Small heaps of lemongrass, pieces of turmeric ginger and loving quantities of freshly-made coconut milk mark a colorful start to my Thai cooking lesson, in one of Bangkok’s popular culinary schools. On the menu, is Tom yum soup, Pad Thai, green curry and sticky Mango rice.
Tucked away in Silom’s snaky by-lanes, is the unexpectedly cozy and friendly ‘Thai Cooking School’, where the air is spiced with the aroma of herbs and the clanging of dishes in the kitchen evokes a sense of organized chaos. Within the confines of the ‘prep room’, we chop, grate and pound, fully realizing the magnitude of muscle strength required to prepare a four-course Thai meal from scratch.
“Hold the chopping knife at a 90 degree angle in front of you and with your other hand, squeeze one half of the lime on the knife… like a kiss.” Nusi, our chef du jour instructed us. Thankfully, this is no Hell’s Kitchen. Our motley crew of 11 wide-eyed, Instagram-ready women and one reluctant husband wouldn’t have survived the class if Nusi was anything like the fire-breathing Gordon. He had his own ways to whip us in shape, though.
“This is not a photography class! Put those phones away and chop the tofu into 9 pieces – the tomatoes into 4.” He commanded.
Feeling wildly rebellious, I chop 10 pieces of tofu instead.
As the sticky rice sits cooling in the conical bamboo strainer, we get ready to summon our first course- the signature Tom Yum soup. The fiery red chilies and the naturally sweet coconut milk lend their sweet and sour essence to the broth, while inch-long segments of lemongrass, a generous dollop of Thai fish sauce and freshly squeezed lime juice, give it a delicate flavor. Everything goes in the wok at once and stirred with water – It’s as simple as that. After a bout of stirring, the soup is ready in less than 7 minutes.
Once the pictures are taken and the soup hurriedly finished, it’s time for another chopping session – this time, for the Pad Thai with shrimp and egg. The key ingredient here is the tamarind paste which can be made from scratch or bought at a supermarket. Bean sprouts are neatly heaped on the side along with a small portion of roasted, unsalted peanuts, brown sugar, palm sugar and shallots.
Nusi adds, as he inspects our stoves, “Thai cooking is about precision at the chopping table. A small change can make a huge difference to the taste, so be very careful while measuring the quantities.”
As it turned out, my mutinous streak was out of control as I had dunked too much of the palm sugar in my Pad Thai, making it all too sweet. Well, atleast I learnt that living on the edge and not following rules does have its pitfalls – sometimes you go to jail; sometimes your main course tastes like dessert.
Up next was the toughest part of the Thai meal- the pounding of pungent green chilies and spices with a traditional 5 kg stone, for the paste. Just as we begin to wonder if this is one Nusi’s evil machinations, he explains, “There’s no point in buying the ready-made green curry paste off the market. Even a high-tech food processor can’t give you the consistency and flavor that this ancient technique is capable of. This paste is the key essence of the curry and the fresher it is, the more flavors your curry will have. So continue please, pound away!”
Needless to say, our labor of love was greatly appreciated as the thick, rich Thai green curry melted into our mouths in a delicious explosion of flavors.
Finally, it was time to uncover the sticky rice, cut open some of those famous Thai mangoes. Stirred and sweetened with coconut milk, the rice had been standing for 30 minutes, as it absorbed the sweetness of the milk. Coupled with the delicious Thai mango on the side, this served as the perfect end to an otherwise bittersweet, but fruitful attempt at Thai cooking.