From burnt toast to Phad Thai in a day
Cooking school in Thailand turns Chef Boyardees into wizards with woks
(Page 2 of 2)
The first thing I learned is that attending cooking school is very much like being on the set of the Cooking Channel. As Somphon introduced us to his utensils, his assistant carted out dozens of bowls of vegetables, spices, beef, chicken, and fish, all of which had already been neatly sliced and diced. "That'll be your job," I whispered to my wife, Carrie.Skip to next paragraph
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"Keep dreaming," she replied.
Next, Somphon carefully described more than 20 essential ingredients in Thai cuisine. I was awestruck by his knowledge. How was a city slicker like me supposed to know that a red chili is hotter than a green one? Or that monks use tumeric, the spice we call cumin, to make orange dye for their robes?
The rest of the morning we helped Somphon cook several dishes. They included Tom Yam Goong (sweet and sour prawn soup), Green Curry Chicken with curry paste, Phad Thai, Tort Man Plaa (fish cakes) and Pha Krapow Gai (fried chicken with basil). For each dish, Somphon stood at the stove and talked us through the recipe. It was especially helpful when he invited students to help him prepare each dish. That, for example, is how I learned you're supposed to slice a chili at a 45-degree angle, not vertically.
At 12:30, we retired to the porch outside the kitchen to devour what we'd made. The pungent aromas were intoxicating, and the food, accompanied by bowls of perfectly prepared sticky rice, was sumptuous, especially the soup and the Phad Thai. We sat on the floor in groups of five around lazy susans. My group included two Aussies and a couple from Maryland. We raved about what we had cooked -with Somphon's help, of course.
In the afternoon, we cooked several more dishes, getting lots of hands-on experience with Somphon as our guide. It was funny watching my peers try to copy Somphon's deft skills.
He took four tomatoes, for example, and David Copperfield-like, with his eyes on us as he spoke, he carved them into intricate garnishes. "Nice stuff like this, and you can charge a little more," Somphon said with a laugh.
At the end of the day, after another session on the porch, where we ate our afternoon's work, Somphon gave us a tour of his gardens and bid us farewell. I was energized, feeling confident that happy times lay ahead for me and my kitchen.
The first few weeks at home went well. No black toast and no watery spaghetti. Then, on a Saturday night, came the real test: a Thai meal. We chose Red Curry Chicken, a pretty simple dish.
Carrie and I went to Chinatown and bought bags full of fresh ingredients. At home, while Carrie read the Sunday paper, I did the assistant's slicing and dicing job. Then I went into action. Oil up the wok. Add coconut milk. Stir. Add red-curry paste. Stir.
In less than a half hour, we were at the dinner table, seated in front of two plates of steaming white rice covered with Red Curry Chicken. I felt like I was back in high school, waiting for Mrs. Clark to hand back a calculus test.
"Smells good," Carrie said. "Looks good, too."
She lowered her chopsticks, scooped a bite, ate it, and... "Wow, you can really cook."