FROM DEEP WITHIN Portland’s vast constellation of Thai restaurants, Nong Poonsukwattana emerged in 2009 with a simple dish of khao man gai (chicken and rice) that became one of the city’s biggest food-cart crushes overnight. Now, with a second cart open and a new line of bottled sauces in the works, Poonsukwattana dishes on Thai cooking, the joys and perils of owning a food cart, and learning her way around the kitchen before she could walk.
WHEN I MOVED HERE from Bangkok in 2003, I was 23. I had $70 to my name and two suitcases. I worked at almost every Thai restaurant in town, waitressing seven days a week—lunch at one Thai place, dinner at another. When Pok Pok won restaurant of the year in 2007, I was like, “What’s so special about this guy?” When I got a job there as a line cook, it was amazing. It was the first time I had worked side by side with Americans. My mom told me I was the Thai ambassador in Portland, and I had to represent … so I stayed there as long as I could.
BACK HOME, my mom is a cook, my uncle is a cook, my aunt is a cook—so I was pretty sure I didn’t want to be a cook myself. But my mom is very old-school; everything from scratch, buy whole coconuts and peel them by hand—that kind of thing. The specialty store she cooks at in Thailand is where all the Caucasians come to find ingredients: wine, cheese, that sort of thing. I’ve been cooking since I was a small child, but I never appreciated it until I came to Portland, and my friends were like, “Why don’t you do this for a living?”
IN THAILAND, there are a million khao man gai shops. Just like pizza in America, there are good ones, OK ones, and terrible ones. I ate at all of them growing up. Khao man gai originally comes from Hainan province in China. When Chinese workers came to Thailand in the early 1900s, it was all they would eat. The Chinese believe that spice is not good for your health, so they do different things with the sauce than in Thailand, where it’s all about spice and flavor. Every Asian region has different priorities; if you gave the same fish to a Japanese person, they would serve you a tiny delicious piece, and a Thai person would dump in chile and lime juice and make it explosive!
I HAVE THREE PRODUCTS: KMG Sauce, Hot Sauce, and Palm Syrup. My first goal is to do 3,000 bottles. My mom is on the back of the bottle because she was the one who taught me to cook. I look in her face, even on the bottle, and she has a determined look. Her life is so sad and hard—she was the sole provider for the family and had domestic problems, so she’s my motivation, my biggest support. She still tells me every time on the phone, “Always smile no matter what happens.”
WITH MY SAUCES, I make everything from scratch, and it’s one of the best things I’ve ever done in my life. I’m moving on up. To have a product on the shelves has been a dream of mine since I was a kid—I used to think maybe I would like to make shampoo or something. I don’t know if I’m ready, but mentally I am armed. I’m not afraid—OK, I’m a little afraid—but it’s too late to go back.