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the meat comes easily from the bone but isn’t falling off, about 45 minutes. You’ll see droplets or even a layer of red oil on the surface. This is good. The broth will taste fairly salty and intense. Keep in mind that it will dilute slightly after you add the coconut cream later. You can keep the curry warm on the stove for up to 3 hours or in the fridge for up to 3 days. (It’ll get even better as the flavors meld and the meat soaks up some of the curry.) Bring it to a very gentle simmer right before serving to make sure the chicken is heated through.
Finish the dish Pour enough oil into a wide medium pot to reach a depth of 2 inches and set the pot over medium-high heat. Heat the oil to 350°F (or test the temperature by dropping a piece of noodle into the oil; it should turn golden brown in about 20 seconds). Put 3 ounces of the noodles on a plate and gently toss them so there are no clumps. Fry them in 6 portions, turning over the nest of noodles once, just until the noodles are golden brown and crunchy, 20 to 45 seconds per batch. Transfer them to paper towels to drain. You can let them cool and store them for a day or two in an airtight container kept in a dry, cool place (not in the fridge).
When you’re nearly ready to serve the curry, bring a large pot of water to a rolling boil. Add the remaining noodles and cook, stirring occasionally, just until the noodles are fully tender (you’re not going for al dente here, but not mushy either), 2 to 3 minutes. Drain them well and divide them equally among 6 bowls.
To each bowl, add a thigh and drumstick, ladle on about 1 cup of the curry, spoon on 1/4 cup of the warm coconut cream, and top with a nest of fried noodles. Serve the bowls with a plate of pickled mustard greens, shallots, lime wedges, and cilantro; a bowl of the chile paste; and a bottle of fish sauce. Season your bowl and stir well before you dig in.