Andy Ricker On The Absurdity Of Authenticity

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Andy Ricker is the guy behind a mini dynasty of restaurants and lounges that basically recreate the food of Thailand (both from the street and indoors) to their most-authentic, blazing extremes. Note: Ricker takes issue with the term "authentic" and Thailand's rep for spicy cooking. He'll get into that below. But take for example the Isan-styled laap — a duck breast minced with liver and dressed with lemongrass, lime, fried shallots and chilies procured from what we're certain is Satan's CSA. The dish's brightness is only outmatched by a brow-sweating heat. Plus you can order a textbook Aviation to wash it down. We can agree that a nice gin-based cocktail washes everything down nicely. Bless you, sir.

Ricker has just released his first cookbook. Simply called Pok Pok, the book not-so-simply outlines the complex recipes the chef has mastered from over two decades of cooking, eating and living throughout Thailand. On the heels a stellar press run, including a long NPR interview that helped skyrocket the book to the top of the Amazon cookbook rankings, Ricker sends us this essay on the meaning of authentic.

People often praise the food we serve at Pok Pok and my other restaurants as "authentic." I'm flattered, but that word and its cousin in compliment, "traditional," are banished from my restaurants. The words imply an absolute cuisine, that there is a one true Thai food out there, somewhere. I once had a cook at Pok Pok who was born and raised in Thailand and who'd look at some dish on my menu — one I'd eaten dozens of times, one I'd carefully calibrated to be just like the ones I'd had — and scoff, "Where are the tomatoes? That dish must have tomatoes." Same goes for other cuisines. Ask 20 Mexican cooks to make a tomatillo salsa and you'll get 20 different salsas.

Both terms are nonsensical designations — as if traditions are the same everywhere, as if they don't change, as if culinary ones don't evolve with particular speed. After all, some of the ingredients, techniques and dishes we most closely associate with the food of Thailand are in fact relatively new to the cuisine.

To attempt to extricate foreign influence in search of something purely Thai would be difficult indeed. To neglect dishes with Chinese influence would be to lose a substantial portion of what we now think of as Thai food, including nearly every noodle dish and everything cooked in a blazing hot wok. And without Western influence, there wouldn't be bread or tomatoes.

Perhaps nothing defines Thai food for us Americans like the heat the chile provides. But the chile came to Thailand with Portuguese traders by way of the New World somewhere around the 16th century. That means the Thai people had been cooking for millennia before its arrival, employing the heat of peppercorns, galangal and other sharply flavored herbs and spices.

And while, yes, the occasionally vigorous heat distinguishes Thai food from the cuisine of its neighbors, like Vietnam, the primacy of spiciness has been exaggerated. It's really just one element among many. Plenty of Thai food is not spicy at all. When the food is spicy, heat is often an essential element. In the US, I've seen people order red curry and request that it be mild. In Thai, the category of dishes called kaeng phet is sometimes mistranslated as "red curry" but literally means "spicy curry." To order it mild is as absurd as ordering Kaeng Jeut Wun Sen ("Bland" soup) and saying "Can you make it spicy?"

Of course, I know what people mean when they reach for those dreaded words. They're communicating a noble desire to experience food as it exists in Thailand. As a traveler in Thailand, you often hear this question: "Kin aahaan thai dai mai khrap?" ("Do you know how to eat Thai food?") It seems difficult for Thais to believe that a foreigner might be willing to eat what they do. And understandably so. The flavor profiles are decidedly unfamiliar to newbies; the occasionally fiery and funky flavors are not for everyone. This is why vendors in Thailand often ply tourists with phat thai and banana pancakes. This is why Thais are so surprised and thrilled when I order Northern Thai food. They tell their friends and laugh with what I hope is delight. When I tell them I cook it, too, they practically lose their minds.

Even the take-out Thai food served throughout the US — ketchup-spiked phat thai, peanut sauce, rainbow curries — has itself become a cuisine, as real as anything. It's full of dishes that do exist in some form in Thailand but have been tweaked for the American palate, just as Khao Kha Muu is Chinese food tweaked for the Thai palate. Phat khii mao, often translated as "drunken noodles," really means, essentially, stir-fry for drunk people, a dish that in Thailand is wickedly spicy, seasoned with hot basil, and originally might not have contained noodles at all. The American version is rarely that spicy, rarely has hot basil, almost always contains noodles. Inauthentic? Maybe. Tasty? Frequently.

Reprinted with permission from Pok Pok © 2013. Published by Ten Speed Press, a division of Random House, Inc.

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