I’d been waiting anxiously for Andy Ricker’s (of Pok Pok fame) cookbook—aptly named Pok Pok—for the longest time and finally it came out a couple of months ago. My friend Austin at Austin Bush Photography is the photographer, and he told me about his gig way before anyone knew about it. Austin is a good friend and I love his work, so Pok Pok—the book—is everything I have been waiting for. Real Thai recipes, authentic, each with very clear description plus original food photography that is unlike regular cookbooks; they are real…the photos and the dishes look just like the way they are presented in Thailand, not some pretty-up-and-propped-up look in most cookbooks. That to me, adds to the authenticity of the Pok Pok cookbook. Anyway I am sharing the Pork Satay or Muu Sateh from the cookbook. Enjoy!
“From its stranglehold on Thai menus in the US, you might assume that sateh occupies a place of eminence in Thailand. Sure, there are vendors who are renowned for their renditions, but really sateh is just a street snack, one among hundreds. Still, whoever was responsible for raising its profile among Americans is a genius. We honkies love this stuff. Tender meat soaked in a sweet coconut marinade—it’s a no-brainer.
That’s why I put it on Pok Pok’s menu early on. Yet now, if I had my druthers, I’d take it off. It’s not just that the slicing and skewering is time-consuming (not so much for the home cook, who doesn’t have to produce several hundred per night). It’s the reality that if the words “peanut sauce” appear on the menu, you get people who want to order peanut sauce by the liter to dump on rice. If I sound grumpy, it’s because I’m tired of seeing people disrespect what I consider to be one of the greatest cuisines on earth. Everyone likes hollandaise sauce, too, but you don’t get people requesting it and dumping it on top of every dish you order at a good French bistro.
But what are you going to do? Dishes like sateh, Kai Yaang, and Som Tam get people in the door—don’t get me wrong, they’re delicious too, and my hope is that along with these sure things, a slightly more challenging plate of Laap Meuang (page 106) or Jin Hoom (page 154) finds its way into the mix.
Despite its near-omnipresence on Thai menus in the US, sateh (or “satay,” in the common English spelling) is still a bit of a mystery. Its origins are, like so many dishes, lost to time, though David Thompson, a dogged researcher, has attempted to trace its spread through Southeast Asia, identifying Middle Eastern immigrants, primarily Muslims, as its likely source. To further complicate matters, in Thailand it almost goes without saying that sateh is made from pork (muu)—a no-no for Muslims and probably a surprise to anyone who’s eaten sateh only in the States, where chicken breast rules the roost.
You’ll find sateh on the streets where, even in Thailand-in-April levels of heat, vendors tend to vast rows of skewers grilling over a trough of glowing coals. I like to watch them turning the skewers with their fingers and sometimes using scissors to trim off blackened bits a strange sight to any lover of char. The strips of meat on these skewers, by the way, tend to be twice as narrow and twice as short as those at Pok Pok. Making them as small as they are in Thailand is a major pain and would essentially double their labor cost. You’ll see sateh, too, at restaurants that specialize in Khao Soi or khao man kai, the Hainanese-Thai masterpiece of boiled chicken and rice. Typically, on the table alongside the skewers, you’ll find the familiar cucumber relish and peanut sauce, plus the perhaps-not-so-familiar pieces of grilled white bread.
At Pok Pok, I figured that if we were going to do muu sateh, troublesome as it might be, we’re going to do it well. Our version has been gradually changing since the beginning. All the recipes at Pok Pok begin with some skeletal grasp of a dish, which evolves as my understanding does. After one particularly intense sateh-sampling spree, from Bangkok to Chiang Mai to Lampang, I decided the version I’d been thrilled with for years was actually lacking something. I upped the sweetness and the galangal, I scaled back on coriander, I tweaked and tweaked until I was incrementally happier. I’d guess that, in total, the marinade took two years of refining to achieve, the peanut sauce three. All that effort and I’m not sure anyone notices but me. And I still hear the same grumbles about how it’s not spicy enough. Guess what? It’s not supposed to be.”