Mortar and pestle? We never thought we would be inspired to buy one, but it’s all we can think about after watching Chef Andy Ricker and J.J. Goode speak about the process of putting together their cookbook about Pok Pok, Mr. Ricker’s wildly popular bicoastal restaurant.
One of the most interesting aspects of the conversation between Chef Andy Ricker and J.J. Goode was the amount of research and exploration into Thai culture, and the breadth of information present in the smallest detail of this book.
Pok Pok is Thai for the sound a wooden pestle makes when it grinds against a clay pot, and it is a theme that is omnipresent in the Pok Pok culture. When speaking about the recipes themselves, both Ricker and Goode admit that they are not for the faint of heart. Ricker says, “Our recipes are very difficult, very precise, and a measurement is given for a specific reason.” Goode agreed, saying that the recipes in this book “are not of the Italian school of thought, where you just throw more salt into the pot because you taste it and it needs more salt.” Every instruction, every measurement, every ingredient is there for a carefully calculated reason. Both Goode and Ricker joked about whether or not you could substitute the use of grinding herbs with a mortar and pestle in favor of a blender. (You can’t.) The recipes themselves were tested three times before they went to print, as well as being tested every day in the restaurant.
Ingredients play an extremely large role in the effectiveness of achieving a specific recipe, and both men said they are constantly shopping, in different markets, from the Bowery to Chinatown to the markets in Sunset Park. Goode joked about the rarity of finding cilantro root, and buying up all of it when it is available and keeping it in your freezer. Ricker added that if he were to open up another Pok Pok it would have to be in an area of the U.S. that is tropical, because that is where you’re going to find ingredients growing naturally that mirror the Thai climate, such as Hawaii or Louisiana.
Ricker, who has spent extensive time in Thailand, discussed the prevalence of noodle stalls, and how they are essentially franchises, though he was unsure as to how much longer the stall business would be passed down generationally. As Thailand modernizes, children are more apt to move to the city to go to school, and find employment in offices and businesses in urban hubs like Bangkok, rather than take over the responsibility of tilling a rice paddy, farming, or running food stalls. As a result, the palette changes, lending itself to a more protein heavy diet, mostly due to the affordability and availability of meat.
Another interesting point raised by Ricker is that although there are ingredients (such as chili, mint, cilantro, basil) that Westerners consider to be inherently Thai, Thai food itself is a fusion cuisine, heavily influenced by its Chinese, Laotian, and Burmese neighbors.
So where does one begin in the daunting task of attempting to tackle one of Ricker’s recipes?
“Rice is at the core of Thai cooking”, Ricker says. “Make rice.”
That we can do.