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Shopping your way through Bangkok is a given. But cooking your way through Thailand’s capital city? It’s an itinerary that appeals to more and more vacationing people these days. Certainly to someone like me, who has enjoyed cooking all her life. Pre-departure, I went online and made booking reservations to two top-rated cooking schools. As easy as that, my culinary vacation was all set.

On our Thai Airways flight, the bento-style Thai lunch served got me more jazzed about Bangkok. From the airport, we headed for the Amari Watergate Hotel and Spa, where we had our first Thai meal at their famous Thai on 4 restaurant. The appetizer sampler was impressive and so was the beef curry. In fact, I don’t remember any dish we didn’t consume entirely. For dessert, I went for the classic Sticky Rice with Mango—sweetened sticky rice with coconut milk topped with really thick slices of sweet mangoes. It was so good. Every dish left me wondering how Thai chefs cook and what ingredients they use. I would get my answers early the next day.

Blue Elephant Cooking School and Restaurant

 


From our hotel, we took a 15-minute walk to the Siam Skytrain station and rode the BTS to the Surasak station. I quickly spotted the Blue Elephant building from the station exit and it was exactly as it was described—a dazzling century old mansion. From afar, it looked like a piece of architecture with a great story to tell. Sandra Steppe, daughter of the owner, told us that the building, built in 1903 and also known as the Thai Chine, was once a posh department store. It was later converted into the headquarters of the Thai Chinese Chamber of Commerce, which now occupies a building behind the Blue Elephant. Despite partial renovations done in 2000, it is preserved as a historical landmark.


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We were ushered to the second floor reception area where I met some of my classmates for the day. There were two young Japanese housewives who wanted to learn how to cook delicious Thai dishes for their family; two Taiwanese ladies who signed up for a Royal Orchid Holiday culinary package; a five-time Blue Elephant student named Jack, and Randy, a cooking enthusiast who’s been cooking school-hopping around Thailand.

 

As soon as everyone arrived, we walked to the Sky Train station right across the school, where an assistant chef handed out our train passes for the day. The morning class included a market tour while the afternoon class involved a theoretical discussion on the ingredients and an additional dessert recipe. To make it easier to go around the Bang Rak morning market, our class was split into two groups. Sandra, who served as our guide, first brought us to a fruit stand where she talked about the different fruits that are a favorite among Thais, including star apple and dragon fruit. Next stop was a milk tea stand, where the stall owner showed us how to prepare one of Thailand’s popular drinks, pouring and pulling the cone shaped strainer to make the tea and mixing it with sweetened milk. A few steps away, a man was selling different kinds of noodles. Sandra explained in detail what the noodles were used for and what they are made of. Next, we were brought to the coconut stand. Like the Philippines, Thai dishes use a lot of coconut cream and milk. Then, Sandra took us to a fish stand where she showed the exact same fish we would be using in class later that day. After a short stop in a stall that sells traditional Thai sweets and some sampling, we visited a small grocery selling spices and ingredients. I bought a bottle of chili paste, which Sandra said would be used in today’s recipes.


Back in the school, we gathered in the lecture room, which has a small demo kitchen in front of rows of comfortable armchairs. On our desks was a Blue Elephant folder with recipe handouts of our lesson for the day: Yum Som O (Pomelo Salad), Tod Man Pla (Thai Fish Cake), Seafood Krathiem Prik Thai (Stir-fried Seafood with Garlic), Kai Phad Prik (Stir-Fried Chicken with Red Curry) as well as a Blue Elephant apron. Sandra informed us that her mother, whom she referred to as “Master Chef”, was in town and would be joining us. In fact, Nooror Somany Steppe, founding partner of Blue Elephant, would be teaching that afternoon—lucky for us. While I waited to see a senior chef with pepper-white hair, I was surprised when an energetic woman with a modern layered bob came in and started the class.

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Our first lesson: Fish cakes. Chef Nooror did this and every other dish step by step, from preparation all the way to plating. Then she asked us to sample the dish so we’d have a grasp of its proper taste. While doing the recipes, Chef Nooror talked about substitutes, taking into consideration that not all the ingredients are available in her students’ country of residence. The fish cakes, for example, calls for snow catfish but Chef Nooror said any firm fish is fine, or even squid and shrimps. After her demo, it was our turn. We were asked to troop to the next room, with 16 personal cooking stations. Each station has its own stove, equipment, and tray of measured ingredients. There were two assistant chefs who hopped from station to station to check if we were doing our recipes correctly, guiding anyone who was getting lost. After we prepared our fish cake patties on a plate, the assistants placed a sticker with our station number on the plate.

For the red curry recipe, a lot of spices were used including lesser ginger, Kaffir lime leaves, galangal, and coriander seeds. To make sure everyone was on the same page, Chef Nooror showed us how the ingredients looked, getting them from a basket of herbs and vegetables behind her. I grabbed the chance to ask her about growing Kaffir lime leaves in my backyard (it’s not easy to find fresh ones in Manila), and she replied by giving me two Kaffir limes, the seeds of which I should plant as soon as I get home.

After cooking four dishes, I could sense that everyone was hungry and excited to try what they cooked! After Chef Nooror handed out our certificates for the day plus a bag of Blue Elephant goodies to get us started, she led us to the restaurant downstairs for eating—and judging—time. A long table was waiting for our class with the dishes we had cooked all afternoon. So that’s why they marked our plates! We all enjoyed the food and because the portions were too much for one, some of my classmates even got to take home a few dishes.

I had such a wonderful morning at Blue Elephant that I ended up there again at dinnertime. Apart from popular Thai dishes like Pad Thai and Tom Yum Goong, my friends and I tasted their specialties such as the Foie Gras with Tamarind Sauce, Scallop and Mangosteen Salad, Buffalo Satay, and Green Curry with Black Chicken. Everything was delicious. Some dishes were spicy, as per the Thai palate, but not intolerable. That meal made me think about coming back to Thailand and enrolling in the professional five-day course, hoping that it would make me as good a cook as the Blue Elephant chef.


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The Thai Cooking School at the Oriental

I was a few minutes late for my cooking class at The Oriental. I thought the class would be held inside the hotel—where else would it be, right? It turned out the classrooms were across the Chao Phya River, only five minutes away via the Oriental shuttle boat. When I arrived, Chef Khun Narain was already discussing various Thai vegetables, fruits, spices, and seasonings. Waiting on my desk was a booklet containing a picture guide of various Thai ingredients, vegetables, fruits, spices, and herbs with both their Thai and English names; our recipes for the day; blank sheets for note-taking; and an apron.

Randy, my classmate in Blue Elephant, was in front and waved hello. Aside from him, my other classmates included a Hollywood film producer so fascinated by Thai cuisine that he enrolled for a six-day course, and Sally, an Australian lady whose son encouraged her to take some classes at the Oriental. As the chef went on talking about herbs and vegetables, individual samples were placed on the plate in front of us so that we could touch and smell them. Next, we sampled four different desserts on our plates—yummy! One dessert had a unique smokey flavor, like bacon, but it tasted sweet. Before I could even ask about it, Chef Khun started telling us about how he employed a very special smoking technique using a fragrant candle just for pastries—he would be teaching it that day.

Our recipes for the day included Phuak Loy Naa (Deep-fried Shredded Taro Root with Herbed Crab Meat); Yam Pla Fu Gab Mamuang (Green Mango Salad with Fluffy Fish); Gaeng Massaman Nua (Southern Style Curry of Beef); and Ploy Grob (Water Chestnut Dumplings in Coconut Milk Syrup).

Making Ploy Grob involved coloring water chestnuts and mixing it with sweetened coconut milk and crushed ice. To color the water chestnuts, Chef made use of natural food dyes, using flowers like roselle (for a reddish pink color) and butterfly pea (to get a blue color). He picked a few butterfly pea flowers from the outdoor garden, placed them in a bowl, and poured hot water on them. Immediately, the water turned a nice blue hue. The colored chestnuts were then rolled in tapioca flour and boiled in water while the coconut milk and sugar were mixed together in a bowl. After the demo, our class of six was asked to go to the two stations to do exactly as Chef Khun did. I was coating the chestnuts in tapioca flour when the assistant chef pointed out that a few pieces were stuck together. So I had to separate the pieces and make sure each was properly coated. Then Chef Khun called us to show his smoking technique. He was to smoke the sweetened coconut milk mixture to give it a unique flavor. I stood near him watching closely, in awe of the exceptional method. We couldn’t taste it right away because it needed ample time to achieve the smoky flavor. But he assured us we would get to try it at lunchtime. I let out a soft hooray—this cooking class definitely leaves your stomach full from start to end.

 

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Gaeng Massaman Nua was our next recipe. This chef’s technique involves simmering the coconut cream with water and adding in the curry paste. His tip: Don’t stir-fry the curry until aromatic, like most cookbooks advise. He said this is the more delicious way of preparing it. After tasting his cooking, I couldn’t help but agree. The meat was very soft and the sauce had a perfect balance of sweetness, spicyness, saltiness, and tang, a characteristic taste of Thai dishes. I made a mental note to make a big batch of this dish for my weekly Sunday family lunch as soon as I get home to Manila.

Before proceeding with the Phuak Loy Naa, Chef Khun talked more about coconut cream, showing us both a young coconut and a mature coconut and telling us about their varied uses. After cooking the last two dishes in our stations, the chef called us back to the lecture area and gave each of us a bag containing a The Oriental apron plus little spice bags. He also handed out a poster-size certificate for attending the class. Afterwards, we were asked to proceed to the dining area to sample our cooking. All the dishes were plated beautifully and arranged individually in front of each student. I tried the green mango salad first. It had that perfect tangy taste and the crunch of the fish went well with the softer mangoes. The taro root ball was my favorite, especially when paired with the cucumber sauce. I looked forward to dessert—I’ve enjoyed Ploy Grob ever since I was a kid. At first taste, I noticed the difference right away. The smoking technique lent a deeper, richer taste to the light coconut milk in which the chestnuts swam. After tasting everything, I realized why the assistant chef was so particular about each step of the recipes we did—so we could have this perfect dining experience. With the good food, we enjoyed good conversation, talking about food and about our cooking experiences.

As I left the school, I badly wished I had known about the Thailand cooking school experience sooner. If I did, I would have enrolled in more classes! On my way back to the hotel, I bumped into chefs Gene and Gino Gonzalez. They too were in Thailand for cooking lessons. Gino started telling me about his street food finds and the breathtaking supermarket at Paragon Mall. Now that my cooking school adventures were over, it was time to explore the Bangkok dining scene and go shopping.

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How to get there
Thai Airways has daily flights to Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport from Manila at 2:30 p.m. It also has flights at 8:30 p.m., except on Tuesdays and Saturdays. For a hassle-free trip, book for a Royal Orchid Holidays Thai Cooking in Bangkok package, which includes a class at the Blue Elephant Cooking School. Travel time from Bangkok to Manila is 3 hours and 10 minutes. From the airport, you can hire a taxi to get to the city, which costs about THB400 (toll fees not included).

THAI AIRWAYS
Country Space 1 Bldg, Sen. Gil Puyat Ave., Makati City
Tel. nos.: For details on Royal Orchid Holidays, call 812-4812 local 81. For other bookings and reservations, call 812-4744.
Website: www.thaiair.com

Where to stay
AMARI WATERGATE HOTEL & SPA
847 Petchburi Road, Bangkok
Tel. no.: +66 (0) 26539000
Website: www.amari.com
Email: [email protected]

Where to study
BLUE ELEPHANT COOKING SCHOOL
233 South Sathorn Road, Yannawa, Bangkok
Tel. no.: +66 (0) 26739353 to 58
Email: [email protected]
Website: www.blueelephant.com

THE THAI COOKING SCHOOL
The Oriental Hotel, 48 Oriental Avenue, Bangkok
Tel: +66 (0) 26599000 Ext. 7385 or +66 (0) 24372611
Email: [email protected]
Website: www.mandarinoriental.com

[article_feature_image] => [article_blurb] =>

Cooking your way through Thailand is an itinerary that appeals to vacationers these days!


[article_thumb_image] => /images/article/thumbnail/20090707055437.jpg [article_date_published] => 1246924800 [article_type] => 0 [author_name] => Sharlene Tan [author_id] => 24 ) -->
July 7, 2009

Cooking Your Way Through Thailand

Cooking your way through Thailand is an itinerary that appeals to vacationers these days!

By: Sharlene Tan



 

408_thailandMAIN.jpg

Shopping your way through Bangkok is a given. But cooking your way through Thailand’s capital city? It’s an itinerary that appeals to more and more vacationing people these days. Certainly to someone like me, who has enjoyed cooking all her life. Pre-departure, I went online and made booking reservations to two top-rated cooking schools. As easy as that, my culinary vacation was all set.

On our Thai Airways flight, the bento-style Thai lunch served got me more jazzed about Bangkok. From the airport, we headed for the Amari Watergate Hotel and Spa, where we had our first Thai meal at their famous Thai on 4 restaurant. The appetizer sampler was impressive and so was the beef curry. In fact, I don’t remember any dish we didn’t consume entirely. For dessert, I went for the classic Sticky Rice with Mango—sweetened sticky rice with coconut milk topped with really thick slices of sweet mangoes. It was so good. Every dish left me wondering how Thai chefs cook and what ingredients they use. I would get my answers early the next day.

Blue Elephant Cooking School and Restaurant

 


From our hotel, we took a 15-minute walk to the Siam Skytrain station and rode the BTS to the Surasak station. I quickly spotted the Blue Elephant building from the station exit and it was exactly as it was described—a dazzling century old mansion. From afar, it looked like a piece of architecture with a great story to tell. Sandra Steppe, daughter of the owner, told us that the building, built in 1903 and also known as the Thai Chine, was once a posh department store. It was later converted into the headquarters of the Thai Chinese Chamber of Commerce, which now occupies a building behind the Blue Elephant. Despite partial renovations done in 2000, it is preserved as a historical landmark.






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