The Seduction of Thai Cuisine Spicing It up in the Land of Smiles and Chilies!
“Have you eaten rice today?” This common salutation among Thai people reflects importance of food and rice to their diet and culture. Indeed, the humble grain is the ideal foil and cushion for curries and stir-fries. Food is taken so seriously in Thailand that kings have written odes to curries.
Thai people are also sensualists when it comes to their cuisine. And once you’ve tasted the real thing, you will forever crave the complex and mystical mélange. Thai food appeals at least three of the five taste senses: sour, sweet, salty, spicy and sometimes bitter.
Like the culture itself, Thai food is the product of various ethnic influences, including Chinese, Indian, Malaysian, Vietnamese, Cambodian and European.
According to a worldwide poll of 35,000 people by CNN Travel, Thai cuisine is one of the most popular in the world.
As much as I love eating Thai food, the idea of preparing a meal has been a bit daunting. So, on my last trip to Thailand, I packed a large appetite and enrolled in two Thai cooking classes.
The Joy of Cooking in Bangkok
Bangkok’s first cooking school opened its doors at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in 1986. It was here that Chef Narain introduced me to the secrets of Thai cuisine.
I had signed up for “Hands-on Cooking and Authentic Thai Lunch.” Aprons tied, our small group went outside onto the patio to wash our hands. Even this was a sensory experience. We ribbed slices of aromatic kaffir lime onto our hands before rinsing. The oil in the lime acts like a natural hand lotion with a sublime fresh citrus aroma. We sniffed around the herb garden and snipped a bit of Thai basil.
After Chef Narain introduced the recipes and various exotic ingredients, we sliced, diced and pounded our way through four Southern Thai recipes: stir-fried beef with lemon grass; steamed egg with shrimp paste; rice vermicelli with a curried sauce of crab and wild betel; dumplings with coconut sauce.
I learned that southern Thai cuisine uses a lot of coconut milk and cream and more spices than the milder northern Thai dishes. Lemons are never used, only limes. I discovered that the smaller the chilli the hotter and the bird’s eye used in the most of our dishes is dynamite. Fish sauce and shrimp paste are indispensable in Thai cooking. Thai people generally eat most dishes with a fork and spoon, using chopsticks mainly for noodles.
We prepared everything from scratch and that involved what chef described as “anger management” while furiously pounding the ingredients for curry paste with a mortar and pestle.
At the end of the class, each participant was awarded a certificate and a gift bag with a fresh apron and a selection of herbs. Other graduates have included actor Sacha Baron Cohen and Harry Potter director, David Yates.
“No one ever fails,” said chef as he led us to a table set at the adjoining Sala Rim Naam restaurant to enjoy the fruits of our labours. As if by alchemy, all of the ingredients in each dish seemed to balance each other, resulting in a complex symphony of sensational tastes in my mouth. The slightly sweet coconut milk mellowed the funky shrimp paste and fiery chillis in the steamed egg dish. My favourite was the curried crab with its turmeric-infused golden sauce bursting with the tang of kaffir limes leaves, yet tempered with coconut milk and palm sugar. Sublime!
Fantastic Forkfuls in Phuket
For my next culinary adventure I flew south to Phuket to attend a Royal Thai Cuisine session at the Blue Elephant Cooking School & Restaurant founded by chef Nooror Somany Steppe.
We met our teacher, Molly, at the impressive century-old former governor’s mansion. From there we strolled across the street to the Downtown Phuket Market—a feast for the senses. Pyramids of different coloured curry pastes, bundles of lemongrass, Thai garlic and basil, galangal, kaffir limes and freshly harvested morning glory leaves tempted from the ground floor. The variety of tropical fruits was remarkable: stinky durian, spiky rambutans, green and ripe mangos and my favourite, mangosteens.
Catch of the day, meat and poultry are sold on the second level. Molly informed us that the best chickens are the free-range yellow ones that have been dipped in turmeric. We refreshed with some coconut water and made our way back to the mansion to prepare lunch.
My fellow foodies were Irina and Anatoli from Moscow. For each dish, Molly demonstrated the steps and we, at our individual cooking stations, copied her technique. We pounded all the chilli paste ingredients for the Yellow Beef Curry with abandon. We gently tossed the ingredients for a spicy and sour vermicelli salad with squid, prawns and scallops. We mastered both cucumber and peanut sauces for the chicken satays and deep-fried fish filets in a light tempura batter and made a sauce of pineapple, tamarind juice and sweet basil leaves.
Cooking completed, we received graduation certificates and headed to the adjoining restaurant to enjoy the fantastic spectrum of flavours served with aromatic jasmine rice. Again I was gobsmacked at the successful interplay of textures and flavours. Who would have guessed that fresh pineapple, fish sauce and deep-fried basil leaves would be the ideal accompaniment for fish?
Mise en place, the French culinary phrase for “everything in its place” seems to be the most essential part of Thai cooking. At both schools, trays with precisely measured ingredients for each dish were prepared in advance for each student. The actual skill required to produce dishes didn’t involve a deft hand (such as required for rolling French pastry or Italian pasta) or the great knife skills of a sushi master. No, it’s more about having all the ingredients ready to go, using some elbow grease with the mortar and pestle and understanding the power of chilies and the balance of power.
Now, back home with a pantry stocked with fish sauce, an array of herbs and spices and some pre-packaged curry and shrimp pastes (sorry chefs), I have mastered some of the wonders of the cuisine of the Kingdom.
Have you eaten rice today?