Thursday 21 October 2010

Thailand: Cooking up a storm

Having survived a couple more flights unscathed and undelayed, I find myself living in a grand old Colonial style house on a quiet country estate about half an hour outside Chiang Mai, Thailand. I'm the only guy there, just a few maids, tanks full of bearded dragons and a litter of ugly little runts for company.

A litter of runts, with one fluffy exception

The house belongs to a guy named Sompon, one time TV chef, and next door is his Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School. I've not cooked much Thai food, though I've eaten my fair share. But for each of the past five days, we have prepared, and then eaten, six different dishes. On one of the days I took a one-on-one "Master Class" in the evening, thus yielding another feast that needed eating.

Fruits of a Master Class

Here then, in a coconut shell, is what I have learned about Thai cooking, as the rain belted down all around us:

1. Thai food is fast food. Very few things are cooked for any length of time. Preparation may be ponderous - making pastes, chopping, slicing, carving vegetables, but once you have your mise en place, the rest follows très rapidement.

2. The key to Thai food is the balance between salty, spicy, sweet and sour. Saltiness from fish sauce, soy, and shrimp paste. Spice from chillies (lots of chillies) and unusually hot peppercorns. Sweetness from sugar, shallots, and palm sugar (which also adds a smooth richness). Sourness and astringency come from lime juice, tamarind and rice vinegar.

3. Lemongrass, galangal, basil, coriander, garlic, coconut and lime leaves, when administered in the right proportions, are the fragrant devices that elevate Thai food to dizzying heights.

4. A good curry, according to Sompon, is 80% paste, 20% chef. Good paste + happy cook = good curry. Making paste takes time and a strong wrist. The trick is not to grind and crush but pound, always in a downward motion. Or make at least a kilo and stick it in the Magimix.

Red Curry with Roast Duck

5. Imaginative garnishes and vegetable carving abound. The more intricate the garnish, the more you can charge. If you can't be bothered to spend hours making (or at least trying to make) tomato roses and lotus flowers, get someone else to do it.

Som Tam - Papaya Salad

6. Stir fry works like this: careful, consistent prep. Cook in the right order, on a high heat for a short time, stirring constantly, and serve immediately.

Stir Fried Mushrooms with Baby Corn

7. Salads are about crisp, fresh flavours. And chilli. And ludicrous garnishes.

Northern Chicken Salad

So now I am as big as a house, having consumed the equivalent of about ten meals a day for the last week. I waddle away bound for Chiang Mai with a much deeper understanding of Thai cuisine and some mean recipes to go to work with. The longer the week went on, the better, quicker and more confident I got. Even better than all that though, having cooked non-stop for five days, I remembered just how much pleasure it really gives me.

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