Pepper Thai Pours Teigen Family Traditions Into Her New Cookbook
The chef and mother of Chrissy Teigen opens up about her Thai-American life.
You may know Vilailuck Teigen as Pepper Thai, what’s almost become a stage name for America’s favorite Thai mom. Vilailuck was too hard for her American friends to say, she explains, so the nickname Pepper stuck—thanks to her well-documented love of spicy chilies. All of her Thai friends and family, however, know her by the nickname Mem. It’s the same nickname my mom has.
“When I first came from Thailand, my husband took me to the bank,” she recalls, laughing. “At the end of the transaction, the teller was like, ‘Thank you ma’am,’ and I was like, ‘Wow! I feel so special! How did they already know my name?’” It was just easier to stick with Pepper.
This is just one of many parallels that makes me feel like I’m speaking with my own mom when chatting with Pepper about her first cookbook, The Pepper Thai Cookbook. (Her famous daughter, Chrissy, just so happened to write the book’s foreword). Like my mom, Pepper is the oldest sister in her family. Like my mom, she had to help her mother and grandma sell food when she was a kid growing up in Korat—a region in Northeastern Thailand known for its fruitful agriculture and fiery dishes. Like my mom, she cooks with feeling, not precise measurements.
“When Thai people make recipes, they’re never exact. So when developing the recipes for this cookbook, we had to recipe-test multiple times,” Pepper explains. “Usually, when I pick up salt, I just pinch it. But for writing the recipe, I really had to find perfect ratios and measure and weigh everything.” She gives credit to her cowriter, Garrett Snyder, for helping to reel her in when it came to precision.
Growing up, Pepper would never have imagined becoming a celebrity chef or writing a cookbook. Instead, she worked with her mom to sell breakfasts, lunches, and snacks to school children in Korat: bags of sliced fruit, freshly pounded papaya salad, and small trays of sticky pad Thai.
“When I was a kid, I never knew what I wanted to be when I grew up. I just started making food with my mom because that was my mom’s job,” she recalls. “As the oldest daughter, I had to help. I did go to high school and then trade school, focusing on hospitality. My mom wanted me to work in hotel management.”
Instead, after meeting American Ron Teigen while he was working abroad, she found her way to the United States with her eldest daughter Tina in tow. She remembers struggling through missing her family, being unable to speak the language, and constantly craving Thai food.
“When I first got to America, I missed Thailand so much,” Pepper says. “I was living in America’s countryside, far from markets. For fresh produce, I had to go to bigger cities that required two or three hour drives.”
But Pepper persisted. She found dried goods—soy sauce, chilies, dried shrimp—from Vietnamese and Lao markets. She began adapting her signature Thai recipes into entirely new fusion versions. “I had to try to survive,” she says. “Writing this cookbook made me remember the things I’ve learned with my mom and the recipes I had to adapt.”
One of the recipes she modified and included in her cookbook is khao tod, or crispy rice salad. Traditionally, the dish calls for an electrifyingly sour fermented sausage known as nam. Nam isn’t always easy to find, though, so Pepper swaps the sausage with Spam and gives it a generous squeeze of lime to capture the same mouth-puckering tartness.
These days, Pepper finds joy in cooking for her family no matter where they are. When they go on vacation, she always packs a box of Mama instant noodles and makes sure to bring her krok—a giant wooden mortar and pestle—so she can make papaya salad. It’s just like the first time I went to Europe with my mom, who also had crinkly silver squares of Mama noodles crammed in her backpack.
“I’ll miss Thai food otherwise!” Pepper says. “Truthfully, Thai food isn’t hard to cook. Some western foods take three to four hours in the oven! Like turkey? It takes all day to cook.” If you can prepare a Thanksgiving feast, Pepper assures that you can prepare a simple Thai dish. “I don’t want people to be scared. In terms of ingredients, they all work together and help each other.”
"Truthfully, Thai food isn't hard to cook."
Pepper passes these traditions onto her grandchildren, reading them Thai folklore and teaching them easy recipes, like grilled skewers or coconut pudding pancakes called kanom krok. “It’s something I used to teach Chrissy when she was a kid, and it was what my grandmother taught me when I was a kid,” Pepper says.
Family has always been at the heart of the Teigen kitchen, and it’s something she wants to relay to her readers. “In regular Thai households, grandparents live with their kids and grandkids,” she explains. People question why she’s always at her shared Beverly Hills home with her daughter and son-in-law, John Legend—some even suggesting that she is their live-in maid. But it doesn’t seem to bother her. “I have so much happiness being with my daughter and grandchildren.”
With Thai New Year, or Songkran, on the horizon, Pepper is excited that her cookbook is coming out during such a prosperous holiday—one significant for new beginnings and a washing away of the past.
“I’m proud of the recipes I make the most frequently, the ones I can do with my eyes closed—like scalloped potatoes, pad Thai, mee Korat,” she explains. “I think I’ve done the best I can and I’m just happy that it’s complete.” She shares some future plans—including some potential work in television—but also wants to take time to cherish her present. “Before I get too wrapped up in what’s next, I want people to read this cookbook first and see how they like. I put everything into this.”
Kanom Krok (Thai Coconut Pancakes)
Makes about 50 pancakes
For the batter
- 1 cup rice flour
- ¼ cup cooked jasmine rice
- ¼ cup full-fat coconut milk
- ¼ cup unsweetened shredded coconut
- 3 tablespoons light brown sugar
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
For the topping
- 1 cup full-fat coconut milk
- 1 tablespoon tapioca starch or cornstarch
- 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
- ¼ teaspoon kosher salt
- Melted coconut oil, for cooking, or vegetable oil
- 8 scallions, finely chopped
- ½ cup canned corn kernels, drained
Note: Both the batter and topping can be made in advance and stored in the fridge for up to a day. If the batter has thickened too much, add water until it’s thin enough to pour easily.
Note: To make kanom krok, you need a special pan/griddle, which has several circular cups to cook the batter. I’ve had my cast-iron kanom krok griddle forever, but you can find them very easily online or at most Thai supermarkets. You can also use a pan designed for Dutch aebleskiver or Japanese takoyaki, or an electric cake pop maker, though the capacity of the cups may vary slightly.
Make the batter:
1. In a blender, combine 2 cups warm water, the rice flour, cooked rice, coconut milk, shredded coconut, brown sugar, and salt and blend until smooth. Set the blender jar aside (you can use it to pour the batter later).
Make the topping:
1. In a small bowl, whisk together the coconut milk, tapioca starch, granulated sugar, and salt until dissolved and no lumps remain.
1. Place a kanom krok pan (see note below) over medium heat and let it heat up for a few minutes (the pan is ready when a drop of water sizzles immediately). Set a wire rack for the cooked pancakes on your work surface. Have the bowl of topping nearby. Brush the cups of the pan generously with oil. Use a spatula to give the batter a good stir, then fill each cup about two-thirds full with batter. After the batter has cooked for about 1 minute, give the bowl of topping a good stir and spoon enough topping into the center of each pancake to completely fill the cup. Sprinkle each pancake with a few scallions and corn kernels.
2. Reduce the heat to medium-low and loosely cover the pan with a lid (any large lid will do) or tent with foil. Cook, covered, until the edges of the pancakes are golden brown and the tops are no longer watery, about 6 minutes (since the pan is nonstick, use a small spoon to check the bottom of the pancakes to see if they’re browned). Using a small spoon or butter knife, gently lift the pancakes from the pan and place on the wire rack. Repeat with the remaining batter.
3. Serve the kanom krok warm.
Note: If you’re not able to find a special pan for kanom krok, you can use an oven and a muffin pan to get pretty close to the real deal. Here’s how:
Muffin Pan Method
1. Preheat the oven to 450°F. Place a muffin pan in the oven and heat for 5 minutes.
2. Carefully remove the muffin pan from the oven and add a few drops of oil to each cup, using a heatproof brush or paper towel to evenly coat the cups. Place the pan back in the oven to heat the oil, 2 minutes.
3. Remove the pan from the oven and fill each cup about ¾ inch deep with batter; you should hear it sizzle. Gently tilt the pan so the batter spreads evenly.
4. Bake until the batter has formed a skin, 3 to 4 minutes. Carefully spoon a generous tablespoon of the topping into the center of the mostly cooked batter, filling each cup another ¾ inch or so. Sprinkle each with corn and scallions.
5. Return the pan to the oven and cook until filling is firm, 12 to 15 minutes. Use a butter knife to carefully loosen the kanom krok from the surface of the pan tray. Repeat with the remaining batter.
6. Serve the kanom krok warm.
Reprinted from The Pepper Thai Cookbook. Copyright © 2021 by Vilailuck Teigen with Garrett Snyder. Photographs copyright © 2021 by Jenny Huang. Published by Clarkson Potter, an imprint of Random House.
The interview for this story was conducted in Thai and later translated.