Ask any foodie, and they can probably rattle off a handful of meals that had a profound effect on them – dishes that changed their perspective on an ingredient or culture, that inspired them to learn a new technique, that evoke a particular memory, that have a hold on them in a way that can be hard to explain to those not in the know. I certainly have more than one, but the one I want to talk about now has had a more profound effect on my life than any other: fish-sauce chicken wings. These wings introduced me to food that changed my entire culinary focus, not to mention inspired me to go to the the far side of the planet to learn more.
The first place I had this dish was in Andy Ricker’s seminal northern Thai restaurant in Portland, Pok Pok. Some time around 2011, Jess and I took a road trip to Portland on a lark, mostly as an excuse to spend a long weekend camped out in Powell’s Books. As was our custom, we picked a couple of restaurants in advance to try out while in town. Intrigued by the the as-then relatively unknown cuisine of northern Thailand, I suggested Pok Pok. Suffice to say, we were blown away.
I came away obsessed with a number of their dishes – the muu paa kham waan, AKA spicy grilled boar collar, the laap meuyang, an herb-heavy dish of minced pork, offal, and cracklings – but the one that Jess and I immediately resolved to make ourselves were the fish-sauce wings. Everything we ate was great, but the wings…they were an umami epiphany. Choirs of angels burst into glorious adulation from the first bite. The wings were fried to perfect crunchiness, coated in a sticky, savory glaze redolent with the salty funk of Thai fish sauce, the smoky heat of roasted chilis and the sweetness of caramelized sugar, all shot through with garlic, both in the glaze and in tiny crispy flakes of fried-out garlic dusting the sticky wings. They were…perfect. Immaculate.
I returned home with my brain on fire, possessed by the flavors of northern Thailand. It was so different from the interchangeable Thai curry joints all over Seattle – instead of the thick, sweet flavors I was used to, Ricker’s food was salty, sour and blazingly hot, all mixed with copious amounts of fresh herbs. I wanted more. Only problem was, at that point, northern Thai was largely unheard of in my parts.
I bought cookbooks, started hunting for authentic recipes online. I cooked. A lot. Slowly, the cuisine of Thailand was taking over my life. Jess bought me a Thai clay mortar and pestle to make papaya salads, and I followed it up with a massive granite mortar to make curry pastes. I got a lot better with a wok, and started making my own curry pastes and nahm prik. When it came time to plan our honeymoon, Jess and I ended up spending half of it in Chiang Mai, the culinary capital of northern Thailand. That trip was incredible, and could be the inspiration for a number of blog posts in its own right, but I will simply sum it up here by saying that it was the best food I’ve ever had in my life. When we returned home, I was a changed man, and I have never looked back.
It bears mentioning that, as Ricker is quick to point out, fish-sauce chicken wings are not a Thai recipe. They’re Vietnamese, a particularly delicious irony given that they got me into cooking Thai cuisine (it is also worth mentioning that I have since begun learning the ins and outs of Vietnamese cooking, and while I am still a neophyte, I am getting better). Still, they fit right in with the general category of Thai food called aahaan kap klaem, AKA food to eat with drinks; salty, spicy, crunchy and great with cold beer.
I could write up a recipe for the wings, but Andy Ricker has widely shared the recipe used at Pok Pok, and given that his version has been finely tuned over the last 13+ years, I see no need to reinvent the wheel. The recipe for Pok Pok’s wings can be found in the excellent Pok Pok cookbook, which is a must-buy if you are intrigued by the food of northern Thailand, but if you just want to sample this one dish, a well-written version can be found online here.