Mistakenly called betel leaves because of their similarity to the Indian herb used in digestive pan, these "pepper tree leaves" are sliced thin and used for herb salads.
Yawt Makham Awn
The leaves of the tamarind tree are tart, a little sweet, and nicely floral. Ricker makes them into a salad with tomato, onion, and shrimp paste.
Rak Phak Chii
AKA cilantro root, just as flavorful as the leaves but with a more earthy character.
Most Thai eggplant you find is a little bitter, really seedy, and not that flavorful even when cooked down. But Ricker finds the good stuff: crisp and delicious to eat raw and not bitter in the least. They're also called apple eggplants, and when they taste this good, you could eat them straight up as a snack.
Ricker's Northern Thai cuisine favors dried chilies over fresh, and these are some of his standbys. The mild peppers a slightly smoky flavor, and are fresh and pliant, not brittle or leathery. Ricker buys a large batch of these chilies when he visits Thailand, about every three months.
Dried flower pistils with an herbal, slightly earthy flavor, used to add flavor and feathery texture to broths and soups.
Phrik Khi Nuu Haeng
Translated as "dried rat shit pepper," these tiny chilies are dried out in the sun. "I get these from my friend's cousin's village."
Tua Nao Khaep
Sun-dried disks of fermented soy beans. "We toast them on the grill and pound them into curry pastes." They're frequently used in Northern Thai cooking instead of shrimp paste to add funky, fermented flavor to dishes.
One of the few items I recognized; also known as long pepper. The slightly camphorous rods are used in Pok Pok's frog soup.
These prickly ash berries are a relative of Sichuan peppercorns, and Ricker maintains they're as essential to his larb as tomatoes are to pasta sauce. The flavor is similar, and there's a bit of ma la verve to them, but they're about numbing the mouth.
"This stuff is the mother lode holy grail shit." And no, that's not especially hyperbolic. The 15-or-so-component blend is in turns sweet, spicy, funky, citrusy, savory, and downright magical. Ingredients include: coriander, cumin, mace, nutmeg, cinnamon, chilies, long pepper, makhwen, lemongrass, galangal, shallots, garlic, shrimp paste, and black cardamom.
The kitchen dehydrates fresh turmeric and grinds it into a powder. It's hard to find the fresh stuff, but it is available in stores like Kalustyan's. Fresh makes a huge difference: this smelled more bright and sweet than any sample I've ever encountered.
But no plain 'ol coriander. "This has a much more pleasant, less hot doggy aroma, and it's milder." The seeds are extra citrusy and floral, and they lack the darker, musky aroma of the coriander likely on your spice rack.
Pok Pok makes its own shrimp paste, which is sweet, mild, and actually reminiscent of real shrimp, not fermented fish matter. "It doesn't bong you with shrimp paste flavor; it just enhances everything else." The paste starts with tiny salted and cooked shrimp, which are rinsed and laid out to ferment. They're then processed with a bit of commercial paste for just a little bong.
According to Ricker, most commercially available shrimp paste isn't actually made with shrimp, but rather khoei, which has a different flavor.
An incredibly bitter herb that's strangely addictive. What bitters are to cocktails, this stuff is to Ricker's food. He explained that Thai eaters enjoy strong bitter tastes alongside spicy, meaty dishes like larb.
"Fish" isn't usually a complementary tasting note for an herb, but it works here.
Ricker gets a few fresh ingredients, like some of these herbs, from a guy in Florida who imports seeds from Thailand, grows them in the U.S., and sells them to the Thai community and Pok Pok. Why don't we ever see them at Thai markets? Ricker's theory: the community knows what day and time the herbs come in, and they buy the store out immediately.
The leaves of the "Thai olive" tree are puckery tart, and act as palate cleansers against dry chili heat.
If kept well (not too cold, "or they'll turn to shit"), these and the other herbs will keep about a week. The kitchen sometimes has to change the menu around based on what herbs are in good supply. It's so hard to get these that if the one source can't replenish stock in time, there aren't any alternatives.