Growing up in the United States, Derek Rugsaken, was influenced by the complex flavours of his father’s native Thailand. In 2008, he moved to the southern Thai province of Songkhla where he developed a liking for the cuisine with its mix of Chinese, Thai and Malaysian flavours.
Returning to the United States, Derek and his wife, Gabrielle, began a pop up kitchen of sorts which focused on a blend of southeast Asian flavours and the cuisine of his home state of New Mexico. The family invites epicureans in Santa Fe to dinners which are held under the moniker ‘Southeast by Southwest’ which feature dishes that combine the riches of these disparate regions.
NOW! Jakarta spoke to him about his culinary journey and the growing interest in the spices of South East Asia.
Tell us about growing up in a family with both Thai and American roots.
My earliest memories are of spending time with my dad, who was home for a good part of my early childhood and served as my caregiver throughout much of that time. We spent a fair amount of time with Thai friends and I remember big parties with lots of food, loudly laughing Thai ladies putting sticky rice and chili-paste in my mouth or asking me to sing Thai songs, for which they would reward me with Thai children’s books and other goodies. When I was 11, I went to Thailand for the first time with my family and would return three more times prior to moving there in 2008.
What were some of your early food or taste memories and how have they shaped or influenced your palate as an adult?
During those early years with my Dad he was still very much attached to his native cuisine, I remember the intense flavours and smells of the foods he cooked at home during those years: fishy, sour soups and pork bone stocks, sticky rice and pungent shrimp paste, some really challenging flavors for the American palate.
You’ve spent a bit of time in Thailand. What was the experience like from a food perspective? What were some of the flavours you encountered there that were familiar/ and what was different from the tastes you grew up with?
Because I got a job at a university in Songkhla province in southern Thailand bordering Malaysia, the cuisine was quite different from that of my Dad who is from the Isaan (Northeastern) region of Thailand bordering Laos. The food in the city of Hat Yai (famous for Hat Yai chicken) where we lived was a reflection of the cultures meeting there, namely Thai, Chinese and Malay.
A popular dish there is ‘Gang Som’ - a sour, orange fish soup that I grew to love. However, in modern Thailand good Isaan food is not hard to find just about anywhere and there were a great variety of places to get delicious som tum and laap.
How did the idea of these dinners for Southeast By Southwest come about? What do you convey to diners who participate?
For a long time I have been intrigued by the idea of popup or ‘secret’ dinners since the first time I heard about the amazing Thai pre fixe meal you could get in some guy’s basement in downtown DC, if you were lucky enough to get one of the five tables down there. When I moved to New Mexico I connected with a kindred foodie and local food and chilli enthusiast with whom I have spent hours discussing the crossover between New Mexican (his area) and Thai cuisines.
An interesting detail to note at this moment is that the chili pepper originated in present-day Mexico, making its way through trade routes to China where it then found its way into a plethora of Asian cuisines. Through these dinners I want people to experience the journey of the chilli around the world, from its centuries old applications in Latin America to its more “recent” uses in Asia.
What are some of the key ingredients you use and how do you combine the flavours of the southwest US with those of southeast Asia?
The commonalities between the cuisines are tremendous; chili, garlic, onion, scallion, lime, cilantro peppercorn, natural sugars, rice, beans, fresh and preserved meats and seafood. The leap from one culture’s foods to the other is surprisingly small and the recipes similar enough that blending the two feels very intuitive. I am always looking at both cuisine for places where the two could meet, such as putting laap [a Thai meat salad] in tacos or steaming sticky rice in cornhusks instead of banana leaves. Its still so wide open in terms of possibilities.
Do you find that Americans, particularly those in New Mexico where you live, are more interested in “foreign” flavours these days compared to, say, when you were younger?
Without question! I saw Szechuan Peppercorn Beef Jerky at Wal-Mart! Gochujang almonds at a major grocery chain!
I was relentlessly teased as a child for my dad’s food which was seen as stinky, strange-looking and crude. Now I see that Bon Apetit magazine is writing about laap. This is another huge reason why I want to do these dinners now. I feel like the culture is really ready for it.
What are some of the dishes you create and do you adjust them for the American palate? Any favourites that you’d like to share?
I think inherently I’m cooking with an American taste and ingredient sensibility since I grew up here, but always trying to reach back and push a little further into that strange, pungent territory of my dad’s cooking in those early years. People are surprisingly adventurous and open and I don’t have to do too much adjusting to traditional recipes!
There are still some components of Isaan cooking with which I (and the American public) have not made peace, such as offal and congealed blood - though I am excited to head back to Thailand as soon as I can to revisit it all. My favourite creation so far is a Thai mole. I found a recipe for a Thai roasted pepper jelly called nam prik pao which itself is amazing; sweet, sour, spicy, umami rich.
I began thinking about Mexican mole sauce in all its richness and complexity, with roasted peppers and garlic and suddenly Thai mole was born. It is rich, dark, velvety sweet, piquant from tamarind and umami rich from fish sauce, sweet from roasted local peaches, sweet spices and finally chocolate with a fistful of powdered red chilli pods for heat.
I serve it with beef or roasted mushrooms for the vegans, a slice of queso fresco and a fresh warm tortilla from the local tortilleria or some freshly steamed sticky rice.