From PB&Js to Pad Thai

Traveling in Thailand, a culinary neophyte learns to cook like the locals

For years, jokes of my undeveloped culinary skills circulated among friends and relatives, who wondered how a grown woman could still survive on a college-like diet of pasta, PB&J, and five-minute rice.

Now, I am tittering at them over my chopsticks and homemade plates of Pad Thai, Sticky Rice in Mango-coconut Milk, and Spicy Pork With Green Peppercorns in a Red Curry Sauce, which I make from scratch, no less, with a mortar and pestle.

I developed my culinary skills during a six-hour class at the Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School in northern Thailand, under the watchful eye and patient direction of Somphon Nabnian.

Somphon instructs cooks of all levels at his school in the suburbs of Chiang Mai, several hours north of Bangkok. Daily classes, averaging 14 students, run from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. for 800 baht (about $22).

Students gather at Somphon's classroom - a newly built teak house - and learn to make five traditional Thai dishes - a mix of northern Thai (water-based), and southern and central Thai (coconut-based) meals - plus one or two desserts, all of which are eaten as soon as they're prepared.

The morning of my class, I sit cross-legged on a floor mat, leaning against a colorful stack of Thai cushions, and pound furiously at four chilies in the bowl in front of me. There are 12 students, each of us armed with a stone mortar and pestle, preparing curry paste for Gaeng Hanglay Gai, or Chiang Mai Curry With Chicken. The steady, rapid clicking of stone against stone sounds like a construction job behind schedule, and we're quickly developing workers' hands - yellow fingers from turmeric and other spices some of us have never used before.

Somphon circles the room, throwing around witty words of encouragement. "The responsibility is in your hands," he says. "If it's good or not good, it all comes down to the paste."

We add ginza, lemongrass, and shrimp paste, and continue grinding until Somphon inspects our bowls and gives us a thumbs up. Then he walks around the room, collecting a spoonful of curry mixture from each bowl and says, "We'll use a bit of everyone's paste, so we can blame each other if it's bad."

As Somphon explains his secret for storing curry paste, we follow him into an immaculate kitchen, where there's a large countertop with a stove and two rows of chairs on a platform overlooking the cooking area. For the next hour, we watch and help Somphon mince, wash, prepare, stir, and measure ingredients, while he discusses marinades, chopping techniques, and traditional Thai cooking methods.

"Most Thais use the whole chicken - the bone, the skin, everything," he explains as he's chopping. This elicits a few gasps. "You're lucky I don't do that." Sighs of relief.

Once the curried chicken is ready, we move on to Panaeng Curry Pork (Gaeng Panaeng Moo). "Do you want to make it Thai spicy or Thai foreigner spicy?" he asks.

"Remember, no chili, no sweat! If you sweat, you keep cooler, but we will make it medium spicy," he promises.

Tangy aromas swirl around the kitchen, while chopped garlic mingles with red and green chilies and a handful of spices in a wok - the early stages of a sauce for our third dish, fried haddock. I volunteer to make the Yam Wun Sen, or Spicy Glass-Noodle Salad, and spend 20 minutes slicing Chinese celery, mincing pork, and measuring portions of dried shrimp and lemon juice.

"Very good, keep smiling," Somphon says as he watches.

One mouthwatering hour later, final touches are put on dessert - thick coconut milk is spooned onto dishes of a sweet black sticky rice - and we move our rumbling bellies outside to five Thai kantoke tables, which are short, round, and wicker.

No blame needs to be cast - the curries are simply delicious. After lunch, Somphon gives us an informative tour of his herb garden, where he grows many of the ingredients used - basil, kaffir limes, ginza, chilies, and lemongrass. We finish with fruit-tasting - guavas, mangos, and rose apples - and then waddle home, completely satiated.

Somphon's school, the first of its kind in Chiang Mai, but one of many now, opened in 1993. Attendance has increased every year since. Its popularity is due to mentions in travel guides, but also by word of mouth.

Somphon was literally born in a kitchen, while his mother was preparing sticky rice for breakfast one morning. He grew up helping his mother cook and, as the son of a butcher, learned all about meat preparation. He taught himself English between ages 11 and 20 while studying Buddhism at a local temple. After deciding not to become a monk, he took a job guiding tourists on jungle treks in northern Thailand, during which he cooked all of their meals.

Somphon married an Englishwoman, Elizabeth, whom he met on a trekking trip. While on a six-month trip to her home in Berkshire, England, he discovered that Thai food is wildly popular in the West and that Thai ingredients are readily available.

"There are about 20 key ingredients in Thai cooking, and you can find most of those in supermarkets in your home country," says Somphon.

He gives students a cookbook with 33 recipes, descriptions, and sketches of Thai fruits, and write-ups on the main Thai ingredients - sauces, spices, vegetables, herbs, and pastes.

Most of Somphon's students are from the US, Britain, and Australia, followed by Germany and the Netherlands. About 35 to 40 percent are male - a higher number than Somphon expected, since women are the main cooks in Thai households.

"Men here, they know how to make a few dishes to go with their drink," he jokes.

But Brian Olpin, a computer programmer from Seattle, decided a cooking class would be a great way to sharpen his culinary skills during his month-long vacation in Thailand last spring.

"I've been lying on the beach for a couple of weeks and decided I wanted something unique to show for my trip to Thailand," says Mr. Olpin.

Alaskan Jenny Norland took the class in Chiang Mai, where she taught English at a local school for eight months.

"I can't cook anything, but I think I can cook these meals," Mrs. Norland says.

Thanks to Somphon, Olpin, Norland, and I can now assemble an impressive Thai spread.

I haven't wiped my old cooking slate clean - I still eat PB&J and pasta - but I've added an interesting mix of new dishes to my repertoire.

Pad Thai

12 ounces rice noodles, preferably vermicelli

3 tablespoons peanut (preferred) or other oil

2 tablespoons garlic, minced

1/2 pound of medium-size uncooked shrimp, peeled and deveined

2 tablespoons sugar

2 tablespoons Thai fish sauce (available in Asian markets or Asian section of supermarkets)

2 eggs, lightly beaten

1/4 cup tofu, chopped into small pieces and fried in vegetable oil until brown and crisp

6 tablespoons roasted and salted peanuts, chopped

1/4 cup chives, cut into 1-inch pieces

1 cup mung bean sprouts, rinsed and drained

Salt, if needed

2 limes, cut into quarters

Soak the rice noodles in warm water until soft, about 15 to 30 minutes. Drain, toss with half the oil, and set aside. Heat remaining oil in a wok or large skillet over medium-high heat. Add garlic and cook, stirring, until just golden, about 1 minute. Add shrimp and toss with the oil and garlic. Add the sugar and fish sauce, and toss well.

Add eggs, let them set for about 15 seconds, and then scramble them in the pan. Add tofu, about 3 tablespoons of the peanuts, and the chives. Toss gently to heat through, about 2 minutes. Add rice noodles and bean sprouts and toss together. Taste and add salt if needed.

Garnish with lime wedges and remaining chopped peanuts.

Serves 2 as a main meal.

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