3 of the Best Cooking Classes in Bangkok
We sent a pair of hungry locals to find out which cooking school in Bangkok teaches the most authentic Thai cuisine. The answer, it turns out, is in the tastebuds of the eater. By MONSICHA HOONSUWAN. Photographed by AUTCHARA PANPHAI.
Published on Mar 14, 2017
"WHEN YOU SAY 'AUTHENTIC THAI FOOD,' which era of authenticity are you referring to?" asks chef Somsak Kaew-un from Blue Elephant Cooking School, as he leads us through Bangkok's multiethnic Bangrak Market. You might not think a local would need a guided tour of a wet market, but my foodie colleague Aum and I have found it illuminating: we've learned how to pick shredded coconut for curries (make sure a bit of coconut shell is still attached) and determine the spiciness of a curry paste (not by the color, but by its region of origin, with southern pastes being the spiciest). Still, as natives of Bangkok, we are taking this class as much to learn more about our own heritage as to pick up culinary skills. I don't feel like I've gotten an official seminar on what genuine Thai cuisine actually is, but Somsak says I'm being too rigid. "Food is always changing," he says, "and it's best to just cook in a way that expresses who you really are."
Shopping for produce with chef Somsak of Blue Elephant.
With this advice in mind, Aum and I get our hands dirty at three of Bangkok's best cooking schools. Each has its own style, but all attempt to show what Thai food was, is, and can become with modern creativity and technology. It is possible to pan-fry instead of char-grill a chicken, for example, and still come up with delicious gai yang. Here, other Bangkok kitchen confidential lessons we learned on the line.
1. Style: Ancient
School: BLUE ELEPHANT
Blue Elephant's army of good-humored staff is a source of support—making sure we don't feel too inadequate pounding curry paste at the speed of weaklings—and enlightenment: we learn that until a few generations ago coconut was eaten only by royals and southerners because the cost of transporting it north was too great. But it's a 200-year-old royal poem that provides the true inspiration here. We cook saeng wa koong pla dook foo, or "prawn pretending," from "Verse of Foods and Desserts" by King Rama II, who wrote that this "fish-stomach pretender is like words, tricky." So tricky, in fact, that we had never conceived of eating, let alone making, this deceiving dish.
Seemingly simple yet requiring so much care and precision, the crispy catfish with prawn salad calls for deboned catfish pestle-pounded into the consistency of liquid, because, says head chef Chalermpol Chentrakulrod, "it's too coarse with a blender." But all that work is worth it: once the liquescent fish is flash-fried to a fluffy texture akin to cotton candy, the tasty crunch is the perfect bedfellow for the sweet-sour prawn salad, cutting the spice with its crispy refrain.
Chef Chalermpol pestle pounds deboned catfish for saeng wa koong pla dook foo at Blue Elephant.
We venture further into the unknown, preparing sides we'd never realized existed like mah auan, steamed fatty pork and crab meat, and bombai curry, a relative of massaman with slightly more cumin and tamarind-tang. Three hours here feels like thirty minutes in the gym; we go home with sore arms from pounding, legs from standing, and stomachs from laughing. Our palates, however, are ecstatic at tasting so much unfamiliar Thai food. "Every dish was the perfect combination of all the flavors," Aum says. blueelephantcookingschool.com; full-day Ancient Thai Cuisine Cooking Course Bt17,655 per person.
2. Style: Homey
School: COOKING CHRONICLE AT OSHA CAFE
While California-import Osha has made a name for itself as a Thai-molecular hot spot, its owners are taking a completely different tack with this spacious glassed-in classroom. Launched inside Osha Café at Asiatique, Cooking Chronicle is a welcoming space to learn household recipes sprinkled with intriguing anthropological anecdotes in an atmosphere that Aum observes feels more like a dinner party with pals than a demonstration. The pedigree is stellar, with David Thompson's teacher, maestro Kobkaew Najpinij, as one of the founders, and classes taught by Kobkaew's daughter, Niphatchanok Najpinij, an expert in Thai gastronomy and Thapakorn Lertviriyavit, the former commis chef at Nahm.
Class at Osha Café.
We swallow our Thai pride from the get-go, learning from Niphatchanok that mee kati, or curry noodles, were but "one of the noodles assimilated to Thai cuisine" from Chinese. While the version we create here is coated in turmeric—"helps you digest on those stuffy days when your stomach slows down," she says—back in the day, it was a pink-noodle dish made with fermented tofu, to which our centraldwelling compatriots added coconut milk. In fact, it's coconut milk that plays the key part in all the dishes we're making, but it takes distinct roles in each. For mee kati, we must keep stirring to prevent the oil from separating from the milk, but we don't do the same for the red curry, because we actually want a small amount of oil to separate. Tom kha gai is meant to be a gut-warming soup so we add coconut milk last to prevent it from being too creamy.
Curry noodles at Osha Café.
Still, these chefs continually remind us that "perfection" is at our discretion, and though they've apportioned us ideal measurements, we should add ingredients to taste. The great lesson? Achieving Thai flavor requires just three elements: coconut palm sugar, fish sauce and lime juice. It sounds so obvious after they tell us. All Aum and I can do is swallow our Thai pride yet again. fb.com/oshacafeatasiatique; three-hour Ezy class Bt2,800 per person.
3. Style: Contemporary
School: ISSAYA COOKING STUDIO
One doesn't come to Ian Kittichai's cooking school to simply make gai yang; one comes seeking ways to elevate gai yang to mesospheric heights, the way chef Ian does with his juicy Volcanic-Grilled Chicken at Issaya Siamese Club. Nervously we enter the gleaming kitchen worthy of a Food Network show, unsure of how we will manage four recipes in three hours. But our instructor Varos Srisakulkaew has a plan. His is a session of preparedness: all ingredients pre-weighed and measured, illustrated instructions printed out and equipment neatly set at each station. We get to work like a bunch of MasterChef contestants trying to make the most of their allotted time. Varos throws our baby back ribs into a pot to slow-cook, moves on to marinate soon-to-be grilled chicken with turmeric sauce, then teaches us the steps to constructing the prettiest tower of larb (minced pork salad) I've ever seen. We attempt the same with acceptable results, before revisiting the marinated chicken, this time to give it the faux-charred skin of a grilled bird.
Chef Varos at Issaya. Varin Kongmeng.
"It's a bit dangerous, so let me do it for you," Varos says, dumping our chickens into a pan and sending splatters of hot oil flying in all directions. They might not let us near the hot oil, but we are allowed to play with a kitchen torch. Excitement ensues. We proceed to engulfing our glazed ribs in flame, taking pleasure in the scent of caramelized sugar and red curry sauce. At the end of the whirlwind, we feel like pros. Ian's creations show us that Thai food is more than just coconut milk and chili paste; it's capturing that balanced blend of local herbs, spices and flavors that make his dishes taste authentic to a Thai palate, no matter how foreign they may appear. issayastudio.com; three-hour Issaya Recipes class Bt2,000 per person.
A sweet cookbook from Ian Kittichai challenges Thai-treat lovers to French-style kitchen training.
I can't tell a clafouti from a flognarde, but poring over 200 pages of mouthwatering photographs and 56 recipes by Ian and his assistant pastry chef Arisara "Paper" Chongphanitkul made Aum and me bust out our chef's hats for a baking session within the comfort of my own kitchen. The Issaya La Pâtisserie Pastry Cookbook is a fusion between the art of French pastry and smooth, tropical Thai desserts. Take, for example, Issaya khao-niew mamuang: Ian and Paper have transformed mango sticky rice into a four-layered treat eaten pudding-style. While the instructions are three pages long, the process is straightforward—or, I should say processes, because first you have to make coconut panna cotta, sour-sweet mango gelée, khao niew moon (coconut sticky rice), and pandan-green salty crumble. While kneading a batch of dough for my krob-kem puff, I thought how helpful it would be to have experience in pastry making. That is, if you want to emerge from the kitchen with a jar of crisp, peppery krob-kem that smells of coriander seed and butter, not weird glazed pebbles that make you wish you'd started instead with the mysterious clafouti—or is it flognarde? issaya.com; Bt1,250.
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