During my research on group activities, I accidentally discovered a site called Cookly, which lists numerous cooking courses in Bangkok. Amongst the fancy professional and hotel cooking schools were several home-based classes that offered a great value and, I hoped, a setup one could better hope to recreate back in the States. Today we’ll have the opportunity to see for ourselves.
Friday, February 15, 2019
Our morning began with an easy 15-minute walk to the Hua Lamphong subway station. After a while, Chef Ghi appeared with two tuk tuks to take us on a wild ride to the Soi Prachum Market, a fresh market in the heart of the Bang Rak district. Once inside, Chef Ghi introduced us to a wide range of herbs and vegetables common in Thai cooking. We then followed the chef around the market and nearby alley as she chose shrimp, fresh fish, vegetables, soft palm sugar, and various other ingredients. We squeezed back into the tuk tuks and headed for Chef Ghi’s home nearby. Turns out we could have walked here easily from the hotel; too bad we didn’t figure that out in advance.
Chef Ghi’s RueanTon Thai Cooking School (Facebook, Cookly) includes a large patio with individual gas stoves, and a good-sized indoor room with a work area, dining table, and small kitchen. Her sister, who also has cooked professionally, quietly did prep work while we learned. We began by seating ourselves a bit awkwardly on straw mats on the floor, a traditional work area for Thai home cooking. As our hips and legs began to adjust, Chef Ghi walked us through the essential and optional ingredients of Tom Yum Kung, hot and sour soup with shrimp. We prepped enough herbs and vegetables for individual portions, with our choice of the number of chillies, and headed out to the stoves. Chef Ghi supervised our wok work, adjusting the flame and advising when to add the next ingredient. We used some coconut milk for a creamy texture, which is not traditional, but is in vogue in Thailand. It certainly makes for an attractive result.
After finishing our soups, we cleaned and shredded an unripe green mango to make a tart salad to top our fried fish. Throughout our time with her, Chef Ghi infused a sense of fun into the work. Also, she and her sister handled some of the messier prep work, like filleting and cubing the fish. The fish chunks, and the fish’s skeleton, were dredged in tempura flour before frying. (Is Tempura flour an authentic Thai ingredient if it made in Thailand and used in restaurants here?) The skeleton formed a base for the pieces of fried fish, which made for a nice presentation. However, it’s a step I probably would skip at home unless I had an assistant to do the frying for me.
After polishing off enormous portions of fish, our next challenge was Pad Thai. In Chef Ghi’s view, the sweet pickled radish (hua chai po wan หัวไชโป้วหวาน) used in Thailand is essential for crunch and authentic flavor. It can be a little difficult to find back home, but is available in Southeast Asian grocery stores, or probably by mail order. The finely minced radish joined shallots, tofu, and chicken with a little oil in the wok until the chicken was cooked through. In went noodles that had been soaked but not cooked, which helps them stay separate and a bit chewy — boiled noodles clump. Finally, the classic “Pad Thai sauce” made with thick sour tamarind paste, soft palm sugar, and fish sauce flavored the noodles. After adding crushed dried chillies to taste and allowing the noodles to soften, it was time to push the noodles aside and break an egg into the wok. Cooks differ on whether to coat the noodles with egg or make an omelet and then shred it. We aimed for something in between: recognizable lumps of scrambled egg that still were soft enough to adhere to the noodles. Finally, we went in with bean sprouts and garlic chives, which were only slightly wilted so we’d have some crunch. By the time I finished one and a half portions, I was feeling quite full.
While we ate, Chef Ghi laid out banana leaves in a steamer and covered them with pre-soaked sticky rice. Around 2:15, the sticky rice finished steaming, and we could mix it with sweet-salty coconut cream. While the rice rested and absorbed the sauce, we sliced into several incredibly ripe mangoes. Together, they made dessert plates as delicious as they were beautiful. After relaxing for a while, we said our goodbyes to Chef Ghi and her sister, and walked a few short blocks back to the Sheraton.
Actually, I was in a bit of rush to get back, since I had a deadline to pay the deposit for our Saturday tour. That accomplished, we had a couple hours before dinner, so I accompanied Geneva on a quest for some of the ingredients we used in our class. We headed down the main road, making a detour into a huge Post Office building for fancy stamps, and pausing to consider t-shirts and other souvenirs, before reaching the TOPS market in the basement of the Robinson department store. Here we found several useful ingredients, including the Chua Hah Seng brand of roasted chilli paste. But some items will have to wait: we need to get back to the hotel and change for dinner.
Tonight we are heading for Paste Bangkok, which has earned one Michelin star for its creative reinvention of Thai dishes. But of course, the first challenge is to actually get to the restaurant, and as usual, it took forever. Fortunately, they weren’t very busy so even though we were some 20 minutes late, we were able to claim a choice table from which to explore their eclectic menu.
After consuming a fruity welcome drink with a color-matched flower blossom in the glass, we tried a few signature cocktails. I ordered something with Tom Yum herbs that didn’t suit my tastes, but fortunately I was able to swap Geneva for her ginger margarita. It took us quite a while to review the large menu and puzzle out the likely flavors. In the end, we had a reasonably well balanced selection of dishes. After an amuse bouche, we received our appetizers. A slice of crisp, juicy rose apple was topped with a coconut shrimp, and a slice of sour green mango was topped with a ginger-chicken meatball rolled in coconut. Interesting. A crispy rice salad with sour sausage was re-imagined as crunchy fried half spheres of rice stuffed with sausage and seasoned with red curry. Solid. Our third appetizer was one I was enthusiastic about: steamed tapioca dumplings made by coating a filling in tapioca pearls and then steaming them on a banana leaf to create a translucent wrapper. Traditionally, this dish is made with pork, but Paste substitutes smoked trout, which turned out to be a tasty combination.
Our main courses covered a wide range of ingredients and preparations. Hearty slices of char-grilled pork paired with an eggplant relish, long-braised beef short rib, and a Northern style Hunglay curry with beef cheek represented the animal kingdom. The beef short rib was especially good. Chicken made its appearance in a fancified Khao Soi, a Northern curry noodle dish that was the closest match to its inspiration. And prawns featured in a pomelo salad (one of the less successful dishes). Both of our vegetable dishes featured wild mushrooms, one being a green curry and the other a delicious stir-fry with asparagus and garlic chips. We soaked up the sauces with our choice of white jasmine rice and trendy purple “riceberry” rice. Oh, and there were some desserts for those who saved room. Flavored white chocolate in one, and a mango sticky rice roll coated in “golden threads” (duck egg yolk drizzle cooked in sugar syrup) in the other.
After dinner, the restaurant staff helped us figure out the best place to direct our Grab van. Unsurprisingly, it was delayed by traffic. Eventually, we gave up on the van and took a couple of cabs back to the Sheraton. We began to wonder whether a foodie might be better off staying in the center of town. Oh well, maybe next time.
Tomorrow we return to the sightseeing trail, heading North to Ayutthaya, the previous capital of the Thai kingdom. How many ruined temples can we see before the heat of the day takes us out? Don’t forget your hats.