Saturday, December 13, 2014

Amita Thai Cooking class - a wonderful Thai cooking experience in Bangkok

Stereotyped into a bowl of Green or Red Thai Curry, Thai Cuisine is actually much more. And as I found out last May it takes a trip to Thailand to discover this when I went on an epic family holiday to Thailand. Though family time was priority, my family were kind enough to indulge my food foibles and spare me time so I could avail of wonderful opportunities to cook with home cooks in both Phuket and Bangkok. 

In Phuket I learnt a lot about Thai home cooking from the team of cooks at the private villa we were staying at. More to come on that. But during the second leg of our trip, in Bangkok, the husband was kind enough to babysit while I went to a cooking class! Owning and runing a cooking studio myself I like to visit local cooking classes and studios wherever I travel to. So I was really excited about Amita Thai Cooking class. I truly believe that there is nothing like learning to cook a cuisine from a local cook. No matter how much research we do on the internet, the little nuances of how much shrimp paste to use or how much to pound a paste can only be learnt by watching and cooking with a cook who has grown up cooking a specific cuisine! 

Being picked up and transferred onto a river boat only added to my anticipation! We navigated the Chao Phraya river, a major river in Thailand, that flows through the very heart of Bangkok city past canals, river markets and temples, getting a fascinating look at riverside life and finally arrived at the Amita Thai Cooking Class located on the banks of the river itself. The name Amita Thai Cooking class actually does not do this culinary experience justice. Because it goes beyond a mere cooking class, offering insights into Thai history, culture and cuisine. Run by a petite dynamo, Tam Piyawadi Jantrupon aka Tam the Amita Cooking class operates out of Tam's ancestral home nestled in the heart of Bangkok surrounded with family who have lived there for more that 3 generations. And it is a showcase of traditional Thai culinary culture.  

Just like at my studio in Mumbai, the classes are completely hands-on, encouraging you to practice Thai cooking techniques and sit down to a delicious meal afterwards. But thats where the similarity ends. Everything else is unique, including the setting. The class takes place in an open air kitchen at one end of the garden with 10 individual cooking stations and a large training area where Tam instructs. The kitchen is surrounded by gardens, and Tam has woven in so many little details to accentuate the experience. Like reworking old pots and pans and even a sewing machine as sinks and table stands.

Guests are welcomed with cold towels, a lovely lemongrass refresher and delicate fritters of edible flowers and leaves from her garden. Once I was refreshed by these, I was introduced to Tam's team that included a resident very talkative mynah bird named Basil, a rooster called Soy Sauce and two hens named black sesame and white sesame. Then, we took bamboo baskets and walked through her garden, picking ingredients we needed as she pointed out plants like guinea pepper, holy basil, kaffir lime, purple chillies and Thai basil. I was lucky to have her sole attention that day. We made our way onto a little balcony overlooking the river that Tam's grandmother would preside over in the past to buy from the river vendors. Tam and I took a moment to got to know each other better as the river flowed by and the heat beat down. When she found out I ran a cooking studio back home, she was most excited. And then went out of her way to teach me little tips and tricks I could incorporate into my Thai cooking classes back home! 

As the day progressed Tam went on to demonstrate each dish we were cooking; Phad Kai Kapprao (Stir Fried Chicken with Basil & Chillies), Tom Yam Goong and Gai Hor Bai Toe. Then I was led to my own station. A rare instance when I was on the other side of the trainers station, as a student and oh so eager to learn! Just like at APB, my recipes mise en place was waiting, each ingredient arranged in tiny bowls, for me to pick, add smash and stir with Tam guiding me along. 
I already knew how to cook Thai cuisine, but cooking with Tam taught me the little things that recipe books and the internet don’t such as; the heat from chillies is directly proportionate to how much you pound them, that the secret to a good Tom Yum Goong (Clear hot and sour soup with fresh prawns) is shrimp paste stirred in at the very end, that coriander roots make all the difference to the flavour of Chicken Wrapped in Pandanus Leaves and Basil Fried Chicken with Chillies. She also taught me some traditional Thai tricks of the trade. Such as using banana leaves to wrap delicate herbs and spices to keep them fresh turning the stalk of a banana plant into a basting brush for meats, by fraying one end with a knife. And she also shared ways to present all the dishes that I learned, like dying rice different colors with crushed flowers and making lemongrass nests and straws. And it did not end there! 

Tam had a special treat to end with. She was going to show me the recipe for Ka Nom Krok (Coconut pancakes) in her family's antique Ka Nom Krok pan. Something she had planned just for me when she found out I was a food writer. 
Ka Nom Krok is a coconut pancake unique to Thailand. Available on the street side but also made in homes. Recipes vary from cook to cook but essentially they are always made with two separate batters, a thinner rice one that cooks to a crispy outer shell and a thicker coconut one that cooks into an inner soft custard layer. And they are always made in a "Ka Nom Krok pan" that was traditionally placed over a round clay oven but is now also used on gas burners. And what was interesting about making these with Tam that day is that she showed me the whole process. Her family had been grating coconut, extracting its milk and grinding soaked rice using traditional methods while we were walking the garden and cooking. So we brushed the pan using little bags of coconut meal (leftover after the milk was extracted), warmed them up and poured in the batters were in. A garnish of corn or green onions was scattered over each pancake (taro and  pumpkin are used as well) and the pan was covered and left to slowly cook to perfection (too hot and the bottom will burn).
Grinding the soaked rice
So delish

Extracting coconut milk

The antique coconut scraper. 

The Pan and the pancakes.

We cooked and talked and tasted and ate, laughed and shared. Tam and I exchanged lots of knowledge on food and cooking, Indian and Thai, similarities and differences through that day. And in the end, I think that is what is is all about. Learning, conversation, food and a wonderful host who was gracious till the last moment when she packed me off with doggie bags for my family, her recipes so I could cook the things she had taught me again at home and a most generous gift to remember her by - a large Thai style wooden curry stirrer and a box of seeds to plant in my garden. Our time had ended but my memories of Tam and the Amita Thai Cooking Class will stay with me forever. Coming alive every time I make her Tom yum soup or Basil chicken. 

I will leave you with my recipe for Phad Kai Kapprao (Stir Fried Chicken with Basil & Chillies). This is a classic recipe though I confess after my cooking class with Tam I do like adding some peppers, onions and green peppercorns to the mix. If you want to do that add the peppercorns (1 tsp) with the garlic and chillies and the peppers and onions (handfull ) with the basil leaves. 

Stir Fried Chicken with Basil & Chillies and Blue Rice 
Phad Kai Kapprao (Stir Fried Chicken with Basil & Chillies)
450 g. boneless chicken breast cut into small thin pieves
3 tbsp. Oil  
4 cloves Garlic, crushed
2-4 Red Chillies deseeded & chopped
2-3 tbsp. Fish sauce  
1tbsp. Sugar      
Handful Thai Basil leaves + 1/2 for cooking and 1/2 deep fried for garnish.

Heat oil in a wok; add half the basil leaves and stir fry till crisp. Remove and keep aside.
In the same pan add a little oil and add the garlic and chillies, stir fry till golden brown. Add chicken, sirfry for 30 seconds until it changes colour.
Add Fish Sauce and sugar and continue stir frying for 3-4 mins.
Stir in the fresh Thai Basil Leaves and stir fry until wilted.
Transfer to a platter and garnish with fried Basil leaves and sliced chillies. Serve with steamed rice.

Disclosure:  I will be eternally thankful to Sethaphan Buddhani then Director, Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT), Mumbai for organizing this idyllic afternoon with his friend Tam of Amita Cooking School. He recognized my obsession with learning to cook from locals the moment we met and arranged the class on finding out I was going to visit Thailand for my family holiday. Thanks to him I got an insight into Thai living traditions and cooking. And the generous hospitality of Thai people. 

Link to Amita Thai Cooking Class and Tam's recipes for Tom Yam Goong (Spicy Prawn Soup) and Gai Hor Bai Toey (Pandanus wrapped Chicken).
I'm such a showoff!


Anonymous said...

Did she tell you how they traditionally made fish sauce ?


Unknown said...

Wow, this sounds like such an incredible experience! I love Thai food, but as you say - it is so easy to think of just the red and green curries when there is so much more! Very jealous of your trip, hope I will be able to go one day!