Monday, June 18, 2007
Cooking in Thailand
While I was in Hong Kong last month, my friend Elaine and I decided to take a long weekend together in Bangkok. We had a full schedule planned for shopping and eating and visiting the Thaifex Food Fair, but with all the tourist-oriented cooking schools popping up all over the globe, we decided it would be fun to squeeze in a cooking class, too. So we signed up with the Baipai Cooking School, which is located in a private home-turned cooking school in the southern suburbs of Bangkok. The school has a couple of shuttle vans that will pick up and drop off students at their hotels, so transportation is not an issue. It was a little painful for Elaine to manage the 7:30 am wakeup call..."Aiyah...but we're on vacation!!"...but she was a trooper. A half-day class with lunch included cost 1600 baht, or around US$50. The picture above is of our bubbly chef Noi, who is holding the mortar, and her assistant/translator Sue, on the right.
The kitchens and sitting areas are all open to the outdoors, so there was a constant, refreshing breeze that mingled the scents of the gardens "outside" with our fragrant pursuits "inside," and carried the sounds of occasional bird calls and tuk-tuks (moped-like taxis with room for 2-4 passengers) into our classroom. Every student has their own stove and cooking station. If you're curious, there are more pictures of the school on their site.
The class started with a scratch-and-sniff tour of the basic ingredients in a Thai kitchen.
The best part was getting to rub, smell, taste and name ingredients that are less common in the States. My favorite ingredient is the pandan leaf, which is essential in Thai cooking and imparts a grassy vanilla-like scent to rice, curries, and desserts. My high school boyfriend's Malaysian mother would cook rice with a pandan leaf on top when making Singaporean food at home and the entire house would be perfumed. Like vanilla, it also comes in bottled essence form. Pandan iced tea is a popular drink, made up of nothing more than a pandan leaf in a glass of ice water, with a small pitcher of simple syrup that may be added to your taste.
Palm sugar is made by boiling down the sugary sap of the Palmyra palm or the date palm and comes in plastic tubs. It looks rather like wet, compacted brown sugar and is used for similar purposes. Kaffir limes and their leaves are both used in Thai cooking, and impart a far more complex floral bouquet than does their American supermarket counterpart. As in other Southeast Asian cuisines, the rhizome galangal, a botanical cousin of ginger, plays an important role and has an earthy, piney flavor with a suspicion of citrus. While Thais use jalapeno peppers in their cooking, it is more for its visual effect than for its spicy properties - for that, Thai red peppers are preferred. The fresh ones are the spiciest and are used in green curries. The dried ones are less spicy and are used in yellow and red curries. You can see the big dried peppers in the far right of the photo here. Thai fish sauce is similar to Vietnamese fish sauce and is used in small amounts to add depth of flavor in cooking, and is commonly found in the orange dipping sauce for spring rolls. It is naturally high in MSG and is therefore a natural source for an umame taste. Also extremely pungent and very salty is dried shrimp paste. Dull purple in color, it is also used in small amounts, as in Chinese cooking, to flavor stews, stir fries and sauces. Coconut milk and coconut cream are key ingredients, as well, and we were taught how to obtain one from the other. Coconut cream may be skimmed off the top of coconut milk exactly like regular cream off cow's milk. Coconut milk may be obtained, in turn, by diluting coconut cream with water.
I love eggplant, and was delighted to use two kinds of eggplant in our curry that day: the round ping-pong sized Thai eggplant (left), and the even smaller pea eggplant (right), which is plucked off branches. I didn't much care for the latter as it stays hard after cooking and is bitter.
Other more familiar items we used were turmeric powder, white and black peppercorn, sesame oil, white rice vinegar, fresh Thai sweet basil, cilantro, and of course, the ubiquitous Maggie Sauce.
There are several different menus taught at Baipai, and what you end up cooking depends on which day you take the class. For our class, we learned how to make:
beef saladgreen chicken curry (we made the curry from scratch, pounding spices together in a mortar and pestle, and you can see the pea eggplants semi-submerged here), and a steamed pandan egg custard. The egg custard texture was rather like that of Chinese egg tart or creme brulee.
All in all, it was definitely worth the half day and $50. I love to cook and to wander through ethnic grocery stores, but I am always very anxious about whether I am purchasing the right brand/quality/item. This was an excellent introduction to the Thai kitchen, and even though we only cooked a total of four dishes, I feel confident about expanding my repertoire on my own now.