Published on February 12th, 2011 | by Ann Rickard0
Mastering Thai cuisine
“Don your apron. Wash your hands. Listen. Learn. Cook. ”
Some of the blokes in our group are not too sure about it at first, especially the bit that involves tying on an apron. But we are going to chop, pound, toss, fry and plate up. Things could get messy.
At Amita Thai Cooking Class in Bangkok it’s very hands-on. We are in the heart of old town Bangkok but a lifetime away from the city’s famous flurried frazzle. Here at the tranquil haven on the Chao Praya River, the city cacophony has no place; the air feels new here, fresh with the smell of basil and kaffir lime leaves. Our host Tam is going to lead us into a cooking class, where we will prepare and eat four courses of true Thai food. She has a small army of minions fluttering about her, lovely ladies as gentle and silent as butterflies. This cooking class is all about micro-managed control. And a lot of fun.
We had arrived by boat, chugging along the busy klongs, the canals that breathe life into the city. We’d passed dignified temples, luxury hotels and makeshift dwellings, peering inquisitively into the improvised homes for a glimpse at locals going about their routines. The noise, the pace, the confusion of Bangkok is sweet music to me, and I especially love watching it from the river. I also enjoy falling into a serene oasis, whether it be a luxury hotel or, in this case, the private home of our host Tam. Tam had greeted us at her little jetty with a glass of lemongrass tea, then walked us around her flourishing garden picking basil, plucking kaffir lime leaves, explaining the myriad herbs used in Thai cooking.
“This house belonged to my great, great grandfather,” Tam said, guiding us around the paths with the resident rooster following her.
The simplicity and pace here is a delightful contrast to the bedlam outside. We’d already fallen in love with the Thai architecture of the home and the gentle way Tam lives on this canal with her extended family.
The cooking school is set up alongside the house with the cooking stations with their own burners, sinks, chopping blocks. Tam demonstrates each dish at a large working bench, her helpers darting quietly around her delivering ingredients at the precise moment Tam talks about them. Bowls of chicken and fish; noodles and rice; galangal and ginger; chillies and lemongrass come out, and when empty are speedily spirited away making way for more to arrive: little dishes of fish sauce, tamarind water, palm sugar, pandanus leaves. After each recipe is explained and demonstrated, we taste Tam’s offerings and then sprint to our cooking stations, enthused and excited.
As we pound and chop, preparing the dressing for a papaya salad, the helpers flit gently around us offering kind assistance to our fumbles with the mortar and pestle, giving helpful advice to our clumsy chilli chopping. Dishes, bowls, utensils are magically whisked away from the work station the minute they are done with. We’re very involved at this stage and, before we realise it, we have created colourful papaya salads, pandanus leaf packages of deep fried chicken and a spicy green chicken curry.
“Did we really do this?” we say, a little puzzled and a lot delighted at our culinary achievements.
But we certainly did, even if it was with a lot of help from the kitchen butterflies. Then it was time to sit together by the canal, watch the passing parade on the water, and eat the lot.
Cooking in Thailand with someone who has been cooking since she could walk ensures you go home with skills and techniques to stay with you forever. We can all look at Thai recipe books at home and create something good, but cook with a chef in Thailand and your soups will sing, your curries will zing and even your noodles with have layers of complexity.