Cooking is a passion of mine. I cannot help but love the thrill of adding a pinch of this and a sprinkle of that to produce a magical plate of deliciousness. So I was excited to add to my culinary repertoire by attending three classes at the Chiang Mai Cooking School.
Today, the theme was Vegetable Carving. After a quick van ride to the cooking school, in the outer suburbs of Chiang Mai, our group of three (an Australian, Dutchman and I) were introduced to our tutor, Pon. A bubbly, entertaining man, he set out a board, tomato and two seeding knives in front of each of us.
“Today, you will start by make a tomato rose.”
Oh dear, this sounds complicated.
“Peel the tomato, and do not break the skin.”
I don’t know about you, but peeling a tomato is hard, let alone not breaking the delicate cellulose skin that surrounds it. I was surprised at how long it took me to do it, but I am proud to report I did not break the skin. We rolled up the peel into a rose shape and put it to the side.
“Good,” Pon said, “That was only to get your fingers to be nimble, now we will make a Lotus flower.”
The process was to slice down the sides of a tomato gently with the knife, only 1 cm into the tomato. Then peel the skin away, curl it like a ribbon, cut the segments a little more so they come away from the centre with the seeds, and then it should look like a Lotus flower. You’ll see later on that mine did not turn out amazingly well.
“Now, this is a Thai carrot. I have chopped a piece out for you, and you will create this,” Pon told us, flourishing a beautiful looking carved carrot fern leaf.
He deftly took another piece of carrot, and within a blink of an eye he had carved it into a beautiful leaf yet again.
“Now, it’s your turn.”
My hands were shaking, as I took the small knife and began to carve.
“You must make the holes, look like her beautiful eyes,” Pon added pointing at me. Curving the knife into the shape of my eyes turned out to be more difficult than I imagined. The challenge was enthralling, and it took a long time, but I managed to make two reasonable looking ferns:
Then it was time to go to our benches, hello Masterchef Thailand. First on the menu today was a pork and cabbage meatball soup. Now it was into the air conditioned demonstration room, where Pon showed us the steps to make it. Laughing and joking the whole time, our talented teacher made sure we understood the recipe before unleashing us on our own version.
It felt like masterchef, as I subconsciously raced my fellow classmates to finish first. The subtle saltiness of the garlic and coriander root infused meatballs, matched the almost sweet vegetable stock and tender Chinese cabbage leaves in the soup.
After a quick break to eat our creations, it was onto making our entree for lunch, Thai Vegetarian Spring Rolls. Spring Rolls….hmmmm that sounds difficult. But with the help of our trusty teacher, it turned out to be reasonably easy.
“Chop your carrot, and cabbage julienne style, add bean sprouts and cook with our magic sauce in a hot oiled wok.”
Magic sauce = one tablespoon oyster sauce, half tablespoon of soy sauce, pinch of salt and a pinch of pepper.
A fast fry and then you roll up your pastry, seal with egg and deep fry for about 30 seconds to a minute. Then TA DA: beautiful spring rolls:
The trend continued with eating and then cooking again. This time it was our mains for lunch, Red Curry with Duck and Chicken with ginger and elephant ear mushrooms (Gai Pad Khing).
Pon happily informed us that Red Curry is traditionally cooked with coconut oil. Coconut oil is made by reducing the coconut cream down in a hot wok.
Once this is complete curry paste (comprising of 12 different ingredients) is added, along with eggplant, pea eggplant and green peppercorns. The duck, cherry tomatoes, grapes, pineapple and a dash of magic sauce, palm sugar and white sugar are added at the end, along with Thai basil, red chilli and kaffir lime leaf.
As Pon poured the curry into the bowl;
“This one, you can sell for 80-90 baht,” then he added a sprig of Thai basil, “now 100 baht,” then a final flourish of finely slice Kaffir lime leaf and red chili, “Now 150 baht,” chortling merrily as he said it.
The flavour of the dish is a beautiful combination of sweet, spicy, sour and savoury. Each flavour hits your palette at a different stage of taking a bite. Funnily enough, presentation is everything.
The next dish was taught by Rika, one of the newer instructions. She giggled away as she showed us the raw ginger, onion and garlic infused chicken (Gai Pad Khing). Tossed in a frying pan with elephant ear mushrooms, stock and magic sauce until reduced and then chopped spring onions and chili are added to finish off the flavour.
“I love to make it look pretty,” Rika said as she deftly crafted ribbons of spring onion to decorate her dish.
It was lunch time. We ate our culinary masterpieces along with steamed rice and big bowls of water. Jo (one of the participants) was celebrating her 30th birthday, and was presented with a gorgeous cake and a merrily sung “Happy Birthday to You”.
But our rest time was short lived, as the last two dishes of the day were requiring construction.
“Come around,” Pon beckoned us over to the work bench, “I do this one with you, because my student always forget how to fold the Pandanus leaf.”
The dish, chicken wrapped in pandanus leaves and deep fried. The nimble Pon guided us through the process of intricate folding and pulling to create neat little parcels ready for frying.
Last but not least, was a Thai dessert favourite, Sticky Rice with mango. My mouth started watering as I watched the sugar and salt being stirred into the creamy white deliciousness that was the coconut cream. The rice was mixed in and then the mixture was left to sit while I tried my hand at peeling a mango.
“I cannot watch,” Pon said as he saw me peeling the mango, western style (towards the body), with a large butchers knife. Thankfully I peeled and chopped the mango without losing any limbs or appendages.
It had been a long, hot and very educational day. Armed with my doggy bags of deliciousness for Craig, I was dropped back at the hotel. Already I couldn’t wait for my next round of Cooking School.
Ginga Musings out.