Sunday, May 13, 2012

Snacking State-by-State: Oregon III - Food Truckin' the Thai Cuisine Way (or "Dawn of the Food Trucks II")

Many of the food trucks in Portland are of the Thai variety.  This should not come as a surprise: I noticed the same thing in Los Angeles, when I encountered the many food trucks along the Miracle Mile across from LACMA last year.  Thai food has become a more and more important part of the American food landscape.  Not only do you find many Thai restaurants, but even Chinese restaurants serving up pad thai left and right.

Official Name: State of Oregon
State Nicknames: The Beaver State
Admission to the US: February 14, 1859 (#33)
Capital: Salem (3rd largest)
Other Important Cities: Portland (largest), Eugene (2nd largest), Gresham (4th largest)
Region: Northwest, Pacific; Pacific (US Census)
RAFT NationsSalmonPinyon Nut
Bordered by: Washington and the Columbia River (north), Idaho (east), the Snake River (northeast), California & Nevada (south), the Pacific Ocean (west)
Official State Foods and Edible Things: beaver (animal, though they are generally no longer eaten), milk (beverage), Dungeness crab (crustacean), Chinook salmon (fish), Oregon grape (flower, bearing an indigenous fruit that was once gathered and eaten), pear (fruit), Pacific golden chanterelle (mushroom), hazelnut / filbert (nut - they're the same thing)
Some Famous and Typical Foods: Northwestern and Pacific foods, including: Pacific seafood (salmon, Dungeness crab, etc), hazelnuts, pears, marionberries (first grown in Oregon), huckleberries, blueberries; Portland is an epicenter of the American food truck industry

As is the custom in Bangkok, most food trucks specialize in just one thing alone [see Shouse 2011: 74].  Thai-American food truck chef Nong Poonsukwattana, owner and operator of Nong's Khao Man Gai truck, does just this.  Poonsukwattana focuses on just one dish: her kaho man gai (chicken with rice).  According to Shouse and many loyal customers, she does it damn good.

Of course, Poonsukwattana was unwilling to surrender the recipe for her signature dish - which she practiced over and over before she started selling it to get it right [see Shouse 2011: 74-75] to Shouse. Who could blame her?  She did give Shouse another recipe: the winter squash soup she typically serves with the khao man gai.  According to her website, which shows a much more diverse menu for her new location, the soup is bland.  It didn't seem very bland to me, but maybe it was the type of winter squash that I used?

The Recipe: Nong's Winter Squash Soup

For Poonsukwattana's soup (exact recipe on page 76 of  Food Trucks: Dispatches and Recipes from the Best Kitchens on Wheels [2011]), you will need:

* winter squash (I used butternut squash.  In retrospect, perhaps I should have used a more bland winter squash than this one, because the flavor had that lovely rich butternut flavor.  I got this one for about $4)
* cilantro (getting expensive these days: one bunch for $1.89)
* white pepper (had it)
* white peppercorns (did not have it but I will find uses for it.  The cheapest white peppercorns I could find were $6, surprisingly at Whole Foods.  I couldn't even find them anywhere else I looked - just the already-ground stuff)
* chicken broth (oops, I used up all the chicken stock from the previous poutine recipe.  Double oops, I only had a beef boullion cube)
* water (that I had a plenty)
* garlic (had it)
* two types of Thai soy sauces: the thin kind and the dark kind (Healthy Boy brand, as Poonsukwattana specifically recommends.  What's the difference?  The thin / light soy sauce is more or less like the standard soy sauces we are used to in the US, though presumably this brand is of a higher quality.  The dark / thick soy sauce, on the other hand, has molasses added to it, thus also making it sweeter.  Any East Asian supermarket should carry both kinds, whether from Thailand, Japan or China.  Each bottle was about $3, and was big enough to last me a while).

First, take a few white peppercorns and put them into a mortar with some sprigs of cilantro.

Crush it all together with a pestle and set aside.

Peel your squash...

...and dice it.  I used about half of this squash for the recipe.

Meanwhile, throw your water and broth in a large pot and add your garlic.

Add to that the squash...

...and the crushed cilantro and white peppercorns.

Next add a few tablespoons of the thin soy sauce...

...and just a little bit less of the dark soy sauce (note: I made the mistake of reversing this, adding more of the dark soy sauce, thus making the soup much darker than it probably should have been).

I also failed to lid the pot before some of the water boiled away, so when I finally did pull away the lid, I wound up not with winter squash soup but squash mush.  I had to add more water to this to make it more like an actual soup.  Anyway, cook the soup until the squash is "fork tender".  I squooshed it with the fork.

Regardless of how the soup is supposed to look,  serve it up...

...with sprigs of fresh cilantro and sprinkles of white pepper.

It only dawned on me after auto-scheduling this post for publication that I probably wasn't supposed to squoosh the squash (errrr...).  So I did this again a few days before this post went up (at the time I was feverishly working through the Pennsylvania recipes y'all will be seeing up here in the next few weeks).  I came up with the following:

What to say of this soup?  Well, as noted above a few times, I am now pretty sure that I did something wrong the first time around - namely, squashing the squash.  I have to say that, even though the second time around got me a result that was probably much more in line with what Poonsukwattana serves up at her food truck, the wrong version I did first still wasn't bad.  Each one was a tasty soup, which leads me to think that perhaps it takes a lot of work to mess this one up.  I sure worked hard at it, and it was still okay in the end.

That said, the second time around, with its juicy sweet bits of butternut squash, its salty-sweet dark and light soy sauce broth, and its strong tang of cilantro, was indeed much, much better.


Brooks, Karen.  "Portland's top 10 food carts".  Posted October 8, 2009 (The Oregonian), reposted August 6, 2011 (

Cuisine Bonne Femme & Dieselboi (blog authors).  "About" (About Page for Food Carts Portland".  Copyright 2012 Food Carts Portland, all rights reserved.

Lewis, Nancy (recipe author).  "Marionberry Cobbler".  Information page for the episode "A Cuisine of Our Own" from the television program Oregon Experience, 2010.  Copyright Oregon Public Radio 2010-2012, all rights reserved.

Mersinger, Monica.  "Marionberries: A Delicious Part of Salem's Past".  Salem Online History, 2006.  Copyright Salem Public Library, 2005-2006, all rights reserved.

Oregon Public Radio. "A Cuisine of Our Own".  Information page for the episode "A Cuisine of Our Own" from the television program Oregon Experience, 2010.  Copyright Oregon Public Radio 2010-2012, all rights reserved.

Porges, Brad.  "Hazelnut Salmon with Apple and Pear Compote".  Posted on the Oregon Food website, date unknown. Copyright Travel Oregon 2009-2012, all rights reserved.

Shouse, Heather.  Food Trucks: Dispatches and Recipes from the Best Kitchens on Wheels.  Random House: New York, 2011.

World Culinary Institute. "James Beard".  World Culinary Institute, date unknown. Copyright World Culinary Institute, all rights reserved.

Some information also obtained from Wikipedia's "Oregon" page and other pages, and the Food Timeline State Foods link to "Oregon".