This article was published in Woman Today magazine.
Ginger, Basil and Chilies
Smells so good! I desperately resist the temptation to buy a bagful of these crunchy “doughnuts” in order to keep myself empty for a whole day of food indulging and gluttony. The morning rush hour in Bangkok is hectic; scores of office workers are on their way to work. They choose their breakfast and lunch from numerous food stalls around. I watch the well measured movements of a lady, who spreads the dough and cuts it quickly into tiny squares. Thrown in a large bucket of boiling oil, the small pieces magically expand to become light, crispy shells that sell for 2 baths each. A bit of icing sugar on the top and you cannot prevent the addiction.
I am in Bangkok to learn how to cook some of my favourite Thai dishes: Tom-Yum-Gung (hot and spicy soup with prawns), Pad Thai (the traditional Thai noodles) and Kang-Khiao-Wan-Gai (green curry with chicken). There is still half an hour before today’s session at the Silom Thai Cooking School. I am fascinated – the vendors on the street are cooking so quickly! Next to the “doughnuts”, a team of mother and son prepare three orders in just five minutes. The mother, a well-rounded woman, throws some ingredients into two hot woks, pours in different sauces with the vegetables, while the boy stirs occasionally and washes the used woks. The fires are blazing, the food sizzles and the appetizing aroma drifting over the street is almost overwhelming.
Our cooking instructor is Nusi and the students in his cooking school have gathered here from all over the world. Geoff is a tall young man from Canada; Ian – a pilot from Sydney; Huan is a shy computer programmer, born in Hong Kong and residing in New York. There are also three American women – a doctor, a lawyer and a social worker; two giggling girls, backpackers from England and one retired couple from Holland.
Nusi, a slender young man never stops smiling, despite the pressure of organising so many different people. He leads us to a small urban market and gives us baskets to carry the ingredients for today’s recipes. While shopping, he explains the numerous products and how to use them. The stalls are piled high with rice, sprouts, seeds of different spices, dry chillies, nuts, noodles and fresh coconuts, the white of which is ground in a large grinder for the coconut milk we’ll need.
At the vegetable section we are similarly impressed by the immense variety. Nusi tells us about the various chillies used widely in Thai cooking, about the mushrooms, the different types of green beans, garlic, lemon, cornflower, four sorts of eggplant… The green spices smell so fresh – three different mints, four sorts of basil, ginger roots, stems or leaves. Soon I am confused and a bit anxious at the thought of making a mistake when we start cooking.
I don’t have to worry – in the apartment where Nusi conducts the classes everything is well organised. We put on aprons and divide into groups to wash the vegetables and clean the prawns. I work with Ian who flies for Qantas and has a break between flights. After washing everything, we make the coconut milk. It’s really quite simple as the coconut is already ground. Using large stainless-steel bowls we mix the white matter from the coconuts with a little bit of water, mash it by hands and then filter it trough a wicker basket. In the next room, someone has prepared everything for our first dish of the day – Tom Yum Gung. After short instructions from Nusi, we start cutting the vegetables on round timber stumps with light, sharp cleavers, amazingly suited to the purpose. Hot chillies dominate this recipe.
Outside on the long terrace, gas stoves are lined up with woks, similar to the woks I saw in the morning. The large, round shape of this cooking vessel allows simultaneous heating of all ingredients. With high temperature everything cooks quickly, the meat remains juicy, the vegetables fresh and crispy – probably the main characteristics of Thai cuisine. Nusi rushes in front of us, instructing when and what to put in the woks. A few minutes later, he pours into each wok a little bit of the diluted coconut milk and Tom-Yum-Gung, the soup which many consider a national dish of Thailand, is ready. It’s finally time for eating. Back in the dining room everyone is impressed at how delicate the taste is!
Our next dish, Pad Thai, is more complex. We cut spring onions, small cubes of tofu and add some sprouts. In the hot woks outside we fry a bit of mashed garlic with shallots, thinly sliced chicken and tofu. The smell of frying garlic is irresistible. Then we add the noodles, one egg, mix in palm sugar, tamarind paste, fish sauce, a bit of preserved turnip and spring onions with the sprouts. We have to stir quickly; the immense heat would otherwise burn the noodles. Our Pad Thai is very tasty and we enjoy it with a glass of cold jasmine tea.
Next is the green curry with chicken (Kang-Khiao-Wan-Gai). Nusi tells us the secret of this dish – freshly prepared green curry paste. We start cutting dozens of green chillies (for the red curry you would need red chillies). We mix them with ten different spices of which I recognize only the garlic, black pepper and cumin. The mixture is then pounded by hand in a heavy marble mortar until it transforms into a fine pulp. The process is long and monotonous. In the next forty minutes we take turns with the pounding. Nusi explains that in a traditional Thai family the preparation of curry used to be an everyday activity. Without refrigeration the paste cannot survive longer than a few hours. Gladys, the American lawyer, complains that it is too difficult and asks why we don’t use a blender. Nusi smiles and says that yes, you could use a blender; you could even buy the paste ready-made from the supermarket. Then you wouldn’t have to go to a cooking school!
We sit in a circle; pound the paste and the casual chat drifts from Thai cooking to other topics. We learn that Geoff is a financial adviser and in Canada runs a small business, but now has taken a few years break to travel the world. The giggling English girls are also travellers. They have just come from India and are still shocked and excited by the experience. Huan is on his way back to the States after a successful contract with the Olympic Games. Joslin works for a humanitarian organization helping earthquake victims in China and for Ian, the cooking school is a way of relaxing before the next all-night flight.
The atmosphere is great; we joke and laugh a lot. The retired couple point out a pair of Dutch timber shoes and Nusi tells us about his relatives in Holland and how during his last visit there he came up with the idea for the cooking school. The English girls are exuberant. They ask Nusi why he doesn’t make a TV show similar to the popular shows in England, after all that’s where the big money is. Nusi smiles and simply says that money isn’t everything. He is happy with the small cooking school and doesn’t need any more pressure. It gives him what he loves most – interaction with people and cooking. The room becomes quiet; we can hear the ventilator humming softly in the corner and some faint, dreamy singing shimmering from a mosque far away.
Our lesson continues, we cook and then devour the dishes with a great appetite. For the green curry Nusi steams some rice in a clever cone-shaped basket inserted into a cooking pot. He is right – the freshly-prepared green curry is delicious. I wander if this is also due to the hard work we all put in and because we made it having so much fun and pleasure.
By now we are all full, but no one is willing to give up on dessert, Tub Tim Grob – water chestnuts or white turnip in coconut milk. In a wok of boiling water we put small coloured cubes of turnip coated with corn flower. When they emerge on top of the water Nusi scoops them up and cools them for a few minutes in icy water. Then the little red cubes are submerged in sweet syrup mixed with coconut milk. I am surprised how the humble turnip could be made into such a refreshing dessert.
Well, here is your happy, sincere and obliging narrator, Vesko Petrov:
The time flies quickly, it’s already 2 pm and everyone is a bit sad that our cession at the Silom Thai Cooking School is ending. Did I learn how to cook my favourite Thai dishes? I cannot claim such an achievement and in the future will probably leave it to the specialists at the local Thai restaurant. But today I made new friends and witnessed something wonderful – how different people from different parts of the world can easily overcome all cultural and social barriers and in a simple human activity can find a common language. Sometimes a delicious curry with a bit of steamed rice is enough.