Welcome to The Takeout’s Asian Noodles Week, a tribute to the O.G. pasta bowl.
Let me explain about how food journalism works. A story first begins with an idea. In the writers’ mind, we envision how it plays out, then we report it out with sources and information that fulfills the premise of said idea. Most of the time, this is straightforward and innocuous—for example, I wanted to learn how to grill a whole fish, so I sought out a chef who could walk me through the steps.
The problem comes when journalists try to force through the idea set out in their head, even if it doesn’t reflect the truth. Say you have this idea that fried gummi bears are the latest hot food trend. Except it’s not really, but still, you find a few outlier folks who say “yeah, this exists,” you quote them in your story, and present it as fact. Sadly, I see this happen a lot—writers unwilling to change their story’s conceit mid-stream—and it results it shoddy journalism.
Confession time: I entered the following story with an idea almost fully formed. I wanted to talk to one of America’s foremost evangelists of Thai cookery, Andy Ricker of Portland’s Pok Pok restaurant empire, and ask him how one could cook a great pad Thai with minimal effort. (Easy weeknight pad Thai recipe... I’d click on that story too!)
Then I spoke to Ricker on the phone, who just happened to have a new cookbook out focused on noodles. (His original Pok Pok cookbook is one of my all-time favorites.) The conversation lasted 20 minutes. By the end of our talk (edited below for length and clarity), that original story idea was out the window. And my perspective on pad Thai was changed.
The Takeout: Can you spell out the differences between the pad Thais you’d find in American takeout joints versus ones you might find in, say, Bangkok?
Andy Ricker: First of all, there’s a major difference between the pad Thais you’d find in Thailand. There is no one recipe. People really want things to be “authentic” and “traditional” and they want “this is how a pad Thai should taste,” and it’s not a realistic way of thinking about it. You have to throw that idea away and realize that there’s probably as many different versions of pad Thais as vendors that make it.
You can say, on average, that the style of pad Thai you’d find here in the States is something that you’d also find at, say, resorts in Bangkok. And within that sort of milieu, there’s going to be hundreds of variations. The version that I put in the book is something you’d find in old-school pad Thai places in Thailand almost exclusively. The pork fat as the shortening, or making it a very subtle, not overly sweet, overly sour, overly hot—especially the sweet part—that’s a relatively disappearing thing in Thailand.
I’m going off a recipe that’s probably 50 or 60 years old. Often, when I make this dish and people eat it, they’re like, “this doesn’t have any flavor,” and I’m thinking “yes, it does.” We give you these other things (condiment caddy) so you can tune it the way you want it because I don’t want to assume you’re going to want too sweet or spicy or sour.
TO: How might one go about experimenting off your recipe? Say I lived in a town without easy access to dried shrimp or pressed tofu, what would you suggest people who want to use your recipe as a starting point, and veering in directions according to their tastes and accessibility to ingredients?
AR: I’m gonna push against that. Things like dried shrimp, not a problem. You can order that online easily, they’re non-perishable. There’s probably something in the recipe that might be challenging if you don’t have an Asian market nearby, and that would be the pressed tofu. You can just use firm tofu, just cut it bigger. Or you can leave it out if you wanted.
The basic version of this without any meat or prawns in it—somebody who has a basic pantry at home can put together pretty easily. You can get chili powder for sure. You can get bean sprouts at Safeway. If you can’t get garlic chives, that might be a little challenging, you can use regular chives or green onions. I do call for palm sugar, again, easily gotten on Amazon. If you can’t get it, you can substitute a turbinado sugar or raw sugar. Tamarind paste can be easily gotten online, not an issue. (For me, at the point you take the tamarind out, you’ve gone off the reservation as far as I’m concerned. You’ve veered into an area that I don’t agree with, and I don’t advocate it, and you might as well just go get somebody else’s recipe.)
What I’m presenting here is not easy to make, and that’s the point. There is no easy way to bypass everything and end up with the same results. There are literally hundreds of books out there that can take you where you want to go. But I want you to make the effort. This is not something that you can pull out of your hat at the last minute on a Tuesday night. You’d have to plan for this.
I got a package from Iceland one time that came from a Polish couple who had immigrated there. They took the Pok Pok cookbook and cooked every dish in that book. In Iceland! They recreated all of it, and sent me this book—I’ve got it on my coffee table at home. If a Polish couple in Iceland can execute the Pok Pok cookbook, somebody who lives in America who has the Internet can do this easily with relatively minor effort.
TO: People would spend an entire weekend on cooking projects, like a 30-ingredient Oaxacan mole. I feel that people look at Asian cookery and often think convenience, ease, economy. And perhaps what you’re doing with this book is to show a cuisine like Thai requires the same care, respect, and discipline. Thai cooking should be considered weekend cooking project-worthy.
AR: Yes, and I can expand on that. I closed Pok Pok Sen Yai and Pok Pok Phat Thai for this very reason. Making a simple bowl of noodles requires the same amount of attention to detail and technique as making laab. It’s a little bit simpler in execution, but it requires the same amount of respect if you want to get remarkable results. If you really care about what you get on the plate and you really want to learn about something, you have to give this the same amount of effort as you would making a mole. I had to close Sen Yai and Phat Thai because people wouldn’t pay the amount of money it costs, and then labor-wise, I couldn’t find cooks who are interested in learning how to use a wok right. It finally became so hard to manage and so unprofitable, that I closed it down.
TO: I came into the story with the idea of “Weeknight pad Thai.” And there’s a place for that. But maybe you’re not the person to talk about that. In the U.S. we view pad Thais as takeout ubiquity, but you see a dish that deserves reverence and respect, and suggest we make the effort to procure the right ingredients and give it the care it needs, because that will pay dividends.
AR: Exactly. I’ll just put a bow on this: When I pick up a cookbook and make a recipe, I know that the chances it’s going to come up perfectly the first time are almost nil. I don’t know how it’s supposed to taste. I don’t know if I’m going to like it. So I’m prepared to make this dish multiple times before I get it right. I always try to do it exactly the way in the book a couple of times, and then start changing it if I don’t like it. So you ask about how you can adjust it, and I would say this: Try it a couple of times exactly how it’s written, and if something’s not coming out right, read the recipe again. Don’t forget that the recipes get tested many times before we publish the book. It’s required by the publisher and it costs a great deal of money. So it’s been through a rigorous testing. Over time, we’re pretty damn certain that the recipe works right.
Ready to tackle Pok Pok’s pad Thai with pork and shrimp? Click here for the recipe.