When in Thailand…learn to cook Thai food!
And if you’re going to learn to cook in Thailand, do it at Baipai Thai Cooking School, like I did.
Baipai Thai Cooking School is an oasis of serenity in the middle of boisterous, bustling Bangkok.
Just see for yourself…
My class consisted of three couples – a young American couple living in Bangkok, a Korean couple, a British guy and Belgian girl who were dating – and me.
Before we started to cook, our instructor took us through the garden to collect our ingredients.
[Read along for a little “Thai food primer,” as I share with you what I learned, and cooked, in the class.]
Thai basil – Different from Italian basil in that it is more peppery and has a flavor similar to anise.
Red chili pepper, aka Bird’s Eye chili – Small, but it packs a punch…much hotter than jalapenõs. This spicy little gem is the foundation for red curry paste, a staple ingredient in Thai curry.
Lemongrass – The plant consists of long grassy leaves and a bulb. The grass blade can be sliced very fine and added to soups and sauces. The bulb can be bruised and minced for use in a variety of recipes, like we would be doing for our red curry paste.
Kaffir lime – This bumpy little citrus fruit is another must-have for a Thai recipe. Finely chopped rind goes into the aforementioned red curry paste, and the leaves are used to flavor soups and sauces.
Coconut – If you’re going to make Thai curry, you’ve got to have coconut milk.
FYI, the milk isn’t the juice that is inside the coconut, but is squeezed out of the white flesh.
Let the show begin.
Hack, crack, drain, split open, and grate.
You can use a hand grater to grate the coconut flesh, or do it the fun way, sitting on a wooden rabbit.
Finally, you squeeze the creamy milk from the flesh through a piece of cheesecloth.
In the fabulous Baipai Thai kitchen, workstations had been efficiently set up, one for each couple, and one for me.
This was my kind of school: Meticulously organized and perfectly structured…right down to the recipe cards tucked into a folder that doubled as a stand.
Ah, form and function.
Above the large island was a mirror, so we could see what our instructor was doing as she taught us how to cook the dishes.
The requisite cooking implements for each recipe included a mortar and pestle and a wok.
Our first task was to make Chicken in Pandandus Leaves.
We made the marinade for our chicken by pounding garlic, coriander root, black pepper seeds, and lemongrass together and then combining the mixture with soy sauce, oyster sauce, sesame oil, sugar, and white sesame seeds.
Then came the tricky, and might I say, fancy, part.
We learned to wrap each bite-sized piece of chicken thigh with a pandanus leaf.
Pandanus tree – also called a screw pine because of the spiral arrangement of its leaves – looks like a short, squat version of a palm tree.
Once the chicken was carefully wrapped up, we placed the pandanus packets in a wok of hot oil.
It only took a few minutes for them to cook, and then we drained the oil and cut off the long ends of the leaves.
No, you don’t eat the leaves…you spear the little nuggets of chicken with a fork and pull them out of their little pandanus wraps to dip in a sauce of soy sauce and sesame seeds.
To serve with the chicken, we learned to make the classic Thai papaya salad.
We pounded garlic, chilies, roasted peanuts, string beans, and cherry tomatoes together in the mortar, and then mixed it with lime juice, fish sauce, tamarind paste, palm sugar, and dried shrimp.
Fish sauce – liquid seasoning made of fermented anchovies, used in pretty much every Thai recipe.
Tamarind paste – sweet, sour, and fruity paste made from the sticky pulp inside a brown pod grown on tamarind trees.
After the above ingredients were ground together, we mixed in shredded green papaya and added a few more string beans.
A little sweet, a little sour, a little spicy…those ubiquitous Thai flavors that have a party in your mouth.
We ate the fruits of our labor as an appetizer, and then got busy with the next course, Gang Dang Moo Nor Mai, Red Curry with Pork and Bamboo.
First we had to make the Red Curry Paste. This is where the chilies come in.
Three of our ingredients – red chilies, lemongrass leaf, and shrimp paste – had been set out on a plate for us.
Into the mortar went large and small dried red chilies with some salt.
After we crushed the chilies with the pestle, we added lemongrass, kaffir lime rind, and galangal.
Pound, part two.
Galangal – a root that looks and tastes a lot like ginger.
Then we added chopped garlic, shallot and coriander root.
Pound, part three.
Finally, we added coriander and cumin powder, pepper seeds, and shrimp paste, and we pounded everything into a glorious paste.
Red curry paste, that is.
Now that we had our red curry paste, we could get going on our pork curry dish.
Back at the wok, we brought come coconut milk to a boil, until the cream rose to the top.
That was our cue to add a tablespoon of the red curry paste, stir it in, and then throw in a kaffir lime leaf and the pork.
When the pork was almost, but not quite, cooked (a couple of minutes), we added boiled bamboo shoots, fish sauce, and palm sugar, and brought the mixture to a boil again.
Lastly, we added some sliced red chili and fresh basil leaves.
The curry dish was ready to be heaped onto some jasmine rice.
Oh the aroma! A little sweet, a little spicy.
My mouth was watering.
We were led upstairs to a large open dining room, where we all sat down to eat. I bet you’d really like to see a picture of that, wouldn’t you?
Well, the food was so delicious and I was so in the moment, that I didn’t take a single photograph. It doesn’t happen very often, but it’s probably a good thing when it does.
Baipai Thai Cooking School had already gained a spot on my list of top ten travel experiences, but as I wandered around before I left, I noticed one more thing that truly solidified its position…