The day at Bangkok's Blue Elephant Cooking School began with an 8:30 a.m. visit to the Bang Rak morning market. Stalls were heaped with exotic tropical fruits: spiky rambutans, purple-skinned mangosteens, and bright red lychees. We also found a vast array of herbs and spices essential to Thai cuisine: galangal, coriander root, kaffir limes, lemongrass, tamarind, shrimp paste, freshly grated coconut, pandam leaves, three types of basil, and, of course, chilies of every size.
I couldn't think of a better way to awaken my inner chef and psych myself up for an intensive crash course in Thai cooking. Even if you don't plan to cook the dishes at home, the cooking school experience gives you insight into life in the country you're visiting. Thailand happens to be known for its many culinary schools catering to every budget. In Bangkok, where the central Thai approach to cuisine uses coconut milk and cream to take the edge off of chilies in curry dishes, you can sign up for the four-hour Blue Elephant course for $70. Or you can buy a five-night package at the Oriental Bangkok for $1,600 per person, including room, four half-day cooking sessions, breakfasts, and a one-hour massage.
If you're traveling to the north, where dishes are broth-based and tend to be more fiery, the city of Chiang Mai boasts dozens of schools. There you can pay $15 for a full-day course in the heart of the backpacker district or almost $1,500 per person at the Four Seasons Resort for a three-night stay with breakfasts and two four-hour cooking sessions. The Four Seasons kitchens feature teak worktables and overlook landscaped gardens and mountains. Classes begin at 7 a.m. and include a trip to the market, a traditional Thai spirit house blessing, instruction on making four dishes that are then eaten at lunch, and a lesson in the art of vegetable carving.
Back at the Blue Elephant, our instructor, Nooror Somany-Steppé, the school's founder, made everything seem easy. But when the five of us started to do the meal preparation ourselves for the tom klong seafood, I had a scary flashback to high school chemistry class, where I always fell hopelessly behind during experiments.
I quickly overcame my performance anxiety as I began smashing chilies and coriander roots with my mortar and pestle and grilling galangal, lemongrass, and shallots in my wok. Then I threw the lot into hot seafood stock, followed a minute later by shelled prawns, squid, fish fillet, scallops, mussels, and white mushrooms. Fish sauce and tamarind juice gave the broth extra zest, and my mouth was watering by the time it all came to a boil. But before I got a chance to savor my creation, it was whisked away and labeled with my name for tasting at lunch.
Our second dish was po-pia thot, or deep-fried Thai spring rolls. Making the filling was easy because nearly all the ingredients, such as carrots, cabbage, black mushrooms, and crabmeat, had been carefully laid out for us in advance. Eric Millman, a professor of psychiatry at Yale University working next to me, rolled up the wrapper with the deftness of a Havana cigar maker. I was all thumbs. Sensing my distress, the assistant assigned to me intervened, helping me at the crucial moment when you dab a bit of egg yolk to help seal the pastry roll. So eager was he to help that he would have finished the whole batch for me had I not gently elbowed him out of the way.
The third dish, homok kai, or Thai chicken soufflé, was well worth the struggle. Normally the ingredients are steamed inside cups fashioned from banana leaves, but we used glass ones to save time. For this savory dish you mince chicken with kaffir lime rind, garlic, coriander root, galangal, curry paste, and coconut milk. Then you pour this mixture over cups lined with basil leaves and a thin slice of raw chicken. Top with sliced red chilies and coconut cream.
I felt shortchanged in the preparation of the final dish, ped makarm (duck with tamarind sauce). In the interest of time, we worked with duck that had been marinated, cooked, and sliced in advance, leaving the task of mixing five ingredients for the sauce and garnishing the meat.
Finally, we sat down in the Blue Elephant's magnificent dining room, with its filigreed arches and 16-foot ceilings. Built as a trading house in 1903, it is one of the few colonial-style buildings left in Bangkok. We washed down the meal with Blue Elephant's own Thai white wine, followed by cheesecake made with a creamy but pungent Southeast Asian fruit called durian, compliments of the chef. Not bad for four hours of work.
By Frederik Balfour