Learning to cook Thai food in Bangkok

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 10, 2007

By Jocelyn Gecker

Associated Press

BANGKOK, Thailand — For cooks new to Thai cuisine, its distinctive blend of salty, spicy, sweet and sour can present a complex — even intimidating — challenge.

But it shouldn’t, Rungsan Mulijan told a classroom of foodies during a recent day of hard-core cooking in Bangkok. Thailand’s richly flavored dishes are easy to make — or at least not as difficult as you think, the Thai chef explained.

Even amateurs can experience the magic that comes with lifting the lid off a wok, taking a whiff and smelling the balance: ginger-scented coconut milk, garlic, chilies and a trace of fresh basil that, fused together, become a delicate, aromatic curry.

“I couldn’t believe that I actually cooked it!” said 73-year-old Canadian Norman Crossley, sharing the sentiment of a dozen students attending a class on classic Thai cuisine at Bangkok’s Blue Elephant cooking school.

The school is one of many that have sprouted across the country in response to the growing popularity of Thai food worldwide.

From Chiang Mai up north to the beaches down south, cooking courses are available for every budget. Backpacker districts offer classes for about $20, while top hotels offer a range of day courses and multi-class packages with luxury lodgings.

Non-cooks might not see the pleasures of standing behind a hot stove during a vacation to the tropics, but more and more food lovers are planning trips around cooking classes or enrolling for a break from the standard temple-hopping and bargain shopping.

“As soon as I knew we were coming to Thailand, I said I wanted to go to cooking school,” said Barbara Crossley, a former assistant instructor at Toronto’s Cordon Bleu school, who took the class at the Blue Elephant with her husband. They booked almost a year in advance, though last-minute reservations are usually fine.

Bangkok’s famed Oriental Hotel offers short and longer term classes in a lovely Thai-style dwelling along the breezy Chao Praya river. One day classes cost $120; a four-day package including five nights lodging and a one-hour massage starts at $1,800.

The Blue Elephant, one of Bangkok’s top restaurants, is located in a century-old home that once housed the country’s first department store, then served as a Japanese headquarters during World War II. Today, its teak-paneled rooms are filled with orchids and recall a more tranquil time before the invasion of skyscrapers and traffic. Day classes, held in a student kitchen on the restaurant’s third and top floor, cost $85.

The restaurant began offering classes in 2002 as more foreign chefs sought to incorporate Thai techniques and tastes into their own cooking. A five-day intensive course for visiting chefs costs $1,900.

A recent four-hour class began with a morning tour through the outdoor Bang Rak market, an excursion the instructor billed as a foray into “the real Thailand.”

The market has not been tidied up for foreigners. On a typically torrid Bangkok day, students shared the market’s walkways with stray cats and dodged splashing innards as fish mongers cleaned the morning’s catch.

The tour provided an entry to the world of spices, pastes and produce — the kaffir limes, galangal, lemon grass, tamarind, curry pastes, freshly grated coconut and chilies — that flavor Thailand’s delicate soups and stir-frys.

“Now I have a better understanding of all the ingredients,” said Californian Rhydonia Ring, who runs a private cooking school near San Francisco and spent a week in Bangkok attending Blue Elephant’s chef’s course. “You can read in cookbooks, but it’s not the same as watching someone cook and seeing their techniques.”

During the tour, Rungsan also suggested substitutes for ingredients that might be difficult to find back home. Cilantro root — which contributes a pungent lemon-peppery flavor — can be replaced by the stems from a bunch of fresh cilantro, minus the leaves, he explained. Galangal is in the same family as ginger. But if it can’t be found, skip it. Don’t substitute ginger, which is sharper and can overpower certain dishes.

Back in the classroom, Rungsan touched on the history of Thai food, with its influences from China, India and Europe, while leading students through four of Thai cuisine’s greatest hits: green curry with chicken, sour and spicy prawn soup (tom yam goong), phad thai (Thai-style stir-fried rice noodles) and green papaya salad (som tam).

Rungsan also offered shortcuts, especially for curry paste — the basis for Thailand’s green, red and yellow curries.

“I suggest you buy it, not make it,” he half-joked while using a stone mortar and pestle to pound out a paste of lemon grass, chilies, coriander root, kaffir lime zest, galangal, garlic, shallots and shrimp paste.

His grandmother advised that it takes 45 minutes of pounding to make the real thing, Rungsan said. But most Thais will tell you they stop at 20 minutes, and a few minutes in a food processor does just fine.

At the end of the class, students ate what they cooked. Filip Ernest, 33, from the Netherlands, who squeezed in two half-day classes during a business trip to Bangkok, said his new skills would be put to good use.

“I came here without my wife, and she’s upset she’s not with me. So this is payback,” he said. “She gets a month of Thai cooking.”

On the Net:

The Blue Elephant: www.blueelephant.com

Oriental Hotel: www.mandarinoriental.com/bangkok