How a Thai mushroom keeps this award-winning chef on his toes

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Carol Hills: Well, it's New Years Day, a time for for fresh starts and new experiences. Andy Ricker knows something about that. He's a chef and author. His new cookbook "Pok Pok" shares a name with his restaurants in Portland and Brooklyn. In 1987, Ricker visited Thailand as a backpacker, but when he went back in 1992 to the city of Chiang Mai, something changed his life and that something was a mushroom. Andy Ricker: I had come to Chiang Mai to see my old friend who I had grown up with, who had moved to Chiang Mai, married a local woman and they had a couple of kids. And he was working as a financial consultant, she, as a teacher at the university. Chiang Mai is in the north of the country in northern Thailand. It’s landlocked, so there’s a lot of jungles, rivers, mountains and the people there tend to eat a lot of gathered herbs, they farm rice, they catch fish in the rivers and the food there is entirely unlike the center part of Thailand, where there’s a lot of coconut milk, limes all that kind of stuff. And in May, in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand, there's a lot of wild mushrooms that start popping up and one of them is called het-top. Het, meaning mushroom and top, I not sure what that means, but it’s kind of like a "puffball" mushroom. It's kind of dark brown, kind of rubbery, a little bit bitter, and my friend, Lak Nan, knew of a place where the guy really knew how to make a good version of gang het top. So they took me there. It’s like a brothy soup and it had some pork ribs in it and some local greens that were unlike anything I'd had before, sort of bitter and sweet. And then there were a lot of chopped herbs in it that I couldn't identify as well as the mushroom, that had flavored to be kind of bitter. So it was this sort of dark, herbaceous, bitter soup that wasn’t sweet at all or sour. It was just really kind of mouth-filling without being heavy. I had this moment where I was "Oh, well of course the fact that it only exists at a certain time of the year, when this mushroom exists, was kind of a keyhole for me to see into the fact that there is this regional cuisine, the northern Thai regional cuisine." From that point on, I was really intrigued by the fact that this dish existed, so I figured there must be other things out there too and I started pestering my friends and their family and I started going back to Thailand every year, for two, three months at a time and just cook with people, go to the markets, pursue my education, and I’ve got 20-plus years under my belt of just going there and really kinda obsessively pursuing the cuisine of that region. So at first when I got back to the states, I would try to reproduce these dishes. I was having a terrible time because I couldn’t find the ingredients that I needed. My solution to not being able to get those really specific, regional things was to just, I don’t make those dishes at the restaurant. So we don’t serve gang het-top at the restaurant because it doesn’t exist here. In a way it’s what keeps things special for me when I go back to Thailand, I know that I’m going to find something there, whatever time of year I go, that I may only be able to get there and only in that time and it just makes me want to go back again, and again, and again. Hills: That was Chef Andy Ricker. He reminisced about Northern Thailand with The World's Alex Gallafent. We have a recipe from the pages of "Pok Pok" for one of Andy's favorite soups. It's a Northern Thai dish called Jaw Phak Kat with mustard greens, tamarind, and pork ribs. Fragrant, bracing - just right for January. It's at PRI.org.