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Thailand’s food: Eat up, but mind the flies

Posted by Paul Kandarian  July 8, 2011 06:50 AM

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I’m all for trying new, exotic food. I was in Thailand earlier this spring, and never have I seen such a proliferation of strange, wonderful food to sample, particularly in the legendary, super-crowded street markets of Bangkok.
Dried fish, Bangkok stree market-.jpg
There was desiccated fish of all stripe and color hanging or heaped in mounds, the sizzle of chicken from the lines of street woks, the smell of bubbling-who-knows-what filling my nostrils, and carts of fruits and veggies, some recognizable, most not. I had to try it all, reaching for a gleaming pile of … something, but Gary, a native and my guide from the Trikaya Tour Co., wisely advised, “Never eat anything with flies on it.” Good point no matter where you are. I stuck to things freshly cooked or iced down.

If you love to eat, you’ll love Bangkok. And if you
love to cook Thai food, this is the place to learn. I took three 
lessons, one at the Amita Cooking Class, another at the Blue Elephant Cooking School and another up north at the Four Seasons Chiang Mai cooking school.
Tam Piyawadi Jantrupon, Amita Cooking Class, Bangkok, with kragung-nga-.jpg
Amita
is run by Tam Piyawadi Jantrupon, with a three-hour, four-course lesson
costing $100, well worth it. She is a former lawyer and fashion
designer who opened the small school at her ancestral home hard by a
typical, rather dirty Bangkok canal, the monotone drone of monks wafting
over the water from a nearby Buddhist temple, which abound there like
Dunkin’ Donuts back home.

Tam was a delight, showing off her
small herb-and-vegetable garden, offering us flash-fried flowers such as
yellow kradung-nga with iced lemongrass tea before we gathered in her
open-air kitchen and chopped, sliced, and diced our way to making things
like fabulous pad Thai, a staple of the country, and tab tim krob, a
colorful water-chestnut cold dessert in which we used natural coloring
from Tam’s flowers. 

The Blue Elephant Cooking School, above the
famous Blue Elephant Restaurant, is owned and run by one of Thai’s best
female chefs, Nooror Somany Steppe. A half-day course here runs $93,
with seven classes spread out over a week costing $466. The kitchen is
spotless and exceptionally well appointed, and we learned to make
stuffed chicken wings, crispy spicy duck salad and steamed fish. As part
of the courses, you get a trip on the Sky Train to help buy food at the
markets and returning to learn food theory before getting down to
creating incredible Thai food, hoping you’ll remember it to dazzle your
friends back home. They provide handouts, which helps, but nothing beats
having a world-class chef like Nooror watching and correcting your
mistakes.
Chef Pitak Srichai, Four Seasons Chiang Mai-.jpg
In
northern Thailand, I took classes at the Four Seasons Chiang Mai
cooking school, located on the lush, verdant grounds of the upscale
resort, with working rice paddies, and where it costs $200 per class.
Our chef was Pitak Srichai, an impassioned man first learned at his
mother’s elbow, and later worked his way up through restaurants, from
dishwasher to chef.

This master chef laughed loud and often as he
taught us to create spicy beef salad, green curry paste (trust me, it’s
the hottest), and curry noodle with chicken. That night, we dined at
the chef’s table in the massive, open-air cooking school, feasting on a
13-course offering that by number nine, made the last four a huge,
albeit tasty effort to complete.

The funny part is, I never
really liked spicy food and Thai food is above all, wickedly spicy. I
ate it all, I ate it often, never had digestive woes and in fact, never
gained a pound despite eating everything in sight – that didn’t have
bugs on it. Though at one point, I did exact my insect revenge, chomping
on fried grasshoppers, beetles and scorpions from vendors on Khao San
Road in Bangkok.


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