Skip to main content

How to Make Michelin-Starred Thai Food From a Master Chef

More than just Pad Thai and chicken satay, Thai cuisine is supremely varied, with huge variations in regional food and ingredients. For instance, in Northern Thailand, the cuisine is centered on fragrant herbs, grilled meats, and plenty of funky fermented flavors, a stark contrast to the sweeter, stir-fry heavy, Chinese-influenced food of Central Thailand.

To properly highlight this dynamic cuisine, Chef Therdtus “Tony” Rittaprom is on a mission to share his vast library of Thai cooking knowledge. Formerly of the Michelin-starred Zabb Elee in Queens, Rittaprom is a master of Northeastern and Northern Thai cuisine. His newest restaurant is Zabb PuTawn — an Upper East Side restaurant that specializes in items like som tum (green papaya salad) and larb, meat salads packed with chilis, herbs, and roasted rice powder.

Besides showcasing these flavors at his new restaurant, Rittaprom is also headlining a series of cooking classes devoted to Northern Thai food. The first of these two-hour classes will be held from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Dec. 14 and Dec. 15. Prospective students can sign up for the 20-person classes by contacting Zabb PuTawn (located in Manhattan) at (212) 988-8800. Each student will have the opportunity to make four dishes along with two complimentary Singha beers and butterfly pea lemonade. Tuition is $70 for solo students and $120 for couples. The class fee also includes a take-home Zabb PuTawn kit filled with ingredients for the dishes (palm sugar, pla ra, nam prik larb, pork crackling, roasted rice powder, and chili powder) and recipes.

Related Guides

The Flavors of Northern Thailand

Larb moo kua from zabb putwan restaurant on a white plate.
zabbputawn/Instagram

Northern Thai cuisine, Rittaprom’s specialty, is a vibrant blend of fermented flavors combined with a careful balance of spice, acidity, and herbs. While som tum is eaten throughout the country, the dish originates from Isan (Northeastern Thailand). The main components of the salad are a balance of unripe green papaya, palm sugar, fish sauce, chilies, and lime. In Northern Thailand, the flavors of som tum are more intense due to the addition of more chilis and a fermented anchovy paste called pla ra or pu dong, fermented crab.

Another popular item in Northern Thai cuisine is its various meat salads known as larb, which can be made from proteins ranging from pork to catfish. A great example of this is larb moo kua from the Northern city of Phayao. It’s made with a blend of pork, liver, skin, and roasted spices, including wild Northern Thai mah kwan (an orangey, Sichuan peppercorn-like flavor) and dee plee, long pepper. One of Rittaprom’s specialties is goi neur. This raw beef salad is made from chunks of raw beef — Rittaprom uses beef tenderloin — mixed with lime leaf, chili, mint, and khao khua, roasted rice powder. The end result is a brightly flavored salad crisp from lime juices and herbs, all accented with chili peppers and the textural crunch of roasted rice powder. Both of these dishes will be prepared in Rittaprom’s cooking classes.

Chef Rittaprom’s Thai Cooking Tips

Som Tum being prepared in a Thai krok.
Som Tum being prepared in a Thai krok. Image used with permission by copyright holder

One of the most critical tools for making proper Northern Thai food is a krok. This wooden Thai mortar is essential for releasing the essence and flavor of ingredients like garlic, chilies, shrimp paste, and other aromatics without damaging or over chopping them. Although tempting, simply putting these ingredients into a food processor will not produce the same results. If a krok isn’t available, Chef Rittaprom recommends mixing all the ingredients “in a salad bowl but make sure to break the garlic, chilis, and peanuts into pieces beforehand and it’s best to use your hands to try to squeeze everything together so all ingredients blend well.”

To accompany these Northern Thai salads, Rittaprom recommends sticky rice. Not to be confused with the sticky rice in Chinese or Japanese cuisine, this type of sticky rice (khao niao), also known as glutinous or sweet rice, is widely eaten throughout Northern Thailand. The name sweet rice is appropriate as this rice has a higher level of natural sweetness than other comparable rice varieties. This rice is often served in small bamboo baskets and best eaten dipped in various sauces and salads.

Finally, being able to find the proper ingredients is essential to making any of these dishes. Many of these Northern Thai dishes require specialty ingredients which can be tricky to obtain. The best option would be to source them at a specialty Thai store. If you’re located in New York City, Queens is home to a large Thai immigrant community filled with great Thai markets like Pata Market, Thai Thai Grocery, and 3 Aunties. If a Thai-centric market isn’t available in your area, try visiting a Vietnamese, Filipino, or Chinese grocery store as some of these markets will carry similar products. Or, try ordering online from a specialty Asian grocery delivery service like Umamicart.

Som Tum Thai – Thai Papaya Salad

vegetables and chilis in bowls.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups shredded green papaya
  • 2-3 small tomatoes
  • .25 cup cut long beans
  • 2 tbsp roasted peanuts
  • 1 tbsp dried shrimp
  • 4 tbsp lime juice
  • 2 tbsp fish sauce
  • 2 tbsp palm sugar
  • Thai chili (as much as you like)
  • 2 garlic cloves

Method:

  1. Pound chili and garlic in krok.
  2. Add peanuts and dried shrimp and pound gently.
  3. Add tomatoes and long beans and pound gently.
  4. Add seasonings – palm sugar, lime juice, fish sauce, and mix until dissolved.
  5. Add the papaya and mix well.
Topics
Hunter Lu
Hunter Lu is a New York-based food and features writer, editor, and NYU graduate. His fiction has appeared in The Line…
Step back in time and learn how to make authentic Turkish coffee
You can have Turkish coffee any time, let us show you how
Making Turkish coffee

Turkish coffee is a concentrated, rich, and somewhat bitter drink made of unfiltered coffee. It's also one of the oldest methods of preparing coffee, dating back to 1555. Unlike a traditional cup of joe, Turkish coffee is made with super-fine grounds brewed in water versus drip style, where water is poured over coffee beans and filtered. Because of this variation, Turkish coffee is incredibly concentrated and perfect if you like your coffee or espresso strong. (Like we do.)

We went to Ciragan Palace Kempinski, a luxury hotel in Turkey that occupies a former Ottoman palace, to learn how to brew traditional Turkish coffee. Burak, the hotel's Gazebo Lounge barista, told us while coffee was discovered during the 11th century in Ethiopia, its brewing history dates back to 1555.

Read more
How to make a crowd-pleasing shrimp scampi
Have a restaurant-style meal right at home
Shrimp Scampi with Prosciutto Wrapped Asparagus

 

Garlicky and buttery, shrimp scampi is equally delicious by itself or with pasta. An Italian American creation, versions of shrimp scampi can be found in many seafood restaurants. But shrimp scampi is actually quite easy to make at home -- the key is good quality shrimp and fresh ingredients. Keep reading our guide and find out how to make shrimp scampi right at home in your own kitchen.
What is scampi?

Read more
A brief history of the whiskey sour cocktail (and how to make different versions)
Learn to make all these recipes of this historical drink
George Dickel Whiskey Sour

What is a whisky sour? The whiskey sour cocktail officially dates back to the 1860s, but sailors in the British Navy had been drinking something very similar long before that. On long sea journeys, water was not always dependable, so to combat that, spirits were often used. Scurvy, too, was another danger on these journeys, so lemons and limes were consumed to help prevent the disease (incidentally, this is also one of the reasons why British folk are called ‘Limeys’).

Finally, sugar and water were added for taste. At this point, the drink is probably starting to sound familiar. (Grog, the rum-based favorite of pirates across the seven seas, is made from the same components, substituting whiskey for the sugarcane-based spirit.)

Read more