Connect the dots

Friday, March 2, 2012

Wok with Nok

I regretted not learning how to make Indian cuisine while in India, so I didn't waste any time signing up for a Thai cooking course at the recommended Baan Thai Cookery School in Chiang Mai. Cooking classes are on almost everyone's list of things to do while visiting. Not a big surprise since around the world Thai food is as ubiquitous as Chinese. Even outside of Port Elizabeth, in the countryside of South Africa, a local bar had a basic Thai menu of pad thai, stir-fries, and spring rolls. The formula is nearly the same at all the schools: make a menu, go to the market to pick up the fresh ingredients, and cook.

What should I make today?
The larder
Nok holding the essential ingredient in all Thai dishes - fish sauce
Ginger's cousin - galangal
Tumeric tofu

I don't know anyone who has never had pad thai. You can't and shouldn't avoid the cliche. It can be found on every street corner and restaurant, and it's delicious. 

Presenting: my first pad thai

For me, the ultimate Thai dish is Som Tom or more commonly known as green papaya salad. Equally balancing the four tastes is key: salty from the fish sauce/crab/shrimp, sour from the lime, sweet from the palm sugar, and spicy from the chilies. There are as many variations in the spelling (Som Dom, Som Tam, etc.) as there are in the ingredients that go in it (fermented crab or salty dried shrimp; green mango, cucumber or green papaya?). Personally, I love the classic green papaya and mine MUST have a liberal sprinkling of peanuts. 

Here's Baan Thai's version of Som Tom:

Green Papaya Salad (Som Tom)
Serves 1

4-5 small cloves of garlic
1-3 chilies
1 Chinese long bea, cut intoe 1 inch pieces
1 tbsp palm sugar
1-2 limes, cut into quarters
2 tbsp fish sauce
1 tbsp dried salty shrimp or fermented crab
50 g green papaya, carrot, green mango, cucumber, green apple or pear, julienned
1/2 tomato, cut into quarters
20 g ground peanuts

Put garlic, chili and Chinese long bean in the mortar. Pound tenderly. Add palm sugar, lime, fish sauce, and dried salty shrimp or fermented crab. Pound until palm sugar is dissolved. Add papaya and tomato and mix well. Place into a dish and top with ground peanuts. Eat, eat, make it again and eat.

Tom Kha Gai is the Thai answer to Jewish Penicillin or chicken soup. But don't let appearances fool you. You see coconut milk, chicken, mushrooms, tomatoes and cilantro. But you smell and taste kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, and galangal. 

Almost as quick to make as instant ramen

A Thai cooking class would not be complete without a curry dish. Brought by monks from India, curry is a staple on many Thai menus. I wanted to dissect the Penaeng Curry, my curry of choice nearly every time I order from a Thai restaurant. 

There are many steps, but you can bypass making the red curry paste (sacrilege!) by purchasing a bottle of it at an Asian market. The real fun is in making fresh coconut milk by placing grated coconut in a cheese cloth bag and gentle kneading it in warm water and do as if you were washing your lingerie in Woolite. Magically, coconut milk appears. I know, being Filipino, I probably should already know this. When I shared this with my mom, she poo-poo'ed my amazement at this process.

And the reason I even eat a main meal at all, is for dessert. We passed around plates of mango sticky rice and fried bananas to end our culinary adventures.

My fellow cooks
Don't be surprised if you're invited to our house to be Thai food guinea pigs... 

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