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FOOD + TRAVEL

From market to kitchen in Bangkok

Silom Thai Cooking School instructor Sanusi Mareh strains a ladle of water chestnuts coated in tapioca starch. Silom Thai Cooking School instructor Sanusi Mareh strains a ladle of water chestnuts coated in tapioca starch. (J. Kenji Alt for the boston globe)
By J. Kenji Alt
Globe Correspondent / March 25, 2009

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BANGKOK, Thailand - Dawn here sees hawkers peddling polyethylene bags full of fresh and fiery green fish curry to morning commuters. By lunchtime, entrepreneurs with hand-drawn carts line every street with makeshift grills charring small bananas or pounding shredded green papaya with dried shrimp and chilies into som tom, a salad that's simultaneously searingly hot and refreshingly cool and crunchy. After dark, waitresses in Tiger Beer miniskirts at the vast outdoor food court at Suan Lum serve kua mu yang (grilled pork neck) that's more tender, flavorful, and richer than any pork belly you may have eaten stateside. Bangkok is a city that always eats - and eats well.

But the only way to ensure that you can take home the flavors of Bangkok is to learn how to re-create them yourself. At the Silom Thai Cooking School off of the Tha Silom in Bangkok's notorious go-go bar and kathoey (transvestite) district, instructor Sanusi Mareh leads intimate four-hour immersive classes (two to nine students at a time) twice daily. The cost is about $28 per session.

The former restaurant chef from the Southern coast of Thailand starts each class in the open-air market near the school, pointing out ingredients and talking animatedly about how to pick the best. "Market is symbol of everyday life in Thailand," explains Mareh, who goes by his nickname, Nusi. "Seeing how Thai people look at raw ingredients is essential to understand Thai cuisine." He lets a shower of pea-sized bitter green eggplants fall through his fingers, checking their weight and freshness.

The vast assortment of ingredients in the small market goes a long way to explaining the diversity of the classic Thai repertoire. Mareh heads over to a stand housing several dozen varieties of herbs and picks through vibrant bunches of culantro (a weed that resembles dandelion root with the soapy flavor of cilantro), fragrant kaffir lime leaves, and gkrapow, a heady cultivar of basil, soon to be the garnish for our nam phrik kang khiao wan - green curry with chicken.

After a brief haggle with the vendor (who in typical Thai fashion is seated atop the sales table among her goods), Mareh moves on. Fiery red bird chilies, dark brown tamarind pods, tiny purple shallots, bright yellow wild ginger, and large knobs of galangal with their faded pink shoots still intact make their way into his basket before he leads the class back to the school.

Like the makeshift tuk-tuks that careen through the streets of Bangkok, slapped together from an old rickshaw and a moped, Silom Cooking School has a disarming jury-rigged quality. Its bank of burners is set up outdoors on a porch with a view of the neighbor's laundry. Despite Mareh's proficient teaching skills and his crew of quietly efficient young helpers, the space feels more living room than classroom, the lesson more dinner party than lecture, a feeling reinforced by today's clientele: two female retirees (one Australian, one Dutch), a pair of college-aged British backpackers, and a trio of vacationers from Calais. Within 20 minutes, each has produced a tom yum goong (hot and sour soup) more flavorful than any restaurant version, the sweet-scented steam perfuming the air.

After a quick lesson in larb (ground chicken salad flavored with nutty dry-toasted rice) and an exquisitely light pad Thai that puts the typical sweet and heavy version to shame, Mareh hauls out a volleyball-sized granite mortar to start the main course: curry. As he drops a dozen ingredients into the bowl and pounds them into a rough paste, one of the backpackers asks how much of each ingredient to add.

The teacher shrugs his shoulder and says, "This is my green curry. You like spicy, add more chili. You like garlic, add more garlic."

Then he smiles. "Thai food very forgiving."

Silom Thai Cooking School, 68 Silom Soi 13, Silom Road, Bangrak, Bangkok, 668-4-726-5669, www.bangkokthaicooking.com