I was lucky enough to have a work trip for a workshop in Bangkok in the middle of December, right before the holidays. Beyond my joy at fleeing Paris in the thick of the coldest winter I have experienced since moving here, I was totally pumped to discover Thailand and particularly its wonderful cuisine, which I have been a fan of for years. Luis joined me, and after Bangkok we spent a week in the beautiful Southern resort island of Phuket, visiting friends who moved there from France not so long ago. We soaked in lots of sea and sun (and not to mention wonderful Thai massages!), but the highlight for me was taking a Thai cooking class with Pat Tienthong at her home cooking school.
A native of Bangkok, Pat spent eight years working as a chef in California. Upon returning to Thailand, she moved to Phuket and started organizing Thai cooking classes at her home near Phuket Town in 1996. Pat is charming, articulate, speaks excellent English and explains Thai ingredients and cooking techniques to "Western" students in a clear and easily accessible way.
When we arrived at her house (which was no easy feat considering we turned down her offer of a taxi and decided to get there ourselves on our rented scooter!), we were greeted with cool glasses of iced lemongrass tea and met our fellow students (an American couple living on a boat in Vietnam, an American-Mexican couple living in Qatar, two Australian girls and a Swedish guy). Pat informed us that we would be making five classic Thai dishes, namely:
Por piah thod (spring rolls)
Tom yum goong (hot and sour shrimp soup...without the shrimp for me)
Som tum (green papaya salad)
Kaeng khiao wom khai (chicken green curry...vegetable green curry for me)
Klay bood shee (bananas in coconut milk)
With two students at each cooking station, we got started by making the coconut milk that would be used as the base for the green curry. Pat and her assistants had placed bowls of freshly shredded coconut in water for us. Our task was simply to squeeze, squeeze and squeeze to make the milk. If we lived in Thailand or some other place where luscious fresh coconuts are readily available everywhere, I would love to make my coconut milk. In waiting, I will stick to the canned variety!
This done, we moved on to the por piah thod (spring rolls). Garlic was crushed with a mortar and pestle, then mixed with chopped carrot and cabbage (as well as shredded chicken in the case of the other students), vermicelli noodles (first hydrated in water) and an egg (to hold the filling together). The mixture was then seasoned with nam pla (fish sauce, the ubiquitous seasoning in Thai cuisine), palm sugar and freshly ground black pepper. Next, we piled the filling onto spring roll wrappers, rolled one by one and fried in oil. I've made spring rolls before, but never in the proper way. Now thanks to Pat, I know how!
Here's the result...they were absolutely delicious!!!
On to the soup! Tom yum goong (hot and sour soup) has long been a favorite of mine. I love the tartness from the lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves and of course the heat from those tiny Thai red chillies known as prik kee noo. We smashed stalks of lemongrass, crushed garlic cloves, chopped shallots and tore kaffir lime leaves, then boiled this mixture with water. Once the water boiled, we added chopped tomatoes and mushrooms, seasoned with nam pla and palm sugar and let the mixture simmer. In our serving bowls, we placed fresh lime juice and crushed red chillies. Pat asked each twosome how hot they wanted their soup to be on a 1-4 chili scale. The brave and spice-loving souls that we are, Luis and I went for the maximum, 4 chillies!
Next the salad...green papaya salad (som tum or som tam). Could there be a more perfect dish? Luis and I had been having it at every meal in both Bangkok and Phuket and just couldn't get enough! It's the perfect example of the Thai vision of combining the different flavors - salty, sweet, sour, bitter and hot - into one dish. Made by shredding papaya, green mango and carrot and combining with green beans, tomatoes, crushed roasted peanuts, fresh lime juice, palm sugar, green chili and nam pla, it is just so delicious! Dried shrimp is often added as well, but not for us. In some parts of Thailand, it is eaten with glutinous or sticky rice to soak up all of the wonderful sauce.
Moving onto the plat de resistance, the kaeng khiao wom khai (green curry), Pat explained to us that most Thai home cooks do not make their own curry pastes but rather buy them from the supermarket (she recommended Mae Pranom or Mae Ploy brands) or market (as she does for her class). This was a bit of a surprise for some of us, but understandable given the excellent curry pastes that can be bought in Thailand. Luckily, Pat also gave us recipes for the most common curry pastes (yellow, red, green and massman) in case we want to try to make our own (you can bet that I do!).
Any variety of vegetables can be used in a Thai curry, but the typical ones in a green curry include a combination of the three different eggplants (aubergines) that are commonly available in Thailand. These are long eggplants, apple or Thai eggplants (the round green ones) and pea eggplants. So contrary to what I'd always thought, those little green pea looking vegetables are not peas at all but rather eggplants!
The curry paste is sauteed in oil with a little bit of the cream skimmed off of the coconut milk, after which kaffir lime leaves are added. Into the pot then goes coconut milk, the eggplants, sweet basil leaves, nam pla and red chillies. Everything is brought to a boil, then covered and simmered on lower heat.
As we snacked on our spring rolls, Pat prepared the dessert, klay bood shee (bananas in coconut milk). Essentially just bananas boiled in coconut milk with sugar and a bit of salt, this is a super easy dessert to make. It can also be done with pumpkin, sweet potato or taro.
With all of our dishes prepared, it was time for the best part of the class.....eating all of the food that we had made! Pat and her assistants set a beautiful table for us, and quite honestly and objectively, the food was amazing! The spring rolls were crispy and delicious, the tom yum goong pungent and spicy (actually ours - with the 4 chillies - was a little too spicy...we'll tone down the chillies next time!), the som tum fresh and zesty, the green curry quite possibly the best that I've ever eaten and the bananas in coconut milk perfect as a sweet and light ending.
Pat sent us home with full bellies and printed copies of all the recipes that we made in the class (which we can't wait to try now that we're back in Paris!) along with individual certificates recognizing our participation. If ever you happen to be in Phuket and want to learn more about Thai cooking, I highly recommend taking her class! It is both informative and fun...an experience you won't forget! Beyond this standard class, Pat also offers private classes, fruit and vegetable carving classes (I'd love to try that!) and bed and breakfast accomodation in her mountain bungalow. Check out her website or e-mail her for more information!