Miss USA Sisters go to cooking school
16.10.2015 - 16.10.2015
Today was easily a Top 10 day for me on this trip. We had agreed months ago that if we made it to Thailand we would sign up for a cooking class. Way to go, past selves, that was an excellent call. I chose Silom Thai Cooking School based on its TripAdvisor reviews, and they served me well. Anyone reading this who plans or dreams of traveling to Thailand--take note. Silom Thai Cooking School, ask for Jay's class. He was the best part. We loved him from the second he stepped into the spotlight with his big personality and tiny stature.
First was the market tour, which was the only iffy part. It wasn't so much a tour as much as us standing in front of one stall with wicker baskets as Jay explained the heap of leaves and tubers piled on a table. Thai ingredients may seem familiar to us, but they are unique and often irreplaceable in Thai cooking (for example, we hear "Thai ginger" and think, okay yeah, ginger. But Thai ginger is different from the ginger we Americans are familiar with, and they give off different flavors. So if you can't find fresh Thai ginger, use powered Thai ginger rather than replacing it with regular ginger. Same for Thai basil, etc. some you can switch though, like Thai lemongrass with regular lemongrass). My favorite were the eggplants. Thai cuisine has many types of eggplant, most of them smaller than an egg, some as small as a blueberry. They don't have the corpulent aubergine eggplant that we know.
There were eleven of us in the class, and we rode to the school from the market in tuktuks, with all of the fresh ingredients in our baskets. Silom Cooking School sits down a narrow and unassuming alleyway, in a small but deep two-story building. Downstairs were three tables set with colorful Thai silk placemats and thick books about Thai culture. We flipped through these as Jay and his helpers finished setting up the prep table in the middle of the room. This was set with prep dishes, big circles of wood for cutting boards, knives and a wide, shallow basket for all of the produce we just bought. Everything was beautiful. Even the scrap bins on the table were intricately carved and embellished with chips of glass.
We all stepped back to make way for Jay's personality. He doesn't hold anything back. He reminded us of Frank, if anyone has seen Father of the Bride II. He called both me and Gina "Miss USA" until he found out we are sisters (a fact that we have to tell people outright, as very few people can tell we are even related) then we became "Miss USA Sister." He called everyone else by their home country: three from Korea, one from Thailand, one from Taiwan, two from Portugal, and finally two "Mr Dubai"s. He would swish to the front of the group and say things like, "None of you recognize this, riiiight? (holding up a very large carrot) HAHA of course it's carrot, same as your carrot, not different carrot. But this very large carrot, old woman could put it in her purse then if anyone try to talk to her on the bus, she just smack him with it."
Once everything was ready, we followed Jay upstairs and lined up in front of sets of two bowls. I was partnered with a Korean, Gina was with Mr. Taiwan, and we poured warm water over freshly grated coconut, squeezing the coconut meat in our fists repeatedly until the water became coconut cream. We then poured the mash into a shallow basket with handles and used that to sieve the cream away from the meat, which we then dumped back in the bowl for mashing and squeezing round two. The first squeezing produces coconut cream--a heavier liquid with more coconut matter in it--and the second squeezing produces coconut milk, which has a higher ratio of water. But both went into the second bowl via the basket sieve, and finally all into one massive group bowl. This then went into the fridge where it will separate into the heavy coconut cream on the bottom and the watery coconut milk on top. Isn't that cool? Now we all know how to make fresh coconut cream and milk.
Then we traipsed downstairs where we each claimed a wooden stool around the prep table so Jay could walk us through tom yum goong, a spicy, deeply savory soup with shrimp, lemongrass and bites of ginger made slightly milky with coconut. First he passed around a bowl of Thai chilis, which are about the size of your pinky finger and a brilliant red. "You choose," he shouted. "One chili, okay. Two chili, yum, still okay, slightly spicy. Three chili, uh oh your stomach he start to wake up and talk to you. Four chili? Volcano. Volcano in the toilet. Not good. We don't want that."
SO that will be ONE chili for me Jay, thanks.
We chopped our ingredients as instructed and marched upstairs to the long line of woks set up on gas burners. Jay shouted instructions to us as he paced the line in front of the woks. "Ready? One! Two! Aaaaaand......BURN THE HOUSE DOWN!" (Turn your gas on high). "AND WE'RE ADDING THE VEGETABLE! ALL THE VEGETABLE! NOW THE FISH SAUCE AND LIME JUICE! TOGETHER! COUNT TO TWENTY FIVE! WHEN I GIVE YOU SHRIMP, COUNT TO THIRTY FIVE AND TURN OFF! Otherwise, your shrimp too tough," he added, quieter and with a wink. Oh I could just put him in my pocket. I want him to come home with me so we can be besties and go shopping together.
The Korean guy next to me (whom I suspect is a chef, by his technique) suddenly started coughing and sputtering as soon as we added our chopped vegetables to the wok. Tough Guy had cut up at least 5 or 6 chilis for his soup (which is a single portion by the way; we were only making enough for ourselves) and they released the hounds as soon as they hit the hot wok. He had to save face by eating the entire bowl a few minutes later, after we had dished up our finished product and taken them downstairs to eat. There was much coughing all around by then, it was quite spicy. I am a wuss when it comes to hot food, and I was struggling with my one bitty chili, I can't imagine five. But the soup was delicious (of course. I mean, look at the beautiful chef). Thais like sweet and spicy and sour all in one go and tom yum goong definitely achieves that. It's sweet from the coconut milk, tangy and sour from the lime juice and leaves, and savory from the fish sauce. There's only a hint of seafood from the shrimp, and the ginger definitely has a lot of muscle. It would be really good for when you have a cold and want to just smoke it out.
By now our coconut cream had separated from the milk, and our sticky rice had been steaming in its special basket. In a small saucepan I stirred the cream with pandannas leaves so it wouldn't burn as Jay, with much fanfare, threw in a heaping tablespoon of salt and held aloft a bowl of sugar about the size of my palm. "How much?" He asked. "How much you think? One? Two?" He ladled in two tablespoons of the sugar. "No! Whole thing!" He dumped in the whole bowl to our horror and delight. "Mango sticky rice is VERY SWEET!" He took the saucepan from me and poured the caloric concoction over the rice, leaving it to soak some more.
Without wasting a moment, Jay scooted us right into pad thai. Who doesn't love pad thai? And who hasn't struggled to make it as good as the Thai restaurant around the corner? Unfortunately during our culinary escapades today I learned an unfortunate fact. Thai people eat more sugar per capita than that of any other country. I had no idea. They load it into unexpected places, like pad thai, which explains why I like it so much. Damnit. Thai people love desserts, sweet curries and stir fries, and the most sugary drinks they can find. Thai tea has two guns--table sugar and sweetened condensed milk--and sometimes comes with jellies or coconut chunks in it. They will even straight up sprinkle pad thai and other dishes with granulated sugar, and many of the street food carts have a bowl ready as a condiment, right next to the chili sauce and crushed peanuts. How everyone still has most of their teeth and weighs no more than a cocker spaniel I have no idea. Teach me your ways.
The sugar in pad thai is added both as a paste during cooking and granulated sprinkled on top before eating. Damn you pad thai and your cavity inducing deliciousness.
We soaked our noodles ("Warm water! Not hot! WARM!") and Jay loudly guided us through frying our garlic, adding our tofu and shrimp, along with the bean sprouts and spring onions. "KEEP STIRRING KEEP STIRRING KEEP STIRRING! In cooking school we do things fast, you have to be fast! High heat! Keep stirring!" He demonstrated thwacking our eggs over the woks with the spatula, keeping all of the shell in your left hand. Gina was burned as the Korean chick catapulted her egg into the searing wok, splitting hot oil all over her station. "KEEP STIRRING KEEP STIRRING KEEP STIRRING! Add everything else! Everything!" He heaped a pile of softened noodles into each wok. "Make sure to melt your palm sugar first! It's what makes good pad thai noodles BROWN!"
We rushed to turn off our heat and plate our dishes like we were competing on Masterchef, filing down the stairs double quick time. At our table we sprinkled the noodles with chopped peanuts, fresh bean sprouts, lime juice, powdered chili, and of course, more sugar. At each placemat was a Coke, ready and beading with perspiration. Oh sweet diabetic coma delight.
Next we marched right into the green curry. Gina and I were part of the team adding eggplants, lime leaves, etc to the woks upstairs while the other team chopped green spur chilis. After they had a big pile of bits Jay loaded them into a mortar the size of a small bird bath and one by one we mastered the pestle and ground the chilis into oblivion. "FASTER! Gentlemen, this will give you nice, big arm muscles! Ladies, it will take care of those wings, so when you go goooodbyyye there is no more flapflapflap! HAHAHA!"
One of the Misters Dubai roasted coriander seeds in a wok over high heat. Then we back at our woks, stirring, stirring, stirring. "If it bubbles, that okay! We want to burn off all the water! Turn over your chicken! TURN IT!" In no time at all we were pouring the green curry with chicken and vegetables onto its own plate with a ready pat of rice. Jay said most Thai cooking is fast. Maybe that's why it's such a successful street food.
I quite liked the green curry as it was, but Gina and most of the group said it needed a little kick. I noticed the Korean guy didn't say anything though--maybe his tom yum goong put him of red Thai chilis for a while.
I was quite full by this point. We had been at it for over four hours, but they flew by, and between all of the dishes we just made as well as the chicken salad Jay whipped up for us to try, it was a lot of food already. But Gina and I adhere to a very strict life principle that now came into play.
There is always, always room for mango sticky rice. I was unaware that she had developed quite the habit in Washington D.C--living the life of a junkie, sometimes ordering as many as three at a time.
Mango sticky rice is not complicated but it's also not that easy to make in an American kitchen unless provided with the proper equipment. Sticky rice is also known as glutinous rice (glutinous is not an appetizing adjective) and it is a long grain rice that when cooked becomes really, well, sticky. And of course the Thais love it sweet. Sometimes you can order it with other fruits but so far I've have mostly seen it paired with mango, and the rice is first steamed in a special reed basket over a boiling pot to keep it moist and soft. Then it is soaked in a coconut sugar torrent like the one we prepared earlier, with over a cup of white sugar, less than a quart of coconut cream. Granted, this pot was for the whole class but still, that's an incredible ratio. The rice becomes this creamy mass of coconut goodness, and you top that with deep fried mung beans, for a nice bit of crunch. So you see between finding pandanna leaves (which are not essential though) and glutinous rice, acquiring a steaming basket and deep frying mung beans, making mango sticky rice at home might be slightly problematic. Gina said she will buy a rice basket in Chiang Mai if she has to strap it to her body on the plane to get it home. Jay assured us that, if you can find the rice at an Asian market or something, a conventional steamer will probably work, but more like a vegetable steamer pot, with the holes in the bottom, not a rice cooker, which they use for jasmine rice. Also the mung beans are not essential just a nice touch, but I would suggest finding something crunchy for the topping as it is just delightful.
I for one ate my dessert very slowly. Not just because it was a taste explosion but also because I didn't want the class to be over. I could have spent all week with that hilarious tiny man. And I haven't taken his measurements yet to see how he will fit in my carry-on.
But end it must, and Jay presented each of us with a small book of recipes as a graduation certificate. This was a nice bonus as it included all of the basic recipes, not just the ones covered today, in a lovely little booklet rife with the spelling and language errors of a non-native speaker. But it is because I have acquired these gems that I can now pass them onto you. Attack them with gusto, they are not as hard and they might seem.
Note: anything listed with an *asterisk is an essential ingredient that cannot be omitted and/or cannot be replaced with the American version. But most towns these days have an Asian market wedged somewhere and it might just surprise you with what they have available.
Tom Yum Goong (hot and sour prawn soup, creamy style)
Serves 1-2 (perhaps best not to consume the leaves, lemongrass or ginger. These are added more for flavor than direct consumption)
1/2c medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
1 straw mushroom (or any type), cut into quarters
1 stalk Thai lemongrass,* cut into large pieces
3 kaffir lime leaves* torn in half
1 knob galangal Thai ginger*, chopped into large chunks
1/2 TB fish sauce* (Veg Heads can sub soy sauce if desired)
1/4 TB Thai lime juice
1c water or chicken stock
1/2 tomato, cut into four wedges
1 TB fresh coriander (cilantro) leaves, chopped
1 TB green onions, chopped
1/2 TB roasted Thai chili paste* (nam prik pow)
2 TB coconut milk*
1-3 Thai birds eye chilis, according to spicy preference.
In wok, bring lemongrass, ginger, lime leaves, mushrooms, chilis and tomato to a boil in water. Cook until tender on medium high heat. Add the prawns and cook for 35 seconds or until tender. Add coconut milk, lime juice, fish sauce and Thai chili paste. Serve hot garnished with fresh coriander and green onions.
Green Curry Paste (nam prik gaeng kheao wan)
15 green spur chilis*, chopped
4 green bird's eye chilis*, chopped
4 red bird's eye chilis*, chopped
2 TB lemongrass*, thick bottom third only, outer layers removed, inner part sliced
1 1/2 tsp Thai galangal ginger*, finely sliced
1/2 tsp kaffir lime rind*, chopped
2 TB shallot, finely sliced
2 TB Thai garlic, finely sliced
2 TB coriander root, chopped
1 tsp turmeric
1/2 tsp roasted coriander seeds
1/2 tsp roasted cumin seeds
1/2 tsp roasted black pepper
1 tsp shrimp paste (optional)
Pound everything together with a mortar and pestle to form a fine paste. You can use a food processor and process until smooth but using a mortar and pestle allows the ingredients to release their flavors better and the granite keeps the curry paste cool, enhancing the taste. Once prepared, either use immediately for a stir fry or store in a jar with a little vegetable oil. Keeps well in the fridge for several months.
Green Curry with Chicken (kang khiao wan gai)
1/4 c sliced chicken or mushroom (Vegetarians can substitute tofu or mushrooms)
1 TB green curry paste*
1/4 any type of Thai eggplant or purple aubergine, cut into bite size pieces
2 TB vegetable oil or coconut cream*
1 c coconut milk*
20 leaves sweet Thai basil*
3 kaffir lime leaves*, torn in half
2 TB finger ginger*, shredded
1 pinch palm or white sugar
1/2 TB fish sauce (Vegetarians can sub soy sauce)
1 TB tamarind paste
Put oil or coconut cream into the wok over low heat. Add curry paste and stir continuously until fragrant. Add chicken. Add coconut milk, lime leaves, finger ginger, eggplants, sugar, tamarind paste and fish sauce. Stir constantly until the chicken is cooked. Continue to cook and stir until the sauce is reduced and thickened. Add sweet basil. Remove from heat and serve with rice.
Pad Thai (pad Thai sai kai)
100 grams dried rice noodles, pre-soaked in warm (not hot) water until soft, then drained
5 medium sized shrimp, peeled and deveined (sub tofu, mushrooms, or other meat)
2 TB vegetable oil (not olive or sesame)
1/8 c chives or green onions, cut into 3cm pieces
1 TB palm or brown sugar (white sugar can be used but noodles won't turn brown)
2 tsp fish sauce (sub soy sauce)
1/4 c raw bean sprouts or cabbage
1 TB Thai garlic, minced
1/3 c extra firm tofu, cut into pieces
1 TB tamarind paste or white vinegar
1 TB pickled white radish finely chopped or pickled cabbage
1 TB ground roasted peanuts or cashews
1/2 tsp ground dried red chili powder
Heat oil over low heat, add garlic and fry until fragrant. Add shrimp, tofu, bean sprouts, and chives. Stir until shrimp are cooked. Crack the egg straight into the wok. Stir rapidly until becomes scrambled and dried. Add noodles and season with fish sauce, palm sugar, ground roasted peanut, dried chili powder, tamarind paste and pickled radish. Mix everything together and keep frying. When noodles become softened and translucent, switch off the heat. Serve with fresh vegetables (such as bean sprouts), and top with ground peanuts and dried chili powder.
Mango Sticky Rice (khao neaw ma muang)
1 c hot cooked sticky rice*
2 TB white or palm sugar*
1 pinch salt*
1/2 c coconut milk*
1 ripe mango, peeled (or other fruit)
1/2 deep fried mung beans
1/4 c pandannas leaves cut into 3cm pieces
Heat the coconut milk and pandannas leaves in a pot over medium heat. Stir constantly and let coconut milk simmer. Add sugar and salt. Stir constantly until incorporated. Remove from heat. Pour hot coconut milk over hot sticky rice. Mix together. Let sit for 15-20 minutes. The sticky rice should, absorb all of the coconut milk. The rice should be a little mushy. Serve warm with chilled mango and topped with deep fried mung beans.