AT A TAVERN in Longview in the 1980s, a young woman from Thailand was cooking food way too bland for her own taste.
Vilailuck Teigen had moved with then-husband Ron to Washington state, where they bought Porky’s Tavern (“I think it’s still there!”) in his hometown. She helped the cook with “French fries, hamburgers — you know. The bar food. That’s how I learned to cook American food,” she says.
“Then I added in my spring rolls.”
At $1 apiece, “a lot of money back then,” she was soon preparing 200 to 300 at a time. She picked up the nickname “Pepper” then as well, when patrons and friends saw her eating “the same food as them, like spaghetti or something, but mine would be coated in chili flakes … They can’t believe how spicy I ate!”
It’s hard to fathom how much has changed between those days and the recent publication of “The Pepper Thai Cookbook” (Clarkson Potter, $29.95). Teigen has taken on a global role as “Everyone’s Favorite Thai Mom,” as the book’s subtitle puts it, after celebrity younger daughter Chrissy Teigen introduced her through recipes and stories in her own social media, shows and cookbooks.
On the other hand, a lot truly hasn’t changed. The Pepper who used to post online about cooking, kids and dogs to a small circle of friends is now the one who posts about all the same — and, now, grandchildren — to 400,000-plus Instagram followers. Many are surely drawn by her famous family: Pepper lives with Chrissy, star musician son-in-law John Legend and their kids. And she’s delightful in her own right, with her fond, frank, teasing interactions; her pride in her family; and signature dishes, from buttery, bacon-y scalloped potatoes to the Thai beef salad she used to send with Chrissy for school potlucks in Snohomish. (They lived there for several years after other stints around the West for Ron’s work as an electrician; Pepper says his job included working on Bill Gates’ Medina mansion. The family moved to Southern California just before what would have been Chrissy’s senior year at Snohomish High School.)
Pepper interacts directly online with friends and friendly strangers alike, in English and Thai, sharing posts about life events whether casual (dinner!) or glamorous (presidential inauguration!) or deeply serious (anguished prayers for grandson Jack, who was stillborn last year at 20 weeks).
“I’m just Mom, Grandma, cooking, posting dogs and food, my grandkids,” she says recently by phone.
Sourcing ingredients has gotten a lot easier in the time since Teigen came to the Northwest with Ron and her then-2-year-old daughter Tina. Back then, the Longview-Kelso area had a market along the river with some Thai, Cambodian and Laotian ingredients on the shelf, she says, but for almost anything fresh — including her signature chile peppers — she had to drive to Portland. Necessity made her a master improviser; cabbage or cucumbers or green beans had to replace green papaya in her favorite salad, although “it still had a Thai flavor,” she says, thanks to her seasonings.
As she writes in the book, cooking has been her role in one way or another since childhood. She grew up in a small town near Korat, Thailand, she wrote, where her mother sold food outside the school “like an unofficial cafeteria lady.” By third grade, she would wake at 2 a.m. to visit the markets with her mother, and she learned to expertly peel and chop vegetables.
“I’m the oldest child in the family, so I helped out a lot. But, of course, now I realize that’s how I learned so much, from my mom … ” she says. “And I do the same thing with teaching Chrissy when she was young, and I do the best I can with (5-year-old granddaughter) Luna; we cook together and have fun.”
The cookbook, written with Garrett Snyder, stemmed from Chrissy’s requests, she says.
“I cook everything from my head — the way I like, the way the family likes,” she says. Then Chrissy will ask whether she’s written the recipe down. “I don’t have to write it down … I remember exactly what to put in!” she’d reply. “Finally, I said: ‘all right.’ ”
It took a year of working with Snyder, measuring ingredients and cooking and then doing it all over again. The final version maps the stages of her life: the Kanom Krok (Thai Coconut Pancakes) she would mix, griddle and sell as a 10-year-old. Cultural mash-ups influenced by everything from Manwiches to inexpensive instant noodles to “the best Italian restaurant in Beverly Hills.” And, also, dishes like curry crab, with memories of the Dungeness crabs the family used to catch from Ron’s fishing boat here.
“I love the Northwest. I lived there the longest time … I loved it so much,” she says. “Every time we’re there, we always go back to our old house,” visiting family and friends and “our little hometown.”
Sweet-Salty Coconut Sticky Rice With Mango
Makes 4 servings
“Mango sticky rice was always a special treat for me and my siblings when we were growing up. After dinner, my mom would buy it from the street vendors who rode around on bicycles, selling it in little banana-leaf packages. It was an expensive dessert, so we always shared one among all five of us. Two bites each! Chrissy and Luna love when I make mango sticky rice, but I always tell them I have to find a really good mango first. That’s essential. The little yellow ones are my favorite, but any type of mango will work. What’s important is that the mango be very ripe but not mushy. The coconut sticky rice? That’s the easy part. Cook the sticky rice in the microwave, and then mix it with the hot, salty-sweet coconut milk. The heat from the coconut milk will help it soak into the rice and make it so creamy and tender. All done. Fresh mangoes are great, but if you don’t have any, coconut sticky rice is so good with everything — spicy curries, grilled steak, even fried chicken. There’s no such thing as making too much.”
— Pepper Teigen
½ cup unsweetened shredded coconut
1½ cups Thai sticky rice
1 (13.5-ounce) can full-fat coconut milk
¼ cup sugar
1½ teaspoons kosher salt
2 large ripe mangoes, peeled, pitted and thinly sliced
Toasted sesame seeds, for garnish (optional)
Mint leaves, for garnish (optional)
- In a dry skillet, toast the coconut over medium-low heat, stirring, until lightly browned and fragrant, 4 to 5 minutes. Transfer to a plate to cool (don’t leave it in the skillet, or it might burn).
- Place the sticky rice in a microwave-safe bowl, and cover with 1¾ cups warm water. Let soak for at least 10 minutes or up to 1 hour. Cover the bowl with an upside-down plate or plastic wrap, and microwave on high for 3 minutes. Carefully stir the rice from top to bottom, then cover and cook the rice for another 3 minutes. Repeat the process, stirring and microwaving 3 minutes at a time, until all the water has been absorbed and the rice has turned translucent (this means it’s cooked). Set aside to cool slightly.
- In a medium saucepan, bring the coconut milk to a boil over medium heat. Reduce the heat to a simmer, add the sugar and salt, and stir until they dissolve. Remove from the heat, pour the hot coconut milk over the warm sticky rice and stir to combine. Let sit for 5 minutes so the rice can absorb the coconut milk.
- Transfer to a serving bowl, and top with the toasted coconut. Serve with sliced mango. If desired, garnish with sesame seeds and fresh mint.
— from “The Pepper Thai Cookbook”