Whether you’re street side in Chiang Mai slurping back a bowl of khao soi noodles or enjoying a Michelin-starred Thai meal in a high-end Bangkok restaurant, the memories of those powerful, balanced flavors stay with you long after you’ve left the country.
Vilailuck “Pepper” Teigen knows this all too well. Mother of model, TV personality and entrepreneur Chrissy Teigen, Pepper emigrated to Utah from Thailand’s northeast Isaan region in the early 1980s.
For years, she says she tried to replicate the flavors of home, struggling to find ingredients in the small American town she lived in.
“When I had Chrissy as a baby I remember going to a little market,” she tells CNN during a recent video interview.
“I was the only Asian in that little town — Delta, Utah — where Chrissy was born and I requested ‘Can you bring in bean sprouts and lemon grass please?’ And they did. But other than that, I had to travel 100-200 miles just to get gaprao (Thai basil).”
Today, Pepper lives in Los Angeles with Chrissy, son-in-law John Legend and their two kids, Luna and Miles. She makes regular cameos on their Instagram feeds, often appearing in the kitchen cooking alongside Chrissy or her grandkids, or joining them on their travels.
“It’s just kind of like having a baby again!” Pepper says of her new book. “The same feeling. I’m so excited and a little bit nervous.”
The book features dishes from several regions of Thailand. But Pepper puts her own spin on some of them — pad Thai brussels sprouts, anyone? — while also including other family staples like scalloped potatoes, the first “American dish” she learned to make.
“Our family loves to eat,” says Pepper. “So I have my favorites from Isaan (in the book) because that’s where I’m from originally. That’s my most favorite flavor. And then my family likes exploring some northern and southern Thai foods.”
“Don’t be afraid”
Thai cookbooks can often be intimidating for at-home chefs, depending on the availability of ingredients or personal dietary restrictions.
But Pepper knows from experience that adaptations are often unavoidable and just wants people to have fun in the kitchen, saying she regularly gets asked for advice on how to make Thai recipes healthier or vegetarian-friendly.
Vilailuck “Pepper” Teigen
“Don’t be afraid,” she says enthusiastically. “I worked very hard with the writer’s (Garrett Snyder’s) help so we got it. It’s easy, and simple.”
What wasn’t easy, though, was having to document the measurements for each recipe. Pepper says a lot of what she does in the kitchen is based on instinct, so she had to figure out how much of each ingredient she was actually using.
“Everything comes from my head, so the measuring, the weight…that was the biggest challenge. When I did it myself I don’t need a recipe — when I needed two tablespoons I did it without measuring. But I tested myself. It was almost exactly perfect every time.”
Exploring the tastes of Isaan
Pepper grew up in the small city of Nakhon Ratchasima — unofficially known as Korat — in Isaan, where her grandparents were rice farmers.
This region is famed for offering some of Thailand’s greatest culinary hits, including larb (a spicy minced meat salad) and som tum (papaya salad). (See recipe for Pepper’s fried chicken larb at the end of this feature.)
These bold, intense flavors were always a part of Pepper’s life. The oldest of five kids, she says she was in the third grade when she began helping out her mother, who worked in a school cafeteria.
“I started going to the market with my mom and came back at about 5 or 6 in the morning and just started preparations,” she recalls. “I was the sous chef for my mother before I could leave for school. At lunch time I had to come down and help her selling, like a food vendor.”
Pepper feels Thailand’s reputation for being food-obsessed is deserved, with the question “gin kao yung” — have you eaten yet — a constant fixture in everyday conversations.
“Thai people tend to eat all day,” she says with a laugh. “A little bit here, a little bit there. Food is everywhere. The aroma of street food hits you as soon as you walk out the door in the morning.”
Even though it’s been decades since she left Isaan, Pepper says she needs to eat Thai food once a day — which can get tricky given how often she’s on the road with Chrissy, John and the kids.
“Every time we travel I start packing chili peppers, a krok (mortar and pestle for crushing ingredients like chilies and garlic), instant noodles, chili powder, fish sauce,” she says. “Travel for me is very difficult because I have to have Thai food.”
Fortunately, she says her Grammy-winning son-in-law is an adventurous eater who isn’t afraid to try new flavors.
“John is so good!” she says when asked whether he can handle spicy food. “He can eat all the things with me. He’s a very good sport. He tries everything. When we were back in my hometown he tried all the bugs in the bug cart.”
Pepper acknowledges it’s difficult to travel with her celebrity daughter and son-in-law given the attention they attract, but feels honored to have received such a warm welcome in her hometown — she was even granted a key to the city of Korat from local officials.
“I’m so happy people recognized me,” says Pepper. “From just being a little girl who goes to the market every day, to being a mother… and look at me now.”
Introducing her grandkids to Thai flavors
When asked to single out the first thing she eats when she steps off the plane in Bangkok, there’s no hesitation.
“Ahhh, me and Chrissy gotta go get boat noodles!” she says, referring to kuai tiao ruea — small bowls of beef or pork noodles with a hearty broth accompanied by herbs and veggies.
The name is derived from the original vendors who once paddled through the canals and rivers in and around Bangkok, cooking steaming hot bowls of noodles right in their boats. Today, they are served in restaurants as well but you can still enjoy the classic, floating version.
Though Chrissy might be a huge fan of Thai food now, Pepper says that wasn’t always the case.
In the intro of her book, she notes how her famous daughter always wanted American foods like grilled cheese and pizza when she was a kid. But as Chrissy grew older, she began to ask for all those Thai dishes she grew up cooking and eating with Pepper.
Pepper’s grandchildren, on the other hand, already have Thai favorites of their own, which are included in the book.
“They love my food! They always ask for it and I enjoy doing it, I am so happy. Luna advised me this morning, ‘Tell them I love your jok,'” says Pepper, sharing the advice her five-year-old granddaughter gave her about what to discuss during the interview with CNN.
Pepper says her fried chicken is also a hit, and Miles, who is nearly three, particularly loves her ribs — with lots of garlic.
These days, Pepper doesn’t have to travel hundreds of miles for ingredients. She says she has a garden filled with fresh produce, while other items are easy to find in Los Angeles, allowing her to cook all her Thai favorites at home.
And as the Thai-American embarks on her latest journey as a cookbook author, she says Chrissy has been a huge source of support and comfort along the way, encouraging her to share her recipes with the world.
“She’s just so proud of me,” says Pepper, breaking into her trademark smile.
Recipe: Pepper’s Fried Chicken Larb
Pepper’s Fried Chicken Larb.
Jenny Huang/Clarkson Potter
FOR THE DRESSING
— 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
— 1 tablespoon fish sauce
— 1 teaspoon light brown sugar
— 1 tablespoon Toasted Rice Powder, store-bought or homemade
— 1 teaspoon Roasted Chile Powder
FOR THE LARB
— 6 fried chicken tenders (about 12 ounces), sliced, or 3 heaping cups of chopped fried chicken
— 1 medium shallot or ½ red onion, halved and thinly sliced (about ½ cup)
— 4 scallions, thinly sliced (about ¼ cup)
— ¼ cup packed cilantro leaves
— ¼ cup torn mint leaves
— Cooked sticky rice or jasmine rice
Make the dressing: In a small bowl, whisk together the lime juice, fish sauce, brown sugar, rice powder, and chile powder until combined. Set aside.
Make the larb: Preheat the oven to 400°F. Spread the chicken on a sheet pan and bake until heated through, 10 to 15 minutes.
In a large bowl, combine the warm chicken, shallot, scallions, cilantro, and mint, then slowly pour the dressing over the top while tossing. Mix gently but thoroughly. Taste and adjust any seasonings as needed. The larb should be tangy, salty, and a little spicy (like me).
Serve immediately with rice.
Book photographs copyright © 2021 by Jenny Huang. Published by Clarkson Potter, an imprint of Random House.