Cover of Pok Pok

Pok Pok

“Kill the crab.”

So begins one of the recipes in Pok Pok, the cookbook spinoff of Andy Ricker’s eponymous Portland restaurant specializing in Northern Thai cuisine. Ricker doesn’t shy away from the fact that this cookbook is for the committed, for those ready to learn how to kill a crab before dinner. Even if you choose to start with your ingredients already incapacitated, you will still be in for an evening of work. Making your own curry paste is a given since the paste is the central flavoring component of most dishes. Ricker demands more than just making the paste by hand; he describes the two different types of mortar and pestles that you should buy to do so. You will have to track down not only the infamous live crabs, but also blood and banana leaves. Substitutions are frowned upon.

Ricker understands what he is asking, and in the introductory materials he reassures the reader several times that this is necessary. “Some dishes can’t be replicated at home with concessions to convenience,” he warns. If you do adapt the dishes to the point of being unrecognizable, he will sigh, but understand, because he “wouldn’t be upset if it simply helped you make great food at home.” In testing these recipes, I tried to follow the instructions as closely as seemed reasonable. I didn’t go out and buy a mortar and pestle; I used my coffee grinder. My grocer didn’t have fresh Chinese noodles so I settled for dried; which led to extra complication and a small disaster later when I had to separately fry some, but that was my own fault. Even after making adjustments to the recipes to make it easier for me as a home cook, my testing companion and I still found it to be quite a lot of work.

When we sat down to eat our hard earned meal, all our suffering was redeemed. Everything was unbelievably delicious. I don’t think I’ve tested another cookbook where every single dish I tried was “Oh Em Geeeeeee!” good. This became the type of meal where dinner conversation disappears after the first bite and all you can hear is slurping and burping. The Khao Soi Kai, a coconut-based curry from the Ching Mai province, was rich and fragrant. The fried egg salad caused great skepticism as we were preparing it. The proportions of greens and eggs seemed off; the dressing tasted too spicy to eat. When it all came together, it turned out that Ricker was exactly right about everything and we were wrong to doubt. The stir fried water spinach was so delicious we fought over who would have the last serving. The sauce used in that recipe is going to become my default stir fry sauce from here on out. This might have been one of the tastiest dinners I’ve ever cooked in my tiny apartment kitchen.

Going into this book expecting the immersive education experience of a culinary tour guide book like Burma: Rivers of Flavor may lead to disappointment. Ricker editorializes too often, compromises too little. If you approach this cookbook as you might a celebrity chef’s manifesto instead, with a little humility and a lot of determination, you will benefit more from the experience, and the delicious smells of Northern Thailand wafting about your kitchen will be your rewards.

VeganMofo: Vegan Fusion World Cuisine

For the month of September, this blog will be devoted to VeganMofo. Tune in while I provide short reviews of some of my favorite, and least favorite, vegan cookbooks.

For most of my life, I have not been a fan of raw vegetables. I didn’t even like fruit very much for that matter. I had a healthy plant-based diet for years, but it consisted heavily on roasted vegetables and warm soups. I was tempted by the pseudo-health benefits of a raw diet, but it ended up being the one diet I never tried because I knew that it would be nigh impossible for me. I could probably have given up sugar more easily than give up cooking my food.

When I first visited Blossoming Lotus in Portland, then, it was with a sense of adventure. They had, at the time, a varied menu with the kind of macrobiotic bowls that vegans used to be known for, comfort foods such as bbq tempeh and mac and cheese, and a selection of raw dishes that were unique to Portland. I could finally try a raw dish that was not just a salad, and a professional quality one as well. I had the raw pizza that day: a flax seed and nut crust, topped with a cashew-based cheese, curling strips of zucchini, and other vegetables that were both tender and flavorful. It was delicious. Based on this dish alone, I went out and bought their cookbook, Vegan World Fusion, thinking that it would usher in a dietary Age of Aquarius where I would suddenly want to eat all of the beautiful, healthy dishes my taste buds had previously scorned.

That didn’t necessarily happen, although I am still sure the blame rests with me and not with the book. The book is beautiful and packed with recipes and as varied as their restaurant menu. A raw fettucini alfredo is preceded by a thai salad and two pages before that is an okra masala. I enjoyed all of the recipes that I tried, such as the blue corn crusted tempeh, but the truth is that I actually tried very few of them. Many things in this book were turn-offs for me. Every page is glossy and in color, but most of the photography is of mountains or eastern religious iconography, not of the actual food. The recipe names obscure what is actually being presented; take Serendipity Soba, for instance, which could be more accurately described as a peanut noodle bowl with vegetables, or Mount Sinai Manna Bread, which is a versatile raw loaf recipe based on wheatberries or spelt berries. It made it hard for me to imagine myself preparing and enjoying the food. Instead I was imagining myself on a meditation retreat in Hawaii. Very pleasant, but not what I needed to inspire dietary changes.

Luckily, the restaurant is still flourishing in Portland, so I can enjoy their food for its taste alone, and I don’t even have to clean up afterwards.

Sample recipes:

Southwest Tempeh Chili

Sistah Jah Love Roasted Squash Soup

Conquering Lion Cashew Cheez

Other reviews:

Positive review from Vegan Guinea Pig

Don’t Get Mad Get Vegan tests the Green Goddess Dressing and a tofu scramble

Vegan Cookbook Challenge recreates the live pizza