Way back in 2013, while I was in the throes of researching my book, Pok Pok The Drinking Food of Thailand, I approached Anthony Bourdain and asked if he’d consider meeting up in Thailand to share a drink or two at a spot that specialized in aahaan kap klaem. To my surprise, he proposed devoting an episode of his CNN show Parts Unknown to the drinking food of Thailand. I eagerly volunteered to be his guide. This, I figured, was the perfect opportunity for my first foray into phat khii mao.
After all, of all of Thailand’s drinking food, phat khii mao is perhaps the only dish named for its purpose. The literal translation is “drunkard’s stir-fry.” The explanations for this title vary. Some say a drunk man invented the dish, his hunger inspiring its late-night, raid-the-fridge composition—just as my buddy Adam (who edited the photos in my book) and I, as pissed lads, used to throw together pasta, peanut butter, celery, and chile that we found when we raided his roommate’s fridge late at night. Others claim the name comes from the aggressive seasoning meant to tear through the dulled palates of the inebriated. Whatever the reason, phat khii mao became quintessential boozer grub—fiery and salty enough to encourage another round.
Americans might not know much Thai, but my guess is that if you’re reading this, you have at some point rattled off the words pad kee mao. Like phat thai and green curry, phat khii mao (as I prefer to transliterate the dish’s name) is so ubiquitous on Thai menus in the United States that you’d think you’d find it on every street corner in Thailand. Yet during more than two decades of eating in Thailand, the dish never made it onto my table—not abroad or in the States. I had nothing against it. But in Thailand, at least outside of the tourist ghettos, phat khii mao is just one Central Thai dish among hundreds. There was so much else to try. The story was similar back home, where I typically seek out a Thai restaurant’s specialty—that is, what Thai customers order. And that’s just never happened to be phat khii mao.
I might not have eaten phat khii mao, but I was aware of its defining ingredient: noodles. Nearly every American menu offers the translation “drunken noodles.” In Thailand, I’ve seen the dish in woks and on tables, and it featured noodles as well. This struck me as odd, since I kept hearing from knowledgeable friends in Thailand that the original dish didn’t contain noodles. By now, I’m used to these seemingly contradictory revelations—constant reminders of the chasm between our understanding of “Thai food” and the food of Thailand.
To get some answers and to make sure Tony ate well, I put out the word among friends that I was looking for a place that served a killer version of the noodle-less dish. I settled on Raan Kaphrao Samrap Khon Chawp Kin Phet, or “Restaurant That Sells Stir-Fried Holy Basil Dishes for People Who Like to Eat Spicy Food.” (No shit, that’s more or less the name.) It isn’t frequented only by the intoxicated, but it does attract its fair share. When a waitress, surprised to see a group of farang enter (me, Bourdain, and a camera crew, no less), asked which of us had picked the restaurant, someone nodded in my direction. She smiled and asked, teasingly, “Pen khii mao, chai mai?”—“He’s a drunkard, right?”
Since that visit, I’ve been haunting the restaurant to eat its exemplary version of phat khii mao as well as several other spicy classics and to interrogate the owner, Mae Tu.
Even in Thailand, phat khii mao has become so closely associated with noodles that many people assume it is and always has been a noodle dish. Mae Tu is not one of these people. “The original was not,” she said. “But nowadays, Thai people want to eat everything with noodles.”
Sometimes the evolution of food involves immigration, occupation, and war. In this case, I suspect it’s just because Thai people love noodles. In an ironic twist of cultural crossbreeding, if you conduct an Internet search in Thai for phat khii mao, the top hit is “spaghetti khii mao”—aka the dish made not with wide rice noodles but with spaghetti.
To come up with her rendition, Mae Tu ate the dish all over, then came up with a composite that showcased her favorite qualities (essentially what I try to do at my restaurants), in particular several sources of aroma and heat: phrik khii nuu (rat-shit chiles) crushed with garlic, phrik thai awn (fresh green peppercorns), bai kaphrao (holy basil), krachai (a spindly ginger relative), and slivers of phrik chii faa (skyward pointing chiles). These strike a beautiful balance in the saucy, noodle-less jumble of beef, long bean, baby corn, and onion. To those raised on the starchy American version, Mae Tu’s take is only vaguely recognizable.
Although no rigid formula exists for any food, and particularly not for a dish thought to be concocted on the fly by a sot, there are emblematic seasonings. “You can’t forget the green peppercorns or the krachai,” she told me, which of course, American versions almost always do, perhaps because in America these ingredients, at least until recently, have been almost impossible to find fresh.
She doesn’t explicitly offer phat khii mao with noodles, though she doesn’t deny the occasional customer who requests it. So much of the food in Thailand, especially dishes made to order such as stir-fries and papaya salad, is customizable. This makes it especially susceptible to shifting tastes and fashions, even changes to its fundamental makeup. The noodle version, then, has become as Thai as anything. Still, when I’m crowded around a table full of beer, it’s the original phat khii mao that gets my attention. It’s the dish that sent Tony Bourdain into a fever dream. Mae Tu was proud. To this day, she displays a banner with a photo of her and her family with Tony at the front of the restaurant.
Andy Ricker is a two-time James Beard Award winning chef and owner of Pok Pok Restaurant in Portland, Oregon and several other establishments in Portland and New York, such as Whiskey Soda Lounge, Pok Pok Wing, Pok Pok Noi, Michelin Starred Pok Pok Ny, charcoal company Thaan and a drinking vinegar company called Pok Pok Som.
Reprinted with permission from POK POK The Drinking Food of Thailand by Andy Ricker with JJ Goode, copyright © 2017. Photography by Austin Bush. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House.