Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Siam's gonna be the witness...

Now that I had braved hash running (and survived to tell the tale!) I was ready for my next challenge in Bangkok.

Many of you will laugh at my next idea of a challenge, and for various reasons. You know me. Have at it.

I was going to take a cooking class.

Now, I haven't ever done anything like that before, and, as the long-suffering Mike can tell you, getting me to follow a recipe is...challenging. This penchant for launching out on my own in the kitchen would be bearable except that my palate is less developed that that of my tolerant spousal unit. Also, between my underestimations of how much time it takes to make something, encouraged by the truly optimistic estimations by cookbooks, well...

Can I just say it never takes only 10 minutes of prep time to make something, no matter what those stinkin' books say. I can put chips and premade carrot sticks on a plate and pour a glass of orange juice in ten minutes, not make some sort of showstopper meal.

Some days it's amazing our family doesn't starve to death.

But I digress.

Street vendor roasted bananas

We love Thai food. I mean, really, really love it. A good green curry has been known to leave me purring like a cat. Mike is really into the spiciness. I thought, what better way to learn to cook Thai food than to do it in Thailand? How cool would that be?

So, now not only was I going to take a cooking class, but I was going to take it at the famous Blue Elephant Cooking School, known for its classic Royal Thai cuisine. It was definitely pricier than the other classes I had found, but it was relatively close to our hotel and looked professional. Maybe the professionalism would rub off a little bit while I was there. Not that I was expecting to transform into a kitchen goddess or anything.

It was Thanksgiving Day back in the USA. I was not scheduled to learn how to cook turkey, but duck was on the menu. Crammed into the Skytrain first thing in the morning, (it may be impressively crowded -there are people there just to press folks and make sure stray limbs are not hanging out by the time the doors close- but the Skytrain is also clean and efficient, great job, Bangkok!) I did my usual walk back and forth on the unfamiliar street until I had about 4 men helping me to find the cooking school, all of us trying to figure out the little printed map, flipping it around, lots of hand gestures, heads shaking and finally coming to an agreement. I smiled and wa'd a lot. Of course it was utterly obvious once I got going in the right direction.

The cooking class and restaurant are housed in an unexpected 1900's beauty. Under layers of cream and white paint, the place resonates with creaky, glossy plank floors, chandeliers, fabulous period details and the assured calmness of age: it was gorgeous.

My photos, as usual, do it absolutely no justice.

Here's a link (you can backclick to here) to one of the first room we were in: http://www.tripadvisor.com/ReviewPhotos-g293916-d629542-r37887996-Blue_Elephant_Cooking_School-Bangkok.html

I was immediately smitten, and inside, the charming serenity won me over completely. The quirky paintings! The overflowing baskets of pure white orchids! The dark woods contrasting with the shapes of bright windows and delicate filigree detailing! By the time I finished my lemongrass tea I was all ready: who did I need to murder to inherit this place? Give me a cleaver, I'm on it.

(I think it's watching all those whodunit mysteries, positively soaked in period costume and mannerisms with fabulous settings on the BBC that brings this out in me. Begging your forgiveness.)

Looking around at the other students, I realised the besides a somewhat standoffish young man, that I was the only other single person there for the class. The rest were groups of two, women friends or couples. Ah well. Chalk up another factor for personal bravery.

Our first instructor, a tiny Thai with great smile, instructed us to follow her back onto the Skytrain to the Bang Rak Morning Market where we would get to learn from her all about the local herbs and produce, how to choose our meats and so forth. The guided market visit was the reason I had chosen the Blue Elephant, and I was really looking forward to it. I felt as giddy as I remember being in September on the first day of school.

My classmates and I avoided getting run over by the ever-present motorbikes that even puttered among the market stands. At the first fruit seller tried out tamarind (like a long brown bean full of sticky prune-tasting gooey fruit and seeds), and other Thai fruits. I fell into my old role of jump-up-and-down star student (who is inevitably annoying to the others), identifying rose apples and mangosteens, rambutans and dragonfruit.

I also went all nerdly but kept my mouth shut at the sight of, yes, Washington apples in this market, frequented by Thai locals, so incredibly far away from home. We must grow an awful lot of those!

Then we went into the market where all sorts of meat and fish were being thwacked with wicked looking cleavers, rinsed, and arranged for the sharp eyed housewives to sniff, examine, and choose. It was pretty obvious from the aroma exactly where we were. There were tiny, wizened old women gutting fish, faces like sweet, dried-up wrinkly brown apples, and the male butchers sported only an apron above the waist. One could buy pounds of chicken feet, bags of blood, (see above, with apologies), lengths of intestine and tripe; obviously no portion went unused. The floor beneath our feet was pretty wet, and I decided not looking down was probably the best strategy. Plus, I really wanted to listen to how one knows which is the nicest, freshest fish.

For the freak factor, that area was fun, but it was something of a relief to move on to the fresh herbs and vegetables.

The fresh bundles of fragrant basil, the knobbly round kaffir limes, and the long stalks of lemongrass were a refreshing change, and we sniffed and passed around all sorts of produce as our guide spoke endlessly about their uses. I felt like I might need to take the tour a second time to get another shot at learning all the good stuff she was telling us, all of us crowding around and straining to hear above the market noise between moments of being distracted by great scenes to photograph.

Thai curries are made from fresh ingredients, rather than powders, which are then pounded with a mortar and pestle (yes, I came home to Dubai and bought one straightaway) so being able to choose good ingredients in their unprocessed state was an essential part of the class.

Lastly we were invited to try Thai coffee or tea, served in a plastic bag over ice. The Thai seem to prefer taking their drinks to go, rather than sitting down to enjoy them, and the bags, well, everything can be bought in a bag. Bag of chicken curry? Sure. Coca-cola? Sure! The venders have piles of bags, full, plump and carefully tied, sitting on their carts, all ready to go. This seemed a little weird to me until I saw the wisdom of buying your drink in a bag: I spotted a motorbike trundling along the road with an iced coffee hanging from the handlebars. The driver could have his morning coffee during his commute while waiting for traffic lights.

No need for a cupholder. Oh, those clever Thai.

The process of making the iced tea was facinating, and being from the Pacific Northwest, of course I was intrigued. First they put sweet, condensed milk from a can into a glass with sugar, about a tablespoon of each. Then they put Thai tea into a tea sock, the likes of which I had never seen before. A cup or so of boiling water was poured through the tea in the sock onto the sugar and condensed milk, mixing them and dissolving the sugar. Topped off with milk, the concoction was poured into the bag with ice, add a straw and voilĂ !

So tasty.

I was already having a heck of a good time and I hadn't even tried to cook anything yet.

Back to the school, ensconced in our desks, teaching mirror overhead and chef in front of us, I realised we were looking at Khun Nooror, one of the founding chefs of Blue Elephant. I also belatedly realised that she looked familiar because I use, duh, Blue Elephant Thai products at home: curry pastes and fish sauce and her photo is on each and every one of them.

Our celebrity chef demonstrated how to make Kruang Kaeng Daeng (Red Curry Paste to you and me) pounding the chiles and garlic, galangal and coriander roots, lemongrass stems, freshly roasted cumin and corander seeds, a pinch of salt, some shallots and a blot of odiferous shrimp paste into submission.

We were going to make that as one of the ingredients to combine with 10 other ingredients to make a sauce. For an appetiser.

As she was toasting the seeds the other lone student besides myself began to ask about cooking times and temperatures. She shook his head at him. "This Thai cooking is done with love," she said "with feel and instinct. When it is right, it is right, and everyone does it their own way."

He looked frustrated, and persisted.

"Ah" she said, "you are French, yes? French cooking is the hardest for me, because it is so exact. I want to cook for enjoyment, to relax, to not come in the kitchen and stress. Cook with love!"

I didn't know if I could cook Thai, but I was liking the concept more and more.

More than once she said, per the recipe when she deviated from the printed version "Oh, that is wrong, cross it out, or leave it on if you like that." She suggested substitutions, interpretations, shrugged her shoulders and told us repeatedly to relax and have fun.

Once we supposedly learned how to skewer chicken for Satays and how to assemble Naam-A-Jard, a cucumber salad with completely exotic Pandanus leaves, we donned our aprons and were led to the gleaming student kitchen.

Slowly, carefully, I was peeling garlic cloves , slicing my herbs to prepare them for the mortar and pestle when down the line came the sound chopchopchopchopchoppitychopscrape.

Oh hell. We all stopped and looked. Our lone Frenchman was also a professional French Chef.

Sigh. Annoying bastard.

I say that with envy, and ill-disguised envy at that.

However, we all managed to assemble our dishes, assisted in great part by the nicely prepared little bowls of ingredients carefully laid out for us in order and the hovering chefs making sure we didn't set ourselves on fire. When each dish was finished we stuck our number on it so that we would know who made what for when we got to actually eat our creations later.

Returning to the classroom we learned how to make elegant Kaeng Phed Ped Yang (Roast Duck Curry) which included fresh pineapple and grapes, of all things. Back to the kitchen to try it ourselves, notes scribbled all over the printed recipe sheets. I had a moment of pride when one of the chefs came over and approved of my red chilis.

"Ooh, you cut so nice!" She exclaimed, "most Europe cut in ugly flat, you make nice angles, very good!"

I no longer envied the French Chef. I had nice angled chilies. So there. I was cooking with love.

I even garlanded my curry with pretty purple basil sprigs and 4 specially reserved pieces of angled chili. My version of nyah nyah.

Shepherded back to the classroom under a different chef, a pudgy young man with a flair for the dramatic, to learn Laab Plaa Tod Apple Keaw (Spicy deep-fried Fish with green apple salad) and Koong Phad Naam Prik Phaow (Stir-fried Shrimps with Thai roast chili paste).

They had cooked up the fish for us, thankfully (I have a ridiculous nervousness concerning cooking fish correctly) and the shrimp-in-a-wok routine went well once we were sternly told not to have the blue flames up on high.

We returned once more to the classroom where we were awarded certificates of completion, told to enjoy our aprons, and presented a nice woven container of Blue Elephant products to use back home. Then, lunch!

There was no way we would have been able to eat everything we had cooked up that day, but it was a jolly group, comparing backgrounds, destinations and experiences, and enjoying ourselves thoroughly in that beautiful dining room.

Then they brought us homemade ice cream in berry and mango...

Good golly, I was as stuffed as any American on Thanksgiving...and it wasn't even dinnertime yet...


Cathy O. said...

Yum, yum, yum! So did you get printed recipes to share????

Natalie said...

Even better, here's a link to their website that has several recipes for you to try, and they have a branch here in Dubai, so I'm going to go pick up their cookbook...and maybe even take another class...or three...


and maybe, just maybe, I can be a Thai Goddess in the kitchen too!

Mom2ABJ said...

How fun! Indeed, all Thai veggies should be cut on a bias ... hilarious, but this has been ingrained since childhood!
In case you don't know, the supermarket at Lamcy Plaza has some of the more difficult to find ingredients ... maybe we should hook up there soon ;)

Julia said...

The bit about the French chef had me smiling since I watched "Julie and Julia" twice on the plane to and from seeing you. I think you'd appriciate that movie :)

I'm so glad our family isn't the only one that "cooks with love". No wonder I'm good at stir-fry!

Your Friendly Neighborhood Librarian said...

I just watched Julie and Julia last night.
Next thing you know, you'll be writing a cookbook.
Or have a movie made of this great blog!