Learning to Cook Thai Food in Bangkok from Local chefs
By Ronald Estrada
Sometimes I get bored in Bangkok (imagine that!), and sometimes I even get hungry.
Fortunately, I found one solution to these problems—learning how to cook Thai food.
I followed the old saying that we have in the West: “When in Rome, do like the Thais.” So I enrolled in a fun Thai cooking school. Now when I shop in a Thai market, I actually know what to buy and how to cook the strange things for sale there. This is a liberating feeling AND saves me lots of money.
Yes, you read right, but maybe saving money doesn’t matter to you? As an expat living in Bangkok, I have learned that Thai foods are much cheaper and healthier than Western foods, and now I have learned how to cook my favorite Thai meals—Tom Yum Goong, Tom Kai Gai, Panang Gai, and Pad Thai.
In this big city, there are many cooking schools, but I found one highly recommended by some friends—Bangkok Thai Cooking Academy, conveniently located near the intersection of BTS Asoke and MRT Sukhumvit stations. Each class consisting of 2-10 students lasts four hours and costs only 1,250 baht (about $43).
During each class, four different dishes plus a curry paste were prepared, and at the end of the class, a free recipe booklet was provided. The school offers two classes daily Monday – Saturday, covering six different cooking courses.
If you complete at least three of them, you will receive a Certificate of Completion.
The English-speaking Thai instructor, Taksin Ruangpattanawiwat, nickname Ja, a chef with many years of cooking experience, made the class fun and educational. In fact, I loved the class so much that I took four of them.
First, the Market
The first thing he taught is that with Thai cooking, it all begins at the local market—where Thais go daily to purchase fresh ingredients for their meals. Thailand, having a year-round growing season, is a land of plenty, and the local markets attest to this.
We met first thing in the morning, before going to class, at an open-air market where Ja taught us how to identify spices and herbs by the smell and look—sweet basil, bitter basil, spicy basil, kaffir leaves, lemongrass, cilantro (coriander), galanga ginger, and much more.
As well as herbs, we also purchased fresh shredded coconut meat to be used in making coconut milk, noodles, red and green chilies, rice, vegetables, seafood, and meats. After this lesson, now when I go to a Thai market, I’m no longer a “lost” farang (a Westerner) in the produce section!
After shopping at the market, to the school, we went. I must confess that the classroom was more like going to a fun dinner party with everyone seated in a large circle with all ingredients in the center.
This informality added to the fun of the class. Our first meal was my favorite—Tom Yum Goong. With Ja’s help and guidance, we selected and methodically prepared each ingredient—lemongrass, galangal ginger, kaffir leaves, spring onions, cilantro, mushrooms, bird’s eye chili peppers.
On the sheltered, open-air porch of this “classroom” were lined 10 Thai gas cookers complete with woks and coconut wood cooking utensils. Learning to cook with a wok on a Thai cooker is an art in itself, one which requires a little practice.
But when using the cookers, I couldn’t help but feel like I was on a Bangkok street cooking up street food for the Thai. Once you get the ingredients to a cooker, it is amazing how fast they can be cooked and ready to eat.
Next thing I knew, I was eating Tom Yum Goong—maybe the best ever (maybe I am prejudiced?)! You quickly learn that the most time-consuming parts of Thai cooking are going to the market and actually preparing the ingredients for cooking.
When quizzed as to how exacting Thai cooking is, Ja said: “Thai cooking very forgiving, a little bit of this, a little bit of that—up to you.”
You want it hotter (pet maak maak)—just add more small peppers, if less hot (pet nit noi) then just use larger peppers or fewer small ones. You see, the hottest peppers are the smallest ones. The heat diminishes as the size increases. This is a great lesson for those farang who can’t take the heat, but don’t want to get out of the kitchen!
After preparing the Tom Yum Goong, it was time to make some curry pastes—red, yellow, green, and panang. Each is made a little differently, but all are made in the Thai traditional granite mortar and pestle where everything is finely ground into a paste. Using a mortar and pestle is a good workout.
The next time you want some exercise, try it; otherwise, you might want to be a bit more “Western” and use the food processor! Once prepared, these pastes will keep for several months.
They make Thai cooking quick and easy and usually then only require just adding some coconut milk and a few other fresh ingredients. Learning the intricacies of Thai cooking has actually added spice to my life and at times allowed me to adjust spice in my cooking.
Cooking “Thai” is actually easy, creative, and rewarding. Immersing myself in this fun culture has allowed me to obtain a unique souvenir—knowledge of how to cook Thai, something I can take with me no matter where I go next in this big world. Now I can cook healthier, cheaper, and more creatively.
Try this at Home
To illustrate this point, I am a big fan of spaghetti (but then, my mother is Italian), and since taking this course, I now prepare Thai spaghetti. Try this– you might like it (maybe even my mother would):
1. in a skillet or wok, add a little cooking oil, chopped garlic and onions, cook until you smell the odor of garlic
2. add ½ pound of ground pork, lightly cook
3. add 1 sm. can of tomato paste plus 2 ½ cans of water, stir until thoroughly mixed
4. add sugar to taste (about 1 to 2 teaspoons) plus some Italian seasoning
5. add sliced baby corn, cucumbers, okra, mushrooms and quartered cherry tomatoes
6. optional—add several sliced small peppers to “heat” things up
7. cook about 12 minutes
8. add sweet basil leaves about 1 minute before turning off heat
Serves: 2 people
Thai dishes made by students.
Thai dishes made by students.
Serve on spaghetti and enjoy!!! Presto, you now have farang food with a Thai twist.
Thai cuisine is world-renowned, and we here in Bangkok are fortunate to have access to this great mix of herbs, seasonings, sauces, coconuts, vegetables, tropical fruits and seafood.
Enjoying a year-round growing season, Thailand is truly a land of plenty, and thanks to Thai tastes and creativity, we are in the best place in the world to learn, participate, and enjoy. Even for those not fortunate enough to be in Bangkok, most Thai cooking ingredients can be found at a regular market or Asian food store.
So, what are you waiting for?
Ronald Estrada is an American expat who lives in Bangkok.