Farang Pok Pok: Talking Thai Food With Chef Andy Ricker

This change of heart can be attributed both to America’s increasing multiculturalism, and to its growing obsession with “exotic” foods.

By | Mon 2 Jun 2014

His nickname isn’t really Farang (at least no more than any of the rest of us), despite the title of the Vice documentary currently being made about him. But he is one, at least in the most basic sense: tall and stocky, blonde haired, blue eyed, American. Now in his late 40s, Andy Ricker is a jack of many trades (a house painter, a musician, a tattoo aficionado), but with the kind of singular passion that all the most successful people have, garnered in large part by its specificity. The passion is Northern Thai food, and farang or not, Northern Thai food is something Andy Ricker knows by heart.

In a sparsely furnished Santitham shophouse is where I meet Ricker for the first time. These are his Chiang Mai digs, which he returns to about three times a year. He also has a residence in New York City and a home base, the “mothership,” in Portland, Oregon, where the Pok Pok empire began in 2005.

Pok Pok, a Northern Thai eatery named for the sound a pestle makes when it hits mortar, was born in a tiny shack behind a rundown turn-of-the-century residence in the heart of Portland, Oregon, a city known for its laidback arts scene and hipster leanings. Ricker began with an eight item menu reminiscent of a classic Northern Thai street food lineup: grilled chicken, moo satay, khao soy, som tam, etc., and within a few months word spread, with bloggers and curious foodies travelling from all over to experience what celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain (who recently tweeted a picture of himself eating blood soup with Ricker right here in Chiang Mai) has called the most authentic Thai food outside of Thailand.

Today, Pok Pok has a best-selling cookbook (with two more on the way) and a total of seven restaurants in Portland and New York City, where the lines of hungry people are almost always out the door. On Saturdays in Brooklyn, diners wait up to four hours to taste laab muang, which costs – ready for it? – 19 dollars (over 600 baht) a plate. Ricker learned to make the dish from a friend’s father in a small village just outside Chiang Mai.

Nearly all of Ricker’s recipes come from his experiences in and around Chiang Mai and Isaan. “I’m not Thai so I haven’t been eating shrimp paste since age three,” he tells me, “but I’ve been able to retrain my palate.” Despite having had no formal culinary training to speak of, Ricker’s sheer passion for authentic Thai food has taught him to identify obscure ingredients and recreate dishes simply by tasting them. Sheer passion, plus a quarter century of experience, that is.

It was way back in 1987 when Ricker visited Chiang Mai for the first time as a roving backpacker. Several years later, employed in the States as a house painter, he returned to Chiang Mai to visit a friend who had recently married a Thai woman. “Lakana, my friend’s wife, heard I was interested in cooking and took me to a local restaurant,” he recalls. “I can’t for the life of me remember the name, but we ate gang hed thob – a wild puffed mushroom that only pops up right at the start of rainy season, and it did not taste like Thai food to me. It was kind of a revelation. To me, it meant that Thai food has a seasonal cuisine and a regional cuisine, which about 99 percent of Westerners wouldn’t even recognise as Thai food.”

Indeed, while popular, most of the Thai food restaurants in America could only really be called “Thai” if you put quotations marks around the word. “Eating at a Thai restaurant in the West, you’ll find about 15-200 dishes,” adds Ricker, “and some are sushi and some are Chinese food.”

The reasons behind this are both complicated and not, but the key takeaway is that Westernised Thai food is really its own type of cuisine altogether. As Ricker points out, there has never been a huge influx of Thai people coming to America, meaning the Thai population is quite small compared to say, the Chinese or Vietnamese populations. So, while opening a restaurant is typically one of the easiest things to do for Thai immigrants, they’re forced to cater to an American audience rather than a Thai one, and have therefore edited down their food offerings to appeal to a typical American palate.

“This happens all over the West,” says Ricker. “English people love lamb, so in England Thai food often has lamb on the menu, even though nobody eats it in Thailand. Meanwhile, in New York there are a lot of Jewish and Muslim people who don’t eat pork, so even though that’s a Thai staple, you won’t find much of it in Thai restaurants there.”

Ricker’s decades of travel between East and West have given him quite a bit of insight into how things have changed over the years. “Now there’s been kind of a reverse osmosis,” he says. “You can find some of the same Westernised menus in Thailand’s more touristy areas.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, the Thai government has caught on and actually created a kind of “authentic” Thai food designation, training cooks in a few basic, Western-friendly dishes (like pad thai, spring rolls and coconut soup) here in Thailand, and sending them off to America to fan the flames. The same dishes are taught in most of Chiang Mai’s cooking courses designed for Western tourists. As a result, while many Westerners claim to loooove Thai food, most of them don’t even know what it really tastes like.

And this is where Andy Ricker comes in. His goal is to share his passion for authentic, local Thai food with the rest of the world. Why? Simple. Because he loves it.

“In Thailand, food is a connection to family, to religion, to industry, to sanuk,” he says. “It’s integral to Thai society and what it means, but it’s a shame that the more regional, esoteric dishes aren’t reaching the West. When I opened Pok Pok I couldn’t figure out why this was so, but I’ve given it a lot of thought over the years. Thai immigrants knew they weren’t going to make it in America by serving stewed mackerel. And it’s true – back then, American palates were just not ready for real Thai flavours. But now, 40 years later, they are ready.”

This change of heart can be attributed both to America’s increasing multiculturalism, and to its growing obsession with “exotic” foods. While here in Thailand it’s a relatively recent phenomenon to even call someone who cooks food a chef, back in the West chefs have been elevated to celebrity status (just ask Jamie Oliver’s 3.87 million Twitter followers). While Ricker rejects the title of “celebrity chef” for himself, he is aware of his increasing influence, and wants to use it to help drive demand for specific Thai food in America. He hopes that his success will help pave the way for other Thai cooks to follow, to share their culture and not shy away from authenticity.

Notably, Ricker’s success has drawn quite a bit of criticism over the years from both Thais and Westerners. Accusations of having a Thai wife who secretly does all his cooking and bitter questioning (“why can he do it but we can’t?”) from the former; phrases like “cultural appropriation” and “fucking hipster” from the latter. He tells me that a constant barrage of “how dare yous” have followed him ever since he opened his first Pok Pok. But Ricker has little time for resentment.

“The idea that you can’t cook Thai food because you’re white is crazy horseshit,” he says matter-of-factly, but with a bit of an edge, like a guy who’s tired of having to explain himself. “No one complains about an Irish guy who cooks Italian. Why is this any different? I’ve been cooking Thai food for longer than a lot of the people talking shit have been alive.”

Ricker has agreed to conclude our interview with a cooking demo, so we head to the back of the shophouse where he has ingredients waiting in a small Thai-style kitchen. Today he’s making phat khanom jeen, an old-fashioned sour noodle dish he learned from his good friend Sunny Chailert, who lives in Mae Rim. An excellent cook but never a professional chef, Sunny – like most Thais – learned to cook from his mother and aunt, who worked as kitchen hands in the royal palace.

Ricker cooks like a Thai person, with no measurements and lots of taste testing. He lights his burner with a torch and works with serious concentration, muttering to himself in a mix of English and Thai (he isn’t fluent but possesses an impressive culinary vocabulary).

“You’ll find this dish in the market but nowadays it’s usually sweet instead of sour, and full of MSG,” he notes, stirring the wok and adding a dash of Megachef brand fish sauce. Curious, I ask him his thoughts on MSG. “It’s not actually bad for you but it’s become a lazy tool,” he replies. “When used in moderation it’s a good thing; when used as a crutch, it’s not. But I’ll tell you this – if you find a Thai place around here that isn’t a hippie vegetarian spot serving food without MSG, I’ll eat my hat. [Pause.] Well, I don’t wear a hat, but I’ll find one and eat it.”

Ricker completes the dish, scraping it onto a plate and adding a generous handful of fresh coriander. His sleeves rolled up from cooking, I note the impressive collection of tattoos on his right arm. They are an ode to Northern Thai cuisine, all done right here in Chiang Mai – stalks of rice heavy with seed, Thai chillies, green onions, a mortar and pestle (engraved with “Pok Pok” in Thai), the classic Lampang Rooster bowl design, and, at the very top, a durian.

This farang is legit; he even loves durian.

The Chef’s Recommendations

Andy Ricker has logged some serious hours hunting down the best authentic Northern Thai cuisine Chiang Mai has to offer. Here are a few of his top restaurant suggestions.

Baan Rai Yam Yen
The perfect place to start for Northern Thai newbies, with an encyclopedic menu, spirited atmosphere and live music by the river.
14 Moo 3, Soi Lungka 3, Charoenrat Road
053 247 999

Huen Muan Jai
Conveniently located near the old city, with lots of authentic Lanna cuisine and a charming garden setting.
Ratchapruek Road, off Huay Kaew, just north of Chiang Mai Rose House
053 404 998

Krua Peth Doi Ngam
Simple, country-style setting with a wide offering of hot and spicy Northern Thai dishes.
125/3 Mahidol Road, Padaed Subdistrict
081 993 6372

Huen Jai Yong
Northern style house turned restaurant, renowned for its laab, nam prik and sai-ua. Open only for lunch (closes at 4 pm) and the menu is only in Thai.
64 Moo 4, Buak Khang-Samkampaeng Road
086 671 8710

Chareon Suan Ake
For those looking to go deeper into authentic Northern Thai cuisine, this is Ricker’s top pick, located in a small village off the Irrigation Canal Road.
San Sai Khlong Ngam 2, T. San Phi Suea (GPS: 18.8254913, 98.9701973)
053 852 778