Today I had a revelation. A long time ago, on my first trip to Portland my senior year of high school, my mother took me to an awesome northern Thai restaurant called Pok Pok. Its reputation preceded itself and it was all the rage and “the place to go” if you were in the PDX metro for any amount of time; I had to try it. My mother and I grubbed on some northern specialties along with their house special spicy chicken wings, a must try if you ever end up going there.
Who knew that nearly 5 years later, that experience would have a “full circle” effect on my life, something that keeps me hungry for knowledge and trying new things in life. Today, as I was preparing breakfast on my shift at Yim Huai Khwang Hostel in Bangkok as I normally do, one of the other workers here, a lady named Pi-Nat (Peanut) was preparing something I know all too well. To clarify, her name is Nat and Pi is the denotation of respect in Thai, something you call people who are older than you.
Pi-Nat was preparing Som Tum, papaya salad, and doing it like a master. Now I have had many papaya salads in my day but have never seen anybody make it before, especially start to finish. Papaya salad is a green papaya slaw lovingly tossed together with citrus, garlic, chile and normally a seafood to create a spicy, sour, sweet, salty, briny mishmash of a dish; something purely delightful for the taste buds. Its pungent and assertive and at time kicks your ass, but you keep going back for more no matter what. One more bite is worth the nose running, face puckering, eye watering; its something special.
Now Pi-Nat does not speak English, and I do not speak Thai, so you could say there is a bit of a language barrier. Perceptive as she is, she noticed my interest in what she was making a preceded to say “pok-pok” over and over again. I really had no idea what she meant since I knew the dish was called Som Tum and definitely not pok-pok.
After processing and thinking about the Thai, the sound, it hit me! When you make papaya salad use put all your ingredients in a large wooden bowl and beat them down with a hefty wooden club, think pestle and mortar, until everything is nice and tenderized, each ingredient blending together into an orchestral flavor experience. Every time she beat the salad, you can hear it, “pok-pok” “pok-pok”.
It was one of those “everything makes sense in the universe moments”. I was stunned. The restaurant Pok Pok, the famed Thai kitchen in the US, is name after this exact dish. NO WAY! A lady who speaks zero English just solved a five year long riddle for me and that my friends is why I love traveling.