On both coasts, Andy Ricker is known for his mastery of Northern Thai food — though he’s swift to disagree. A Vermont native, Ricker became obsessed with Thailand and its food after his first visit over 30 years ago. Along the way Ricker learned about a local concept unheard of in the States: aahaan kap klaem, or “drinking food.” The idea is that these are dishes that are particularly sour, chewy, spicy, and salty, unaccompanied by rice, and the perfect pairing for a few drinks with friends.
Ricker, the chef and owner behind Portland and New York’s Pok Pok and Whiskey Soda Lounges, wrote about these snacks and foods in his second book, POK POK: The Drinking Food of Thailand (written with JJ Goode). While the book focuses on these snacks, namely favorites of Ricker’s like phat khii mao, thua thawt samun phrai, and laap muu thawt, it also includes recipes and processes for the drinks that are to accompany them. Here, in a excerpt from the book, is how rice whiskey, the liquor of choice for many Thais, is made.
In 2010, I attended the Songkhran celebration in the village of Baan Mai in Northern Thailand. I’ve been going to Baan Mai for more than a decade. My friend Sunny once lived there in a simple home where I watched him make laap (minced meat cooked with dried spices) and khanom (Thai sweets). Nowadays, I go to visit his sister and buy her phrik laap, the seasoning mixture used to make laap.
Songkhran is a mid-April festival that marks the Thai New Year. In Baan Mai, the celebration begins at the modest village temple, where residents gather to chant alongside the monks to tham boon (pray for good fortune for someone other than yourself) and to symbolically prop up a Bodhi Tree, the type under which Lord Buddha attained enlightenment, in a gesture of support for Buddhism itself.
Soon, worship becomes revelry. A stage appears in front of the temple. Food vendors, hired for the day, set up shop. While a soundtrack of extremely loud music blares from mammoth speakers in the bed of a pickup, everyone gets frequently and summarily splashed with water. The tradition represents washing away the bad of the previous year and conveniently coincides with the hottest month. Soaked to their skin, people of the village eat and drink. Oh brother, do they drink—and not just men (historically, imbibing was primarily a masculine exercise). The whole town is hammered.
If a person runs up to you and doesn’t splash you with water, he or she is offering you a drink, most often lao khao. Roughly translated as “rice whiskey,” it’s the liquor of choice for working-class Thais, particularly in the sticky rice country of the North and Northeast. Understanding lao khao is a crucial part of understanding the aahaan kap klaem (drinking food) featured in this book. Most of these dishes come from the Northern countryside, where lao khao likely animated the cooks who dreamed them up and therefore helps explain why the food is the way it is.
Made from fermented sticky rice, lao khao can be cruel. Most renditions employ commercial yeast and have a flavor that is marginally more delicious than gasoline. However, if you’re making three hundred baht (about nine dollars) a day toiling for twelve hours in the rice fields, you come home not only eager for a drink but also eager for that drink to be strong and cheap. Two bottles of lao khao cost about 130 baht and will get two guys drunk. Two similar-size bottles of beer cost about the same and will get no guys drunk.
Until about the mid-2000s, making lao khao in Thailand was illegal. When Sunny was a boy, villagers made it on outdoor stoves only for special occasions like Songkhran. Before the government began inspecting facilities and taxing sales, enterprising Thai moonshiners operated small stills in the jungle or forest to evade detection. They built their stills near rivers, using water and gravity to provide the flow of coolant essential for distillation.
Today, in contrast, it’s part of the local economy. Just as Sunny’s sister makes and sells phrik laap, two distilleries produce the lao khao sold to general stores and markets near Baan Mai. Both are located in the village and are separated by a five-minute walk. One is an unsanctioned spin-off of the other. Whatever rivalry exists between the two operations proceeds without incident. Although the days of the entire village joining forces to plant, harvest, and thresh rice are long gone, a communal spirit still thrives. Everyone is either related to or knows one another. There are few fences separating properties. You can walk from yard to yard all the way from the bodega on the main road to the rice fields. When I go to Baan Mai with Sunny, he’ll enter someone’s yard, yell a name, and inform the owner that he’s taking some fruit from her tree.
For years I’ve been visiting the original distillery in Baan Mai. Only recently did I pry details from Win, the guy who runs it. This is how it goes in Thailand, where people tend to respond to my interest in their process with confusion or even slight irritation. Sometimes I feel as if I’m asking a construction worker about the intricacies of his jackhammering. Making whiskey is not Win’s art. It’s his job. His goal is to produce lao khao with efficiency and profitability. Demand is not a problem. Besides his standard distribution, orders pour in for occasions that prompt particularly heavy consumption—weddings, funerals, housewarmings. He told me that the people in the village “have to” drink—not want to, have to. His pronouncement encompasses people like himself, who work hard and require nightly escape, and people like his uncle, a toothless elderly man who lives here too and “takes no vacation” from drinking, day or night.
A stout man of forty who wears a uniform of flip-flops, basketball shorts, and a T-shirt, Win operates the stills almost every day. He takes off only on Buddhist holidays, days that are considered unlucky, and on those rare occasions when his supply exceeds orders. He is at least the third generation to make this particular lao khao (or lao klan, a sort of branding effort meaning “drip whiskey” that sounds a bit cooler). When Win was a young kid, his father acquired the recipe for the yeast from his own father, who had acquired it from someone else. Eight years ago, Win quit his job in a factory to help his father make lao khao. He has no kids yet, but when he stops working here, I have no doubt someone will take over—a cousin, an uncle, a friend. The business makes money, after all.
Yet don’t be fooled. Win may not fetishize his product or seem particularly proud of his methods, but he doesn’t just dump rice into a bucket to ferment, either. His family performs the process the way a career line cook grills a steak—not lovingly but expertly. Quality means customers. Their lao khao is the best I’ve had.
Of particular importance is the yeast recipe his grandfather acquired long ago. Today, Win’s father still adds to the starter a mixture of aromatics like lemongrass, galangal, and chiles, which come through in the finished product. On my last visit, Win underscored their significance when he showed me a bottle of shochu, the Japanese distilled spirit made from barley, rice, or sweet potato, that a friend had brought him from a trip to Japan. It’s safe to say that most shochu is made in a more modern facility with more refined methods than those used to make lao khao. Still, Win politely expressed his disapproval for the foreign product in a typically Thai way: “Mai hom” (There’s no aroma), he said. In Thailand, aroma is almost as important as flavor. This applies to booze as well as food. And like appreciating the food of Thailand, appreciating the booze begins with understanding the process employed to make it. So here goes nothing.
- Every three or so days, Win’s father and aunt fabricate yeast cakes. They make a paste with water; ground sticky rice (from their own fields); pounded garlic, fresh chiles, lemongrass, and galangal (all of which grow profusely nearby); and a Chinese mixture of dried spices. Seated beside a pickup truck in an open-air garage near their home, they mold this paste into rough disks (about five inches in diameter and an inch thick), pressing each one with a finger to create an indentation that makes them easier to pick up later.
- As they form the disks, they lay them onto a bed of rice hay. They sprinkle the tops of the disks with pulverized yeast cakes from the previous batch (what these disks will soon become) and then spray them with some lao khao.
- Next, they cover the disks with a bamboo latticework, top it with a layer of rice hay, and finally with heavy blankets. This creates a hot environment that’s ideal for yeast propagation. The ambient microorganisms, as well as the aromatics, the disks absorb determine the particular character of Win’s lao khao—what you might call its terroir.
- After about two days, they unveil the swollen disks and set them on a chicken-wire drying rack in the sun until they’re fully dry. This takes anywhere from three to five days, depending on the weather. If orders for lao khao are particularly heavy, they might expedite the drying by crumbling the yeast cakes after a day or two.
- Crushed and then passed through a grinder, the yeast joins a large quantity of steamed sticky rice and water in plastic buckets. In the old days, these containers would have been made of clay. Stacks of buckets—in many stages of fermentation—nearly fill the scruffy shed beside the stills, pervading the air with a sour scent. There is no temperature control here, as there might be in a factory; only the predictably scalding weather.
- Win monitors the progress as the rice ferments for five to eight days and gives off an amber liquid. A good look and sniff tell him when each bucket is ready. He strains out the rice and keeps the liquid. This liquid (sah to) is what people drank in the days before distillation and occasionally even today. There’s often a plastic water bottle full of it in the fridge of the village bodega.
- Win operates two stills: three-foot-high oil drums set above roaring wood fires. The wood, tens of thousands of baht worth every year, comes from longan, lam yai, and other trees that no longer produce fruit. It burns hot and long. Propane has advantages over wood. If Win were to use it, he wouldn’t have to get up at dawn to start the fire. Nor would he have to monitor the fire constantly to prevent it from becoming too hot, which can turn the distilled spirit cloudy. But propane is expensive and would cut into his profits. Plus, the lao khao wouldn’t taste quite the same without some of that smoke flavor creeping in. Win pours the fermented rice liquid into the drums, sets a large wok on top of each drum, wraps rotten (and therefore supple) banana stems around the sides of each wok to create a seal, and fills the wok with cool water. Even though his process (known as tom lao, or “to boil liquor”) is low-tech, his goal is the same as that of most distillers. He will bring the slightly alcoholic liquid to a temperature below 212°F / 100°C, at which pure water boils, and above 173°F / 78°C, at which pure alcohol boils. The alcohol-rich vapor he creates rises, hits the bottom of the relatively cool wok, and condenses from vapor back into liquid. The liquid drips down into a catch pan attached to a pipe built into the side of the drum, trickling out of the pipe into a funnel set in an awaiting gas can. To maintain the temperature and ensure condensation, Win frequently feeds the fire and occasionally pours more cool water into the wok. After two to three hours, the container fills with three to four gallons of liquid that is about 80 percent alcohol. This liquid is called hua, or “the head.” He continues the process, replacing the gas can, to capture a weaker brew of about 5 percent alcohol, which is known as hang, or “the tail.” The terms hua and hang are also used to describe the process of making coconut cream (the head) and coconut milk (the tail). As long as there’s still liquid in the oil drum, Win can boil it to create more and more tail. But the tail is weak stuff, and at some point, he calls it quits.
- Next, Win mixes together the head and tail to achieve a mixture that’s sixty proof, then passes the liquid through a rustic filter of polyester batting impregnated with charcoal.
- His aunt, seated on a low stool, pours the filtered spirit through a funnel into bottles. She gets drunk every time from the fumes, she says, offering no sign that she’s joking. A green-and-yellow label that shows two clasped hands is then stuck on each bottle. Their product is Tra Meu, or “Hand Brand.”
- The bottle caps go on, the government stickers (which cost them about fifty thousand baht each month) are affixed to the caps, and the bottles are sent off to market. Then the process begins all over again.
This excerpt from The Drinking Food of Thailand: A Cookbook, (c) 2017 by Andy Ricker and JJ Goode, has been reprinted with permission from Ten Speed Press.