Cooking Underwater

Kailua Kona, Hawaii

Cooking Underwater: Your Ticket to Thai Food Heaven

I just got back from an event on the Big Island of Hawaii: Chef Fest, at the Four Seasons Hualalai, a four-day masturbatory food-and-drink event where some of the world’s top chefs, vintners, and mixologists gather to create some of the most incredible food and drinks you could ever imagine.

There was one chef I was especially excited to meet: Andy Ricker. In the world of  Thai food, Andy is well known for having spent years in Thailand learning the finer points of Thai cooking. He was a good friend of Anthony Bourdain and is featured in one of my favorite episodes of Parts Unknown (Season 3 – Episode 8: “Thailand”). The episode is classic Bourdain: informative, entertaining, and funny as shit. Think lady boys, local hooch, plenty of beer, and lots of strange and enticing food. Check it out!

Andy’s first Thai restaurant, Portland’s Pok Pok, is a can’t miss stop, as long as you can stand waiting in a long line no matter what time you go, day or night. Pok Pok is Portland’s first James Beard award winner and, since its opening, has been joined by other locations in Portland and New York. Pok Pok’s first and largest location, on SE Division Street in Portland, in a converted vintage home, with retro furniture, loud music, and festive Christmas lights. It’s a combo of incredible food and fun atmosphere.

I was in Portland last month, and Pok Pok, as always, was my first stop. Andy’s imaginative Thai dishes feature deep, complex flavors and aromas, as opposed to American-styled Thai, which is “dumbed downed” for mainstream tastes. Pok Pok’s menu speaks to Andy’s years of living in Thailand and his originality, putting a unique stamp on traditional Thai specialties.

What do you suppose is Pok Pok’s number one selling dish? Pad Thai? Curry Chicken? Tom Yum? Nope (drum roll, please), it’s … chicken wings! That’s right, fucking chicken wings, Thai style. Step aside, Hooters and Buffalo Wild Wings. If you want to taste wings the way God intended, Pok Pok will show you the way. These exquisite morsels of meat candy are not your typical sports bar wings and drumettes. They incorporate the essence and heat of South East Asia, with wing, drum, and shoulder joint all in one piece, making for a complex array of meat as you work your way down each piece. When you visit Pok Pok, don’t waste time; order the wings and some cold beers, then peruse the menu for your next move.

You’re probably wondering where the name “Pok Pok” comes from. It’s how the Thai describe the sound a pestle makes when hammering it into a mortar. Pok Pok Pok! Who knew! Fun fact: Most Thai dishes begin with a paste created using mortar and pestle. And if you’ve never used a big mortar and pestle, it’s a work out; I guarantee you’ll be sweating within minutes. Andy wrote a cookbook, also called Pok Pok, and the majority of his delectable recipes involve using a mortar and pestle to create the insanely aromatic pastes.

At Chef Fest, I joined Andy’s cooking class, where we made a Thai pork rib dish using a cooking technique I’d never seen before. The Thai call it, “cooking underwater.” Working over propane burners in a tent with no ventilation, we definitely looked like we’d just crawled out of the water, and all the heat and humidity made it easy to imagine that we actually were in Thailand. It was nasty! Andy’s recipe directed us to take the paste we created in the mortar and rub it onto our protein source, pork ribs in this case, and then sear the ribs on all sides in a stock pot. After searing the ribs, we lowered the temperature to medium and placed a wok on top of the pot as a lid. Then we dumped ice into the wok, along with cold water and a little salt to get it really cold.

This technique results in pure culinary magic. Steam and moisture rising off the meat condenses on the bottom of the cold wok, then rains back down on the meat. After 25-30 minutes, the result was an incredibly moist and flavorful rib. It was so good I couldn’t stop eating—or thinking about the potential of this new technique. Andy explained that it also works with chicken thighs, lamb chops, wings … any meat with the bone still in it. Try it and let me know how it goes. Trust me, you won’t be disappointed!

Andy also announced his new book: POK POK The Drinking Food of Thailand: A Cookbook. It’s a highly entertaining collection of stories and recipes about foods that pair well with beer and other beverages. I own the book and can vouch for it wholeheartedly. If you have an interest in cooking Thai food, or venturing into new territory and “cooking underwater,” buy it!

If you enjoyed that story about cooking check out another story about Taiwanese Pizza – Marco Polo!


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