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A Take on 2 Thai Cooking Schools, Plus Recipes

Dining after class at the Blue Elephant Cooking School
Dining after class at the Blue Elephant Cooking School
Kate Crowley

Having recently traveled to Asia to attend classes at a few cooking schools, I brought back a number of great recipes, memories and a long list of ingredients not available at Fry's. While in Thailand I had the opportunity to attend day long classes at two very different schools. Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School in Chiang Mai and Blue Elephant Cooking School in Bangkok. If you're considering traveling to Thailand and want to decide where to cook, read on for a glimpse into what each school offers and two great recipes direct from each school.

Our first school in Thailand was Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School. The campus was unique, offering open air cooking areas as well an indoor instruction rooms. They also offer affordable "home stay" accommodations that start at just $160 per day and the price includes a full day of class, a massage and a dinner as well. Classes with accommodation begin at just $50 and also includes a cookbook.

Chiang Mai is in northern Thailand and seems to be known for its beautiful, friendly people and lush landscape. It's a bit cooler than Bangkok in the south and the city moves at a more relaxed pace. It's easy to see why someone would want to settle in for a week's stay complete with cooking classes on the campus's shady grounds.

The school was the first of its kind in Chiang Mai and was started by Chef Sompon Nabnian, who is easy to talk to and charming. He begins class by teaching us to make flowers and shapes in peppers and tomatoes, warming our hands for cutting skills we will use during the day.

While the outdoor cooking stations are a bit warm, they are shady yet provide the air movement, which is perfect for the frying and heat applied to many dishes. And the indoor, air conditioned classroom is comfortable for the more detailed instructions, given before attempting to make the dish yourself at a station. The assistants in the outdoor kitchen were helpful and because the class size is relatively small, there were 8 in our class, there's lot of time for questions that pop up while you're cooking. Our class also had a lot of younger students, under 30, a refreshing difference from classes I've attended stateside.

 

We prepared, cut and measured most of the ingredients for the 5 recipes we learned about and cooked during the day. It was somewhat labor intensive, but it allowed us for a leisurely 30 mins for lunch to dine on some of the richer dishes. At the end of the class we received a cookbook containing recipes for all of the dishes we made, along with other recipes as well.

A favorite dish from the class that I've found myself making now that I've returned to Arizona is the Roast Duck with Red Curry. The market at the Chinese Cultural Center sells half roasted duck for $10, an easy way to buy the duck for the curry. You can also use chicken instead of duck. Served with steamed jasmine rice, you can't go wrong.

Ingredients

240g (roughly 9oz) roast duck (thinly sliced)

100g (about 8 tablespoons) red curry paste

250ml (about 1 cup) thick coconut milk (keep 30mls or 2 tablespoons) set aside to use as a garnish *for "thick coconut milk you can use the canned kind, or for a richer curry, coconut cream

250ml (about 1 cup) thin coconut milk

3 kaffir lime leaves (2 torn into pieces discarding the stem and 1 shredded) *these are usually found here in Arizona frozen at asian specialty markets.

40g (3 tablespoons) green peppercorns, young *usually found in a jar

3 Thai egg plants, small (cut into 1cm (1/2 inch) pieces)

150g (2/3 cup) pineapple (cut into bite-sized pieces)

6 cherry tomatoes

10 grapes

30g (2 tablespoons) sweet basil leaves- thai basil works well (keep some for garnish)

1 red chilli, big (sliced (keep some for garnish)

Sauce 30ml (2 tablespoons) fish sauce 30m (2 tablespoons) soy sauce 10g (2 teaspoons) sugar 20g (4 teaspoons) palm sugar *palm sugar usually comes in a jar

Instructions

Put the thick coconut milk into a wok and heat on high for 3-5 minutes, stirring continuously, until the coconut oil begins to separate out from the milk. Then add the red curry paste and fry for 1-2 minutes. Once the paste is cooked add the thin coconut milk and when it is boiling--add the kaffir lime leaves, young, green peppercorns, egg plants, pineapple and cherry tomatoes and simmer for 3 minutes. Then add the grapes, sweet basil leaves, big, red chilli, sauce ingredients, and duck and simmer for another 3 minutes. Turn off the heat and serve garnished with the remaining basil leaves, big, red chilli and thick coconut milk dashed on top.

 

The Blue Elephant Cooking School in Bangkok is much fancier than the school in Chiang Mai. They have a branded line of products and a small chain of white table-cloth restaurants world wide. The class size was larger, the participants slightly older, and the classes move at a much quicker pace, much like Bangkok in contrast to Chiang Mai. All of this makes sense with half day classes starting at $100 and up.

Chef Nooror Somany Steppé founded the Blue Elephant Group with her husband, Karl Steppé in 1980, but she was not present during our class. The class begins with a trip out of the ornate 3 story building to the local market via the Sky Train to the Bang Rak market to learn about traditional Thai ingredients. Upon returning to the school, we head back up to the third floor for class. There's a formal classroom with a demo station and even a flat screen monitor. Each student received a folder with printed recipes and an apron.

We commence watching the chef demo each recipe and then we sample it as a class. Next it's off to the practice kitchen where we then cook the same dish. Our trays are labeled with our individual number and we do some chopping, but much of the ingredients are measured out for us. We place each of our completed dishes on our tray, to be eaten in the afternoon. This process repeats with each recipe until early afternoon.

After a few hours, we head down to the main dining room as a class where we dine on the dishes we made along with rice and beverage service. We have our own private area, but we pass high-powered business men doing business over a fine lunch in the main dining room. Overall the experience at Blue Elephant, while a little rushed, was elegant. There's clearly a French and western influence on the structure of the classes and it mixes comfortably yet elegantly with the French colonial building and mostly Thai staff. Somehow it's a world of it's own, a retreat from the busy street market we visited early in the day. We dine the Thai way, with only a spoon and fork. Our class had a mixture of students from the US, Canada, China and France. At the end, we receive a swag bag containing chef pants, and a red curry kit containing curry paste and spices.

One of my favorite dishes from this class was the Tad Man Plaa Grai or Thai Fish Cake. The recipe is as follows.

Ingredients

180g (about 6.5 oz) Pla Grai (white fish fillets- you can use white sea bass or shrimp) 1 egg yolk, lightly beaten 20g (1/4 cup) long green bean, finely sliced 1 kaffir lime leaf, thinly sliced 1 tbsp. red curry paste ½ tsp. sugar 1 coriander root 1 clove garlic, peeled ¼ tsp. white pepper powder (found at asian super markets) ½ tsp. salt 1 tsp. fish sauce

Vegetable oil for frying. Preparation

Grind or mince the Pla Grai into a smooth paste. Set aside.

In a mortar, pound the coriander root, garlic and pepper until well blended into a smooth paste.

Mix the paste with 2 teaspoons of the red curry paste, fish sauce, sugar and egg using the back of a spoon.

Add beans, lime leaf, and the minced fish in mix them together until well blended.

Form 6 balls, using about 50g of the mixture for each one.

Flatten them into discs about 5mm / ¼ inch thick and 2½ inch in diameter.

Deep-fry in vegetable oil heated to 180°C / 350°F for 3 minutes.

Remove the fish cake from the oil, drain them on kitchen paper, place on a serving dish and serve with a cucumber salad.

You can freeze the fish cakes and reheat when you'd like to serve them.

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