Tuesday, June 19, 2007

My Compliments to the Chef

I worked late every Thursday night at my last job, and was famous for ordering Thai. I called it Thai Food Thursdays. It became a sort of running joke that when Matt was working late, there would be a Thai delivery. Do I have to spell it out? I love Thai food.

I arrived in Thailand geared up to eat authentic Thai cuisine. I’ve been disappointed by the selection so far. I blame it on the tourist ghettos, where cooks dial down the spice to bland and then take it a few steps further. Perhaps I could learn to cook Thai food and set my own spice levels.

I emailed a cooking school when I was in Ko Lanta, but it was closed for the season. When I spied a brochure for a cooking school in Ao Nang, I jumped. Here was a chance for me to learn a few tricks.

I enjoy cooking. I believe that if you can read and follow directions, you can cook. There are variables to cooking well, of course, but the basics are quite easy. Follow the steps, don’t let anything burn and adjust for taste. Easy peasy.

Nevertheless, I haven’t cooked anything more complicated than pasta and steamed vegetables in the last five months. Could I handle five courses of Thai food?

I took at long boat from the beach at Railay to the town of Ao Nang and was greeted by a silent man with a sign reading “Smart Cook.” He chauffeured me for fifteen minutes through town, past more travel agencies and resorts than one place should be able to support, to a nondescript house on a quiet residential street. I was beginning to doubt my decision to enroll in a cooking class, but was greeted with a big smile by a young woman named Mark (confusing, I know). This is the low season in southern Thailand (i.e., the rainy season) and I was the only student. Private cooking lessons? Okay by me.

Mark Believes in Fresh Ingredients

Mark handed me a recipe book and we quickly got down to business. She told me we’d be cooking six dishes, each one a staple of Thai cuisine. I had been given the choice of four different menus when I signed up for the class, so I was familiar with the day's program. On the menu were some of my favorites – pat thai, tom yam soup, papaya salad, green curry – and some dishes I was vaguely familiar with – chicken with cashews and banana in coconut milk.

I donned an apron and we got to work. Mark introduced the basic ingredients of Thai cuisine – garlic, lemongrass, onions, galangal (a relative of ginger), chilies – and walked me through the first two dishes, Tom Yam Kung (hot and sour soup with prawns) and Pat Thai (fried noodles). She also told me that if I wanted more meat in any dish, chopping off a finger was not the way to go. It was barely past 9 a.m. and I was getting hungry thinking about the end product.

Tom Yam Kung and Pat Thai require little more than the blending and simple heating of very basic, fresh ingredients. The Tom Yam (my Tom Yam!) was perfect, the galangal, lemongrass and kaffir lime leaves supplying the distinct flavors of Thailand. The whole dish took no more than 10 minutes to prepare. The Pat Thai, I’m sorry to say, was not the best I’ve ever had (the noodles clumped together, it was too dry), but I got the gist of it and will do better the second time around.

Tom Yam Kung

Pat Thai

The next challenge was a curry paste. Somewhere in my past there was an episode in which I tried to make Indian curry from scratch. I recall being overwhelmed by the number of ingredients, the blending of the spices and a complicated round robin of heating, mixing and reheating. I’ve always assumed Thai curries would also be beyond my abilities as a cook. Perhaps I’d fooled myself into believing a delicious cuisine like Thai would have to be complicated. Of everything I learned at Smart Cook, the most important was that Thai food is not complicated. Even curry paste.

Once again, it came down to a few fresh ingredients. We were going to make green curry, but I told Mark about my passion for Penang curry and she offered to show me how to make that instead. It only required that we change a few ingredients – for example, dried chilies instead of fresh. She set me to smashing the ingredients in a stone mortar, telling me how old Thai women have very strong arms from a lifetime of mixing their own curry paste. Then she let on that most people use a blender these days. I was happy to be traditional about the whole thing and worked up a sweat smashing the chilies.

Smashing Chilies for Curry Paste

Ten Minutes Later... Curry Paste

We set the paste to one side and moved to the next dish, Som Tam (papaya salad). I love papaya salad, a spicy mix of unripe papaya, chilies and lime, but the unripe papaya has always been a mystery to me. I asked Mark about it and she led me into the backyard and pointed at a tree with a bunch of cucumber-looking bulbs growing like bananas. Mystery solved. She also pointed out long beans growing in the front yard. Fresh ingredients were sprouting in every corner of the yard. What had at first been a nondescript house was shaping up to be a self-contained center for Thai cookery.

There’s no bite to a dish without that one magic ingredient: the chili. Mark told me green chilies are the hottest, then red, and that the younger and smaller the chili the hotter it is. She also listened to me gripe about the lack of heat in the food I’d eaten lately and told me I could request a dish at a restaurant with a specific number of chilies. She then asked me how many chilies I wanted in my papaya salad. I chose two small green, one red and one that was half and half.

My Som Tam was spicy! My mouth was scalded, my nose running, sweat trickling off my brow. I say this with full awareness of the boasting I’ve done in the past about my tolerance for spicy food. With humble heart I admit I have a three-chili limit when it comes to Som Tam. Nevertheless, I ate most of the dish and savored every bite.

Papaya Salad

Halfway through the menu, I was starting to feel full. I’ve been eating well these past few months, but I’ve also been eating with moderation. The gargantuan portions of American eateries don’t exist in this part of the world. I eat a plate of food and feel fed, not stuffed. Three dishes before 10 a.m. is unheard of for me. I think Mark sensed this because she sat down with me and we talked for the next 20 minutes. We covered the role of food in Thai culture, the superiority of a thin over a thick crust in a pizza, and the ubiquity of processed foods in western diets.

Penang Curry and Kai Pat Med Ma Maung (fried cashew nuts with chicken) may sound like difficult dishes to prepare, but they were both, again, a matter of blending fresh ingredients and cooking them for a few short minutes in a hot wok. Mark was there to regulate the heat and keep me on track. I think the regulation of the heat and the timing of the mixing will be most difficult when I set out on my own. She put both dishes to the side and in we took the next few minutes to prepare dessert, bananas in coconut milk.

Penang Curry

Fried Cashew Nuts With Chicken

Bananas in Coconut Milk

I sat down and ate every delicious bite. When the food’s this good, there’s no such thing as full.

Not too shabby for my first attempt as a Thai chef. I was astonished that such simple dishes could yield such distinct and strong flavors. As far as I can tell, the secret seems to be fresh, local ingredients. Ginger is just not the same as galanga. Lime juice cannot be substituted for kaffir lime leaves. Dried chilies don’t yield the same heat as fresh chilies.

With the popularity of Thai food in America, I’m sure I can get what I need, at least in New York or Los Angeles. So here’s an offer: I’m cooking Thai food for anyone who wants it when I return home. Just drop by any Thursday night.

My Compliments to the Chef

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Blogger Dan said...

Love it! The dishes look great (he writes, sitting and eating an uninspiring salad at his desk).

3:38 AM  
Blogger Sandy J said...

you should be a food photographer as well as a famous writer and chef. or professional blogger as this is one of the best ones around. most are kinda intolerable...

wow i'm looking forward to that meal when you get back...don't get superfat over there, Matt... :) sandy

6:45 AM  
Blogger sean said...

hi matt, i like the tom yam kung so much..looks nice..heh heh heh...i will continue reading your blog..take care. from sean( not your brother):p

2:14 AM  

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