Andy Ricker, the chef-owner of Pok Pok in Portland, has spent over thirty years traveling and cooking in Thailand, and the last 15 years or so sharing what he’s learned to cook there with the rest of the world. He's got a new book out on the culture of Thai noodles; it's called Pok Pok Noodles. Our Managing Producer Sally Swift caught up with him to talk about carbs, yes, but also about the traveling life in Thailand. Andy also shared his recipe for Yam MAMA (Instant Ramen Noodle Salad); it’s an awesome dish, especially if you don’t think you’re an instant noodle fan.
More recipes from Andy Ricker:
Sally Swift: Andy Ricker, so nice to have you in our hemisphere.
Andy Ricker: It’s great to be in this hemisphere.
SS: I want to talk to you about Thailand, obviously, because you have been there for a really long time. You started visiting in the 1980s, right?
AR: Yeah. I believe the first time was 1985. I’d have to look three passports back to find out, but I think it was 1985.
SS: And how has it changed in these years?
AR: I think that Thailand has gotten a lot more cosmopolitan even in the rural areas. They’re connected and they’re aware. The cities have gotten quite cosmopolitan. Bangkok feels like an international city. The first time I went there, there wasn’t that presence of other folks from other countries walking around. It was very insular. The Thai folks tend to be somewhat – I don't know if ‘xenophobic’ is the right word, but they definitely feel that Thailand is for Thai people, mostly, and it’s fine to come and visit. So, up until fairly recently it wasn’t really encouraged to come and stay. But that seems to be changing. There’s a lot more – and I think that comes down to the fact that a lot of Thai people have traveled at this point, and especially with the rise of the middle class there. You’ll be in Bangkok at a restaurant and there’ll be folks from India and folks from Denmark and folks from Niger, folks from all over the place – America, Israel. And while there used to be folks coming from those places, there weren’t that many that were just living, like raising families and working and stuff like that – running business.
SS: If someone who’s never been to Thailand before were to ask you, where would you send them?
AR: Obviously, I probably get asked that more than most of my friends.
SS: I’m sure you get asked that a lot.
AR: Yes. The first thing I do is ask a question of them. I say, what is it that you want? Because Thailand can be whatever you want it to be. You can go and spend – you can have a fantastic time and go to the beach and just have a beach holiday. Or you can go into the mountains and go hiking into national parks. You could go up a river trip, or you could be in a big city or a small town. It just really kind of depends on what you’re into. Once I have that kind of information I just tell them, “Go. Pick a place to start, and then don’t make too many plans.” And then the good thing about traveling is you meet people along the way, and often you’ll arrive somewhere thinking you want to go somewhere, and somebody will say, “Hey, but we’re going to this place and we’ve heard it’s really great; here’s the pictures. My friend was just there, it’s amazing.” Just as a matter of principle I like to be flexible when I travel.
Pok Pok Noodles
by Andy Ricker with JJ Goode
SS: I do want to talk about food because I want to talk about street food with you, because I think that you are one of the people in the United States that have really opened our eyes to what street food is in Asia. What was that like for you when you discovered that scene there? Was your mind blown? It seems just to be so enormous and complicated and wonderful.
AR: The first time I went to Thailand, like so many other travelers, I didn’t have any language skills. This is back in the 1980s for the first time. And the infrastructure there wasn’t super, so there weren’t a lot of places where there was a sign on the outside saying here’s what we have in this restaurant, or come in here to eat this particular dish. But what you could do is you could walk down the street and you could see the food being made on the side of the street, and that made it easy because you could just say, that looks good to me, and without being able to speak the language you could just point at a bowl and say I’ll have that. And it was easy to get. Because I grew up in the United States where street food back then was nonexistent – like the odd taco truck or something like that, but not really. I think that was the thing that really got me, and why I was so interested in that food initially – was because it was accessible.
SS: And exciting.
AR: Yeah. It was new to me, and because at the time, America didn’t really get it’s big push of Thai immigration until the late ‘80s, most of Thai food was really mysterious to me. And to be honest with you, the stuff that was really exciting to me back then is fairly mundane at this point because there’s so much more interesting stuff off the street.
SS: I want to talk about noodles because you say something in the book that I love about noodles being this great entry level for people heading to Thailand. Where does that tradition come from?
AR: The noodles on the street?
AR: It mostly comes from Chinese immigrants coming to Thailand in various different waves over the last couple hundred years. But it didn’t really hit its stride until probably like 80 years ago, something like that. The whole idea of noodle carts on the street is something that is relatively recent; it doesn’t go back 500 years. Thailand is an agrarian society – or was – and people typically ate at home. The big cities were mostly places of government and commerce, and there wasn’t a large press of people working like there are now that needed a quick lunch. So as the cities grew and that way of living the city life grew, that’s when street food really took off.
SS: Is there an indigenous Thai noodle, something that is particularly theirs?
AR: There’s one noodle that we think is the indigenous noodle, and that is khanom chin, a fresh rice vermicelli noodle. Initially it was made in the royal courts because the amount of work it took was quite intense. You’ve got to mill the rice flour and then you have make a dough, and then you let the dough ferment, and then you pound it with a giant wooden mortar and pestle – like two people pounding at it for hours – to make it into this more elastic texture that you can get into rice flour. It doesn’t have much gluten, or any gluten. And then it’s mixed with water and it forms kind of a slurry. In the old days they would push it through a cylindrical brass cup with a plunger with holes in the bottom, and then hand press these things into a vat or boiling water, and then pull that out, cool it, and that was the noodle. But in order to make a substantial amount of this stuff it took a lot of labor.
SS: And thin noodles – are they very thin?
AR: They’re quite thin. I call them rice vermicelli because it’s the closest thing – like angel hair or something.
SS: That’s what we can find here, is rice vermicelli. But are rice stick noodles close to them as well?
AR: Now we get into the naming regimens here. This is tough.
SS: Sorry. I knew this was going to be a slippery slope.
AR: When JJ Goode and I were writing this book we would go back and forth because JJ is a stickler and he wants to make sure that the information we put in the book is accurate and people can follow it. I just say, “Rice vermicelli. He would say, “Yeah, but is it rice stick?” And I’d say, “Show me the package.” And he’d show me the package and I’d say no, that’s not it. And he’d show me something else. I’d show him a package and say, “This is what it is.” And sometimes it says bun on the outside if it’s Vietnamese. Other times it says ‘rice stick.’ Sometimes it says ‘vermicelli.’ Sometimes it says many different things. So, what we’ve come down to is trying to find the way it’s most commonly sold here, and it’s most commonly sold as guan kee noodles, or bun in Vietnamese. It’s dry and it looks like a very thin white piece of spaghetti. But the problem is it comes in different thicknesses. What we look for is the fine or extra fine rice vermicelli or rick stick.
SS: Is there a brand you like?
AR: There is – Three Ladies brand I think is a good one.
Recipe: Yam MAMA (Instant Ramen Noodle Salad) Photo: Austin Bush
SS: I want to talk to in general about cooking Asian noodles because I think that we don’t really understand what the proper technique is. Do you soak it? Does it go in boiling water? Do you salt the water? What’s the protocol on Asian noodles?
AR: It depends on the kind of noodles. There are some that you don’t cook at all until you actually assemble the dish. There are others that you have to soak in advance. There are others that you just take from the state they’re in when you buy them and boil them and throw them into stuff. It really depends. For instance, I’ll give you a couple of examples. Glass noodles or bean thread noodles or cellophane noodles – here in the West they always come dry and they’re in a little bundle and you have to soak those for quite some time in hot water before you cook them, or else they don’t fully develop; they don’t saturate. They don’t get all the water that they need soaked into them to become a noodle that’s edible, or that taste good.
SS: So, you’d soak them and then boil them?
AR: Yes. You soak them until they’re pliable – probably about 20 or 30 minutes in quite warm or hot tap water, and then you boil them briefly before you eat them.
SS: In salted water or not salted water?
AR: Typically, not salted water. Most of the time people don’t salt the water before they do noodles, but there are other noodles. So for instance, quat sen yai, which is fresh, wide rice noodles, which you can buy in Chinese markets and Southeast Asian markets. Those are made in a factory, but they don’t dry them. They make them and wrap them in packets and send them to the market. The best ones, they don’t refrigerate them. But that only happens in the markets where they make the noodles. For instance, in LA you can get really fresh warm beautiful flat wide rice noodles in the morning because they’ve just been delivered from the San Gabriel Valley to all the stores around the city. But in Portland we don’t have that, so they put them in refrigerator trucks and carry them up. By the time you get them up there they’re like a hard glob of stuck-together noodle. That type of noodle, typically for say pad see ew or something – a stir fry noodle – you would take it directly out of the package and just throw it directly into the pan and start frying it. Or you might throw it into a noodle basket and dip it in hot water just to heat it up right before you put it in the soup.
SS: I want to ask you about instant ramen because I am quite fascinated to see that you had a couple recipes in the book about them. What is their role in Thailand?
AR: Ramen in Thailand is kind of like the ubiquitous snack for students. Once you gain a taste for it, it kind of sticks around.
SS: Not just in Thailand – everywhere.
AR: Yeah. The Thais are really obsessed, and they’re obsessed with one particular brand called MAMA, and they’re so obsessed with it that basically it’s like call a tissue Kleenex. MAMA is ramen. And it’s eaten in all different kinds of context. You can eat it raw with a flavor packet sprinkled on it as a snack.
SS: Like bite the chunk right out of the box?
AR: Yeah. They come in little plastic containers. You pull out the brick and you can break it up and eat it like a snack. Or you can eat it the way it says to eat it on the package. You also see it around the country at noodle stalls as an option for noodles. Typically, you’ll go to a noodle soup stall and they’ll say, “What kind of noodle do you want with your soup?” Do you want think rice noodles, wide rice noodles? Do you want really fine rice noodles? Do you want bami or wheat noodles, or do you want Yum Woon Sen, which is the glass noodle? But they often have MAMA as an option as well, so you can get instant ramen in your boat noodles if you want.
SS: That is amazing to me. My last question for you, once and for all – chopsticks or no chopsticks in Thailand?
AR: Chopsticks in Thailand for noodles for sure, and for Chinese food and Japanese food. Historically, Thai people ate food with their hands and with a spoon and fork. Spoon and fork was more of a recent thing over the last 150 years or so. Apparently like a spoon to put the food in your mouth, fork to push the food onto the spoon. But there are a lot of Chinese folks that live in Thailand, and the influence there is very strong, so you see it at noodle shops, you see it at Chinese restaurants, and more recently a lot of Japanese restaurants have come through, so you see it there too.
SS: It’s the last word from you, Andy Ricker. Thank you so much for coming in.
AR: Thank you for very much.
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Francis Lam is the host of The Splendid Table. He is the former Eat columnist for The New York Times Magazine and is Editor-at-Large at Clarkson Potter. He graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America and has written for numerous publications. Lam lives with his family in New York City.