I love Thai food and I love to cook, but for some reason the two passions never quite got along in my kitchen. So on my last vacation, I decided to take a little time to remedy that problem and signed up for a day’s instruction. And what better place to learn than in Thailand itself?
I headed to Ao Nang on the seashore in Krabi province, an area of tremendous natural beauty whose popularity rivals that of the resort destination Phuket. A pickup truck with benches along the inside of the box gathered us students from our hotels like soldiers off to culinary boot camp. The driver stopped several times – “Wait, please!” – and ducked into a roadside store to reemerge moments later with a bag of vegetables or a freshly butchered chicken. The ride ended just outside of town at Krabi Thai Cookery School, an open-air pavilion off the back of a residence with wide work tables, sinks and two banks of gas stoves.
Chonlaya Laothong – “Mrs. Ya” – is the owner and instructor, and she welcomed us with a smile and passed out aprons. Her professional career began back in 1983, and in 1998, after many years as a chef in hotels in Bangkok and Europe, she opened this school. “I grew up in Eastern Thailand but my father sent me to Bangkok because he was worried I was too much of a tomboy.”
She passed out cookbooks that would also serve as our diplomas, and then gathered our likes and dislikes, “Chicken?” Show of hands. “Hmmm. Any vegetarians? Hmmm. Do you like spicy?” Against all better judgment I said, “Yes.”
She walked us through the ingredients all neatly gathered in bowls like a TV cooking show. In Thai cuisine the ingredients, of course, make the meal. The tanginess of tamarind can be substituted with vinegar, and galanga bears a resemblance to ginger (“Same same, but different!”), but the less swapping out you do, the better your results.
Mrs. Ya uses some catch phrases in her instruction and shouts them encouragingly like a fitness instructor. “Joop joop” means two tablespoons-but not measured, just two good shakes of the fish sauce or oil bottle. “Bang bang” means you need to open the garlic, shallots, and galanga before putting them in the mix. “Everything bang bang!” she cried. So we pounded roots and vegetables with what looked like a heavy wooden fish whacker to break the pieces open to let the flavors out. In my case, it was letting the food onto the floor or shooting cloves at the student across from me. Not as easy as it sounded. At one point Mrs. Ya warned us: “Thai woman who doesn’t learn bang bang, doesn’t get husband.” I held my tongue on that one.
“In Laos, crab still walking. Put in bowl and pound pound pound. Lime peel! Chop chop!”
Everyone completed a separate dish with the woks at the gas stoves so that we were able to see a variety of dishes from soups to stir fries on up to the classic fried noodles, Pad Thai. The recipes were already written down so no one had to stop to take notes; it was all hands on cooking from beginning to end. We learned many secrets as well, including the use of coconut milk as an oil substitute in many of Mrs. Ya’s dishes.
As if the joy of cooking weren’t enough, you also have the pleasure of having one of Mrs. Ya’s assistants following you around picking up dishes, cleaning up spills, and finally, setting the table with the afternoon’s efforts. Graduation is sitting down to a massive homemade buffet of Thai dishes.
If I hadn’t witnessed it (and cooked it) myself, I wouldn’t have believed these 30-plus dishes on the table were made without previous experience. The som tam (green papaya salad) was a perfect blend of tanginess and spice, and the curries inspired me to take seconds despite the growing five-alarm fire in my mouth.
Mrs. Ya had one more instructional catch phrase: “Eat! Eat!” She watched us hesitate. We were all a little wary of the large portions and I even patted my stomach a bit to emphasize the point.
But as Mrs. Ya reassured us, “Thai cooking no make you fat. I’m fat because I eat one day 54 times!”
Krabi Thai Cookery School
info @ thaicookeryschool.net
(+66) 081-979-0677 (cell phone)
269 Moo 2
Aonang, Krabi 81000
Mrs. Ya admits she doesn’t answer email much, but it is best to make a reservation before your trip. However, most travelers do so just one or two days before the class. Same day is always possible, but if you don’t want to be heading home and ordering out, you best plan ahead. Morning, afternoon and all-day courses are available, and the minimum class size is two people.
Just a sample from Mrs. Ya’s repertoire; if you want the rest (and a diploma), get that ticket to Krabi!
Yellow Curry Pineapple and Shrimp
300g prawns (shelled and deveined)
2.5 cups coconut milk
1 tbsp yellow curry paste
2 tbsp fish sauce
1 tbsp palm sugar
1 pinch salt
4-5 Kaffir lime leaves
Fry curry paste in coconut milk until fragrant. Reduce heat and add pineapple, shallots, fish sauce, sugar, salt and lime leaves. Then add shrimp, stir for two minutes and add 2 tbsp of coconut cream at the end of cooking. Serve with rice.