Book Review: Pok Pok

Title: Pok Pok: Food and Stories from the Streets, Homes, and Roadside Restaurants of Thailand
Author: Andy Ricker (with JJ Goode)
Format: e-ARC from NetGalley
Genre: Cookbook
Rating: 4/5

I’ve been looking forward to flipping through this book since it was first announced, so I was SUPER EXCITED to find it on NetGalley. I love Thai food, and I really enjoy learning about “authentic” cuisine. (Authentic is in quotes because food is flexible and every family or town has their own version of a dish. This is something that Ricker actually talks about in the book, which made me appreciate the recipes even more.)

I love that the introduction explains that Thai food does involve work, but isn’t impossible and that all of his recipes call for ingredients available in the US. If he couldn’t get it, he decided not to include it. And yes, his recipes are long, but they are detailed. I like the layout, with recipes including a flavor profile, ideas for food pairings, any special equipment needed and clearly marked ingredients list. But, with all that detail, even a recipe for a papaya salad gets a little intimidating if you aren’t prepared.

The book includes a nice introduction to the regional cuisine of Thailand. Each of the four large regions have a profile that includes general information about the area, what type of rice is used (sticky or jasmine), the flavor profile, and iconic dishes. There is also a whole section on the mortar and pestle, which I never realized played such a huge role in Thai cooking. I feel like I learned more from this cookbook about food culture in Thailand than I have from all the other cookbooks I’ve read on the region combined.

I’m not a huge fan of the book’s photography, all of which looks like it was run through an Instagram filter. I can’t be sure that the final published book will have the same design choice, but if it does, I was not a fan. It didn’t seem to add anything to the food, although I guess it does make the book look more on trend.

Overall, I’d say this is a great book to add to any collection that includes a strong Asian or ethnic cuisine section, or to any medium-large public library. It’s not a book I plan to add to my personal collection, since I just don’t have the time required by most of these recipes, but it is one that I would borrow from the library to flip through again.

This book many sections (they aren’t quite chapters) of varying lengths, which means this review is a bit different than many of my others in terms of format. Below, I’ll give a short commentary on each section, and generally include at least one recipe title, but not the short list that I include for other books.

Khao (rice): This very short section walks you through the importance of rice in Thai food, as well as how to prepare both jasmine and sticky rice. I love that the author encourages using a rice cooker, because honestly, it’s one of my absolute favorite kitchen items. I did think it was interesting that he doesn’t recommend a fuzzy logic rice cooker, just a single button one, but I can understand the reluctance to advise readers to purchase an expensive tool before they know that they’ll be cooking Thai regularly.

Som Tam (papaya salad and family): This section offers several recipes for the eponymous papaya salad. To be honest, I hate green papaya and I’m not particularly fond of ripe papaya either, so I didn’t spend much time in this section. I will say, though, that it’s really nice to see several different options with different flavor profiles.

Yam (Thai “salads”): I was pleasantly surprised to see a few recipes in this section that I’d never heard of. We eat a lot of Thai in Grand Rapids, and I own several Thai cookbooks (and have borrowed even more from the library). But I don’t think I’ve ever seen a recipe for Yam Khai Dao, or Fried Egg Salad.

Plaa (fish): All of these recipes call for whole fish, although one does call for a whole fish that has been cut into steaks by your fishmonger. I’m not a fan of whole fish, although it absolutely does taste better, and is the standard way to eat fish pretty much everywhere else. My only problem with this section is that it is super difficult to get whole fish in many parts of the country. We are just beginning to have a fish market (it opened in the past couple months) and even my Asian market doesn’t carry fish as big as these recipes call for.

Phat (stir-fries): This section is probably not what you’d expect from its name. It is not a section of stir fries as they are often served in the US – with meat, vegetables, and maybe noodles. This section is heavy on the vegetables and has dishes that would work well as a side dish or complement to another dish.

Laap (Thai minced-meat salads): Time for a personal aside! Laap was the very first Thai dish I ever cooked. My then-boyfriend-now-husband loved it. Me? Not so much. I’m pretty sure he wishes I would make it again though. Laap is great if you’re a meat eater, and it’s something that is less intimidating to someone not familiar with ethnic food (or great for small children if you tone down some of the spices). Just tell them it’s like taco meat! Because it kind of is.

Khong Yaang (grilled foods): There’s only one non-meat recipe in this section (grilled corn with salty coconut cream) which kind of surprised me, since grilled vegetables, especially eggplant, are features in many recipes in this book. That being said, every recipe in this section looks amazing.

Kaeng, Tom, & Co (curries and soups): This section was the most familiar to me from all of my other Thai cookbooks and from my own favorite Thai dishes. The soup recipes aren’t all spicy, but the curries look fabulously spiced – not just hot, but with a wide variety of flavors.

Naam Phrik (chile dips): These are condiments often served alongside steamed vegetables or meats. This section reminded me a lot of the salsa section in Mexican cookbooks. There’s just as much variety in spice and ingredients as there would be with salsa, so don’t be scared if you don’t like super spicy foods!

Aahaan Jaan Diaw (the one plate meal): Ever eaten at a Thai restaurant? The dishes you had are probably contained in this chapter. I got HUNGRY reading this chapter. Stir fried chicken with hot basil? Thai style fried rice? Phat Si Ew? YUM. (That last one is stir fried rice noodles with pork.) Wondering why I used the English translations rather than the Thai transliteration? These are foods we pretty much all know, even if you don’t realize you know them.

Aahaan Farang (foreign food): In his introduction, Ricker explains that Thai food is fusion, and this chapter really drives that home. Southeast Asian food crosses boundaries in terms of spices, ingredients, and cooking methods to the point that there are very few recipes that are strictly “Thai” or “Vietnamese” anymore. Sure, there are classic recipes, but heck, even chiles came to Thai food from the Americas, so even those aren’t a native ingredient. In this chapter you’ll find recipes for Chinese ham and fish-sauce chicken wings.

Khong Waan (sweets): I LOVE Thai sweets. This collection is fun because it has some recipes that I’m familiar with, as well as twists on those recipes. For example, there’s a durian custard recipe that looks a heck of a lot like some of the mango custards I’ve seen.

Sundry Items (stock, condiments, and pantry staples): This is your standard “Basics” chapter. But I couldn’t let a particularly wonderfully named recipe go without mention: Bouncy Pork Balls. (They’re super dense meatballs.)

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