When I mention to people that I’m traveling to Thailand with my Thai cooking teacher Kasma Loha-Unchit, they often think I am coming here to learn how to cook Thai food. I always feel a bit sheepish explaining that I take my Thai cooking lessons right at home, in Oakland, California (The Art of Thai Cooking), and I come to Thailand to eat as much properly cooked Thai food as humanly possible. Not out of mere gluttony — also to refresh my taste memory of the heights to which my cooking aspires. Today I will finally take a cooking class on this side of the Pacific and learn some variations from the techniques I’ve been taught in the past. But first, how about some pork noodle soup for breakfast?
Thursday, January 19, 2017
I was planning to drop off some laundry around the corner so I scrutinized each storefront along the way as a potential candidate for a breakfast stop. A shop with the classic Cantonese window décor of BBQ pork, crispy pork, and roasted duck drew my attention. The claim of “Home-Made Noodles Since 1956” added credibility, and the prices seemed in line with others I have tried. I pointed at the colorful menu chart on the “kitchen” at the entrance and took my seat. (I later learned the English name of the restaurant is Khon Sae Lee Noodles, and it seems to be a local chain.)
I was a little surprised that my request to make my soup “tom yum” had been ignored. Fortunately a large set of condiments on the table allowed me to spice it up, and the meat was tasty. The noodles, much thinner than standard packaged fare, had a decent bite, but I was a little underwhelmed. To turn this meal into a success, it needed a little something. Or in this case, fourteen little somethings. Around the corner, I found a cart making kanom krok, decadent half-spheres of coconut cream and rice flour just barely set into a rich, jiggly treat with crispy edges. I got through twelve of them before I had to depart for my class.
Before the election, I would watch comedians’ amusing political commentary on the YouTube app, late into the night, stopping only when my exhausted hand dropped my phone onto my sleeping face. But when their bemusement turned to alarm and outrage, I had to switch to videos on more benign subjects, such as cooking. Through YouTube’s recommendation engine, one Thai cooking video after another eventually led to a story on a charity named Courageous Kitchen (website, Facebook, Twitter). The organization works with the children of families living in Bangkok as refugees, teaching them leadership skills (and probably various other life lessons) through cooking. As one way to raise funds, they just starting offering cooking classes for tourists, and one of them happened to fit my schedule. I’m excited to have my first opportunity to cook Thai food in Thailand.
Now, cooking videos do not fool me. Most are very unrealistic, in that someone has shopped for, cleaned, and often chopped all the ingredients in advance. When the presenter says “so easy” and “so quick” I think of all the evenings I’ve spent driving around Silicon Valley to Asian and Western supermarkets to source lemongrass, galanga, Thai basil, young coconuts, curry pastes, spices, dried shrimp, pickled radish, and so on and so forth. Would a Thai fresh market be much more convenient?
I met Dwight Turner, the founder of Courageous Kitchen, around 10:00 outside a BTS Skytrain station. Together with Panisha we drove to a surprisingly quiet local market nearby. Our first purchase was coconut milk pressed from freshly grated coconut. It’s a decadent treat, much better than packaged coconut milk but actually isn’t part of my menu for today (too bad!). Nor were beautiful long leaves of just-picked pandanus (a palm-like tree whose leaves are used for their scent and color), or huge passionfruit just delivered from Northern Thailand. Most of what we would need for my class was purchased earlier, but I would see the tender wide-cut rice noodles and roasted chilli paste again soon. We also picked up a clay mortar for more gently pounding the ingredients for som tam (for example, a green papaya salad).
Since we were spending about half a day, no complex handmade curry pastes were on the menu. We would make Tom Yum Kung (spicy hot and sour soup with shrimp), Som Tam Ponlamai (spicy pounded mixed fruit salad), Pad Krapow Moo (stir-fried pork with holy basil, accompanied by a fried egg), and Pad See Ew Kai (stir-fried wide rice noodles with soy sauce and chicken). As I type this, I once again feel very full, a not unfamiliar feeling after a Thai cooking class!
The teaching model used by Courageous Kitchen, and by most other courses I’ve read about, is very different from Kasma’s. Kasma would present a group of about a dozen students a set of six or seven recipes and walk us through their preparation, introducing any unfamiliar ingredients, providing pointers and identifying potential pitfalls. She also would help us build a mental model of the taste we were ideally aiming for. We then divided into teams, taking one or sometimes two recipes per team. Except for dishes designated as snacks to be consumed while other dishes cooked, there was a complex choreography to have everything ready for a huge feast at the end of the class. We washed our knives, bowls, and cutting boards as we went, and if a question ever arose that the team couldn’t resolve, we would seek out Kasma’s assistance. She also would demonstrate certain critical things that could be difficult to understand from mere description, such as how to judge whether oil was the right temperature for frying a certain ingredient. There often was time to chit-chat with students on other teams, photograph their progress, and taste their food as they went. You might not learn more than one single dish per class in full detail, but you were well equipped to teach yourself the other recipes at a later date.
Most other schools have each student cook each recipe, one at a time. It seems a bit artificial to cook such small portions because Thai food generally is consumed family style, and many menus aren’t easily completed by one (inexperienced) person in a few hours, but this approach has the advantage of providing close knowledge of a full set of recipes. It also requires the school to do more of the prep work, so the student can start a little further along in the recipe. Still, we would need many hours to cook everything.
Courageous Kitchen held my class at a house on a quiet street with a shaded area in front big enough for two tables. Each was equipped with a shiny butane stove on which we would cook our hot dishes. (Hot in all senses of the word.) The other side of the courtyard held a wok stand connected to a large tank of gas for demonstrations and when we needed an extra burner. I’ve done my own “flame thrower” cooking and prefer the less dangerous stoves any day.
Soup. The “base” of our hot and sour soup was water, in which we boiled the classic Thai aromatics: galanga, lemongrass and kaffir life leaves. I was accustomed to boiling these for an extended period of time and then removing them because Americans aren’t interested in having numerous inedible items in their soup. Here we assumed a savvy diner and left everything in, as would be customary in Thai home cooking, and as a result, the initial boiling time seemed like only moments to me. We added hand-torn oyster mushrooms and quartered straw mushrooms — infinitely better in fresh form than from a can back home — some bruised chillies (leaking seeds, so it would be hot), and about an 1/8 of an onion. Finally, the shrimp were added and the heat turned off.
Now, at this stage, the soup smells terrific but tastes like spicy water because we haven’t even added salt yet. My teacher, Panisha, does all of her seasoning at this stage, including fish sauce, lime juice, palm sugar (very subtle and delicately textured sugar from the local market) and roasted chilli paste. This is quite a departure from Kasma’s approach, where the shrimp go in last, after the soup is already seasoned to perfection. When I compared Panisha’s soup with mine, her broth had much greater “body” and complexity due, I believe, to the more generous use of roasted chilli paste. Hmm… maybe using an ingredient out of a jar is cheating, but it’s a great shortcut.
After eating our soup, I sat uncomfortably stiff-limbed on a mat before our clay morter for the next dish. Christy Innouvong, Program Director for Courageous Kitchen, introduced me to Alina, who would be teaching me the rest of the dishes, with Christy’s input. Alina is herself a refugee, so I had the opportunity to meet at least one person whom my contribution is helping.
Som Tam. Thai Green Papaya Salad (som tam Thai) is a world-famous dish of long strands of lightly pounded unripe papaya in a spicy, sour, garlicky dressing. But the pounded preparation can be applied to other ingredients and today we were substituting unripe mango (green mango) and green apple for green papaya. Christy made another variation: shredded carrot and red cabbage.
It’s certainly simplest to use a shredder, mandolin, or other tool to create your fruit strips, but we tried out a traditional method: you hold the mango with the flat side toward you, and embed the blade of the knife lengthwise in the mango with a single flick. Repeat a couple dozen times, then make long, thin slices parallel to the seed to shave off julienne cuts of your fruit. Or in my case, strips of random shapes and sizes. You can compare the photos to see the embarrassing difference. The apple was much more difficult due to its round shape and tough skin off which the knife occasionally glanced. This technique, while potentially very quick, is not ideal for nervous amateurs. I’m just happy I didn’t get any of my fingers or wrist in the salad.
Basil Pork. A staple of every roadside restaurant, the complication in this recipe turns out to be the balance of seasoning. The garlic and chillies were tossed whole into the mortar and pounded to a rough chop. We combined soy sauce, a dark soy sauce with a strong molasses flavor, and oyster sauce in advance. After frying the pork until it lost its pink color and adding the sauce, we folded in holy basil leaves grown right at the house. It smelled heavenly. Unfortunately, I repeated a rookie mistake in judging the salt level: you really need to taste a full bite to avoid over-salting. Whoops, I’ll have to compensate with the egg and extra rice.
Speaking of the egg, it turns out to be quite tricky to scoop oil from a hot pan and pour it over the stop of an egg without moving the egg around or tilting the pan so much that the egg comes off the heat. But the effect is dramatic, as the hot oil quickly cooks the whites on top while allowing the yolk to remain soft. Magic.
Pad See Ew. Thais have several variations on Chinese “chow fun” dishes, including this dry style and one with gravy (often written lard nar). While the main source of salt is soy sauce and black soy sauce, some chilli-infused fish sauce often is added at the table to give it a more Thai touch. Nearly everything had been prepared in advance, we just blanched some Chinese kale (gai lan) and tried to pre-separate the noodles.
Of course, those noodles turned out to be the biggest challenge. Christy explained that the school cooks with the minimum possible amount of oil, so the typical trick of adding more oil to reduce sticking was not an option. Also, the woks were quite new and hadn’t yet had the seasoning that would quickly “release” the noodles. So we set to work scraping up the crusty bits as we worked the noodles around to absorb all the seasoning. I can’t say I would ever make it this way myself, but this “extra crispy” version is a local favorite.
Once I was too full to move, we sat around and discussed the school’s program, how Dwight had made his way to Thailand from Atlanta, and Christy’s connections in California. It’s fun to reflect on our remarkable ability to move between societies and cultures if we put our minds to it. Not that I’m planning anything drastic; I’m coming home next month, really.
On the way back to the train station, we stopped for a dessert of fried bread with a pandanus flavored/scented coconut dipping sauce. I was barely able to make room for a couple of pieces. The ride back was smooth and I look forward to hearing how students fare in future classes.
A Final Afternoon of Relaxation?
After cooling down, rehydrating, and catching up on photos, I headed out for my first massage of the trip. I think it’s useful to start with a one hour foot massage so that when I get a two hour Thai massage, my body has a head start. Or something like that. When I arrived at Hatthai Massage around 6:30, it seemed abandoned: I was the only customer in the main room, and saw no customers come in or out for the next hour. Admittedly, I had my eyes closed most of the time, most of my facial expressions being limited to forced smiles, grimaces, and the occasional grunt. If this was only a head start, the rest of the course looks to be rough.
Back at the condo, I decided to take a short nap before dinner. Each time I awoke, I couldn’t muster the energy to even put on my glasses. It wasn’t until 11:30 that I was actually hungry again, so I headed back to Bamee Soi 38 for — what else — pork noodle soup. I think they might have recognized me. This time, I got the egg noodles with sliced pork and wontons in tom yum broth. Excellent.
Tomorrow I meet up with the group. I think I’m almost over my jet lag, but running behind on my shopping and some work items. I’ll need maximum efficiency to squeeze everything in before going “off the grid” early next week.