High on Thai

Get a taste of authentic Thai cuisine

The Thai are jovial people, but they take their food seriously. I spent four days eating my way through Trat Province, Thailand from Kao Lao (vegetables and pork soup) at rickety noodle shops, to the smelly but oh-so-tasty durian from fruit vendors on the streets, gorging on pomelo salad and washing down stir-fried morning glories with tender coconut.

In between meals, I spent hours swimming in the crystal blue waters of Ko Rang, writing a postcard from Koh Mak island, and playing a clumsy snorkel fish.

But, I got to experience the intricacies of Thai food at a cooking school in the lazy, beach town of Koh Chang. Our teacher and founder of Napalai Thai Cuisine Cooking School is a smiling, round-faced Napalai Buathong aka ‘Bunny’.

Cooking from the heart

The main rule of Thai cooking is “to cook with love,” she tells us, as we gather around a wooden table, meticulously filled with vibrant vegetables and herbs. The sight awakens the dormant Nigella Lawson in us.

The class begins with an introduction to ingredients. There’s garlic, a size larger than what’s available in India and ideally used whole with the skin. Then, the chillies — the tiny but fiery bird’s eye, the moderately hot green and when they turn red, they get hotter. So, the red is spicier than the green, I ask. “Of course, red is like us, women. Green is like a man. Red is sweet at first and sexy later. And if you dry them, it is even more intense in flavour. Fry them and they take on a smokier tone,” she explains.

Then, we turn our attention to oyster mushroom and shiitake mushroom, and something called elephant mushroom, a name earned from the shape of the ears.

Tomatoes, shallots, ginger, galangal, a woody root-like herb known to elevate every curry paste with a thick, pungent flavour, alongside turmeric. Lime is a different story here altogether, the Kaffir lime leaves leave a fragrant scent on my hands as I pass them around after taking a deep whiff.

A favourite among Thai ingredients is the basil — sweet basil, lemon basil and holy basil. “Crush it before you fry it, and it will release all its flavour,” Bunny suggests, adding, “coriander root has more flavour than the leaves. But the root can get bitter, so don’t use too much of it.” Lemongrass makes a flattering entry at the table.

We are all focused, as what we cook what will be our dinner. First up is a chicken in coconut milk soup (tom kha kai). We have readied our ingredients in four parts on a plate — flavour, spice, seasoning and garnish. At the individual stations, it feels like being on a food reality show. We put the coconut milk with kaffir lime leaves and lemongrass for boiling along with chicken stock. Bunny warns us against stirring too much. “It delays the boiling point, and the aromatic flavours that we want to retain in the soup are lost.” Why didn’t I think of this before? Logic, I say to myself.

We add in the chicken pieces, along with onions and mushroom, following up with sugar and fish sauce. Just a gentle squeeze of lemon and a garnish of coriander and we head to the dining table for our first course.

Marriage of spices

Next up is the green curry, but before we get to our stove, Bunny guides us to sit on a floor mat. “We are going to make our own paste, you see,” she grins, knowing the hard work that awaits us. In a mortar, she throws in some coriander seeds, black pepper, cumin seeds, and one of us starts pounding, passing the pestle to the next person as the muscles begin to ache. Laughter and bonding make the pain bearable. Bunny adds in the shrimp paste and commands some more pounding. The result is a fine paste, that we use to make a fresh green curry.

Over dinner, we learn about popular Thai dishes. Red curry originated in the south while the green is from the north. Southern food is spicier as it leans towards Malaysia, which is also why food is cooked in coconut milk, unlike the north, that consumes more rice.

We are craving dessert, so we must make it ourselves. We’re back to our stations boiling sticky rice in coconut milk and cream. Slicing mangoes and plating a sticky rice pudding with fresh mango. A meal well-earned, we leave the studio with selfies for social media and a promise to Bunny to recreate some of the dishes back home.

Tom kha kai

INGREDIENTS

  • Boneless chicken breast or tofu: 50 gm (sliced in 3-cm cubes)
  • Sliced lemongrass: 3 to 4  
  • Thinly sliced galangal (or ginger): 3 to 4
  • Kaffir lime leaves: 2 (torn into halves)
  • Fresh chillies: 1 to 3 (crushed)
  • Large onion: 30 gm (cut into quarters)
  • Mushrooms: 30 gm (sliced)
  • Coriander: ½ tbsp (finely chopped)
  • Sugar: 1½ tsps
  • Lemon juice: 1 to 1½ tbsps 
  • Fish sauce (or soy sauce): 1 tbsp
  • Coconut milk: ¼ cup
  • Water: ¼ cup

METHOD

  • Take coconut milk, water with chicken stock in a pot, add lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime leaves and chillies. Let it come to a boil.
  • Add the chicken, mushrooms, and onion and stir gently. Wait for a few minutes till everything is cooked.
  • Season with fish sauce, sugar, lemon juice. Turn off the heat.
  • Sprinkle coriander and serve.

 

Khao-niew-ma-muang

INGREDIENTS 

  • Sticky rice: 100 gm 
  • Coconut milk: ½ cup 
  • Coconut cream: 2 tsps 
  • Sugar: 2 tbsps 
  • Salt: ¼ tsp 
  • Fresh mango: 50 gm (sliced)

METHOD

  • Soak the sticky rice in water for 3-4 hours or overnight.
  • Drain the rice and put it in a sticky rice basket for cooking with boiling water. Steam for 30 minutes.
  •  Heat coconut milk, sugar, salt and stir well.
  • Add cooked sticky rice, mix together and leave for 10 minutes.
  • Stir one more time and serve on a plate with sliced mangoes.
  • Pour the coconut cream over the cooked sticky rice pudding. 

NOTE: Fresh milk and normal rice can be used as substitutes. And mango can be replaced with mango.

 

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