I was going through my photo albums recently and stumbled upon a few snaps taken at a Thai cooking class I took in Bangkok last year. They brought back some sweet memories, and inspired this piece…
With its gold encrusted temples, exuberant night markets and notorious full moon parties, Thailand holds the key to all sorts of adventure for many wondering travellers. For me, the country’s greatest appeal undoubtedly radiates from its kitchen – อาหาร.
On route to Sydney with my dear friend Jane, we had decided to break up the horrendous 25-hour trip with a 3-day stop-over in Bangkok. I’d already heard several deborturous tales from friends who had visited the Thai capital on a clichéd “gap yah” backpacking trip, but I pictured my stay as more of a culinary pit stop seasoned with kaffir lime, lemongrass and sweet basil…
By day 2 we’d finally kicked the jetlag and awoke refreshed and hungry for the Thai cooking class we’d enrolled in. At just 1000 baht per class (about €30), we weren’t exactly expecting a gourmet Master Chef workshop, and yet what we discovered was so much more!
Our guide, Sanusi, picked us up from our hotel and escorted us to the local market where we met our fellow students – a small group of backpackers, newlywed honeymooners and retired holiday-makers all hoping for an authentic Thai experience. We were each given a small bamboo basket and a bottle of water to help keep hydrated amid the 30°C humidity.
Sanusi is a quirky Thai native and former restaurant chef, who has been teaching classes at the Silom Thai Cooking School for years. As we wandered around the covered market, he explained the purpose and significance of each ingredient, such as the size-to-heat ratio of each chilli at the heart of every curry paste.
As we passed through an array of stalls, Sanusi would casually toss a few ingredients into our baskets and before haggling down the price. After an colourful 30 minutes we left the market with bountiful baskets and walked to the cooking school just 5 minutes around the corner.
Housed in a 4-storey apartment block, the school has 2 traditional open kitchens and an outdoor veranda installed with gas stove cookers. The walls are decorated with photos of past students from all over the world – a thoughtful touch that instantly created an intimate and welcoming atmosphere.
After donning some vibrant aprons, we split into 2 groups: one responsible for washing and preparing the vegetables and the other in charge of deveining prawns and slicing chicken. After this we all met in the main room to begin lesson 1 – how to make coconut milk from scratch. With our hands we gently massaged shredded coconut (fresh from the shell) in a bowl of warm water. Then we used an authentic wicker strainer to squeeze out the liquid, before starting the process all over again. After 3 rounds, it was hugely satisfying to see the result of our combined efforts in an enormous bowl of creamy coconut milk. Sanusi joked that although we were learning the traditional methods, the reality is that most Thai people would sooner pop to the local store for a tin of coconut milk than spend the afternoon massaging their own.
Next came a lesson in flavour, namely chilli, lemongrass, galangal ginger and kaffir lime. These key ingredients are like the founding fathers of Thai cuisine. Sanusi explained that once you have these flavours at the root of your dish, “everything else is like an extra decoration!” You can choose to add whatever you like by way of meat and vegetables because although they add texture and colour, it’s the essentials that really bring the fragrance and flavour.
We walked into the main room at the centre of which our market-trip treasure had been magnificently arranged in an explosion of colour. From pea-sized green aubergines to purple shallots, it was quite literally the pot of gold at the end of a rainbow.
Equipped with our wooden block chopping boards, we sat around the ornate centre piece and listened on as Sanusi added key ingredients to a giant stone mortar. This circulated around the room as we chopped, diced and took it in turns to pound the paste.
The first dish we made was Tom Yum Koong – hot and sour prawn soup. We took to our stoves, fired the cylinders and began to stir green onions, roasted chilli paste and prawns. Sanusi then came and splashed each of our pans with a cup of our freshly pressed coconut milk. With a splash of fish sauce and lime juice, we reduced the flame and let the soup simmer as our bellies rumbled. Five minutes later, our starter was ready, adorned with fresh coriander and birds eye chillies.
Tom Yum Koong
Next came a Pad Thai Sai Kai fried noodle dish, complete with tamarind paste, palm sugar, beansprouts, a sprinkling of roasted peanuts and a wedge of lime. The secret is to turn off the heat as soon as the noodles become softened and translucent. It was by far the best Pad Thai I’ve tasted, and I don’t care how hard my horn’s tooting!
Sanusi then showed us how to make one of my favourite dishes of the day, Laab Gai. It’s a light chicken salad made with ground chicken (or minced tofu), fresh mint, coriander, toasted rice, shallots and ground chillies. He heaped the salad onto a deep soup spoon and served it with a ball of sticky rice. I’m still in love with the beauty and simplicity of this dish…a sure-fire show stopper for any dinner party!
Unbeknown to us, the main course was still to follow. To a spoonful of our lovingly pulverised green curry paste, we added chicken, aubergine, torn kaffir lime leaves, shredded ginger, palm sugar and fish sauce. Another splash of coconut milk and we’d made ourselves a first-class green curry, Kang Khiao Wan Gai.
Kang Khiao Wan Gai
At this point, I was sure that I’d reached O-V-E-R-L-O-A-D. That was until the aroma of nutty bananas came wafting through the back kitchen. Sanusi had been preparing a traditional Thai desert by the name of Mun Ted Gang Buad. Baby bananas or sweet potato can be used in this recipe, which is a simple blend of coconut milk, water, salt and palm sugar. Sanusi added a touch of colour and crunch by sprinkling over some daffodil-yellow roasted mung beans. The dish was pretty as a picture, and I somehow managed to find it within myself to polish off the entire bowl.
Mun Ted Gang Buad
And so, while I can imagine that witnessing a live ping-pong popping show might provide good fodder for recounting wild travel tales, if you’re looking to discover something with a little more substance then I can’t recommend a cookery class like this enough. And let’s not forget that just €30 covered a market tour, refreshments, a 4-hour class, all the ingredients for a 5-course meal and a little bound recipe book, which we each received as a token momento.
This was a genuine slice of Thai lifestyle with a fun, sociable and hands-on approach to cooking. It’s an experience that I’ll cherish, and after revisiting all of these photos and flavours, my hunger and I are wishing that we could touch down in Bangkok tout de suite!
Silom Thai Cooking School in Bangkok, Thailand
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