The assimilation process back to the Australian way, from a New York one, has been all the more delicious because of my work with Product Distribution; an importing company of handcrafted American foods. I help the Australian market to adopt products it doesn’t know it loves yet, to introduce it to a perfect match. Like a Hello Cupid, or Tinder, for food. Which makes me Tinder, I guess.
And like any good match making service, I’d like to introduce your next love interest, Pok Pok Som, a drinking vinegar from Portland, Oregon. We first met in Brooklyn in 2013, where I’d frequent Pok Pok NY, one of Andy Ricker’s Thai restaurants, like a good Australian.
My take-away (besides Pok Pok’s signature pandan-steeped water in my Kleen Kanteen) was the simplicity and liveliness of the drinking vinegars on the menu. Serving spicy, zesty bar food inspired by the northern regions of Thailand, Pok Pok’s refreshing Som sodas offset the burn of the cuisine.
Sharp, sweet and refreshing, it was the most enjoyable first date I’d enjoyed without booze. Served in a tall frosty glass full of soda water, the Som concentrate sits colourfully festive at the bottom with a stirring spoon, allowing the drinker to create the party. The cocktails range from gin Collins to whiskey sours.
So well received was this drinking vinegar that in 2011, Andy Ricker of the Pok Pok restaurants began bottling it for retail. Initially a preserving method for an abundance of near-wasted fruit, the process involves macerating fruit in cane sugar and vinegar, before passing through a sieve and adding cane vinegar and water to a syrup-y viscosity.
To be clear, this love affair is not an original one; drinking vinegars (also known as shrubs) have a long history and wide audience. The age-old practice of drinking vinegar for vitality, digestion, and hydration, is found in cultures beyond Southeast Asia. Thought to come via West Indies to the American hay fields as a kind of Gatorade, the Japanese also have a variation of the tonic, as do the Amish. Not to mention Roman soldiers. Hippocrates himself, fancied as the father of modern medicine, would prescribe apple cider vinegar with honey to remedy a variety of ills.
But as divine as it tastes, Pok Pok Som Drinking Vinegars aren’t to be confused with medicine. Least of all offering a natural and significantly reduced sugar drink that moves away from conventional bottled drinks, and best of all a ‘digestion aid’.
To make one, pour about 30mL into a glass, add soda water and a handful of ice. Pomegranate, Pineapple, Raspberry, Ginger, Apple and Turmeric Soms are just some of the sexy singles on offer, and are used in iced teas and crafted sodas at Luxe, Reuben Hills, Paramount Coffee Project.
It was with anticipation that I tasted the new flavors; Thai Basil, Chinese Celery and Turmeric. Coughing into the bottle, I actually laughed at the acidity as Som attacked my nose and throat. Vinegar is no exaggeration; a harsh lover, it smacked me in the face and dared me to try again. I thought I was harder than that when it came to vinegars.
Thai Basil has a curious pink glow, which sadly disappears in the dilution, as much as the flavor is retained. I want Thai Basil Som all over a crispy fish, chili and lime salad, which also sounds like a cocktail I’d like to drink on a hot Friday afternoon. I may have forgot to mention using Soms for an Asian dressing is as perfect as creating a drink, as often sugar and vinegar is called for.
Chinese Celery is vegetal and fresh and reminiscent of Cel-Ray, a drink typically found in a New York Jewish deli, once known at the ‘Champagne of the Jews’. I can imagine this with muddled cucumber in a drink, while holding a slab of pastrami in the other hand. A dressing for a slaw or herbal, fennel salad would be just as delicate with a hint of this Som. Even though the liquid form sorely misses the negative calorie effect of chewing celery, I’m a fan.
Turmeric has an almost unreal orange glow and tastes like the beginnings of a curry paste. Adding a pop of colour to any drink, this is scarily redolent of my shibori dyeing work for Morris Kitchen. Equally earthy and bright, Turmeric Som will be a fun toy in the hands of many home/pro bar tenders and chefs.
As versatile as it is unique, Pok Pok Som is something I highly and unashamedly recommend you make time for a first date.