Tuesday, 13 April 2010
While just about every Thai you meet is warm and wonderful, every now and then, one pops up above the crowd as a truly special person. One one such example is Tam, who opened the Amita Thai Cooking Class school about a year ago.
With her open, smiling face, healthy glow, and gleaming eyes, she looks like everyone's favourite aunty.
Which she is, just about. You see, all the staff are her cousins or somehow part of her clan. This is a family affair. Even the school is on her great, great grandfather's property, where their home has stood on the banks of the fabled canals of the Chao Phraya River for 60 years. (You can choose to arrive at Amita by longtailed boat or by car.) In all, six houses have been joined together to form what is now the school, with its welcoming frangipani trees and canvas umbrellas, and even more welcome drink of iced lemongrass/pandanus/lime. Damn that's good.
A couple of chickens, Lotus and White Sesame, scratch around the yard, unaware of me sharpening my hatchet in anticipation of fresh chicken curry for lunch. Much of what was an orchid garden has now been given over to all manner of exotic herbs and leaves which go to spice up the dishes.
Before long, plates of crispy tempura flowers are trotted out: 'Thais don't know how to sit still,' jokes Tam, 'we always have to munch something.' The lightly battered cowslips and butterfly peas are not only moorish, but also have value such as high vitamin C content or act as great decongestants.
Soon Tam and the girls are in full show-biz mode, demonstrating how Thai cooking is supposed to be done. Chop, chop, chop -- with deft flicks of the wrist, a colourful array of ingredients for the som tam salad is reduced to perfectly sliced pieces. Her helpers whisk away the peels and any waste barefuly before they've even touched the counter-top of the open-sided cooking area. It's meticulously clean and militarily efficient.
'Pound the hot stuff first,' the former lawyer advises as she grinds away with a pestle and mortar, drawing childish giggles from my class-mates, who say that's always been their mantra in life. In no time flat, there's a beautifully presented salad. A Michelin-restaurant quality green prawn curry. And tidily tied chicken in pandanus leaf. And radio-active blue rice (coloured with natural dye from, I think, the butterfly peas.) Well, this Thai cooking lark is easy, nothing to it.
Now comes our turn. I soon discover I'm a real natural in the kitchen -- I can swear just as much as Gordon Ramsay, no #@&% worries there! While others are timidly presenting their finished dishes, I'm still peeling and dicing. My flame's too hot, my flame's too low. My chicken keeps falling out of the pandan leaf. %*#$!!! The helpers peg the dishes with our names and whisk the offending evidence away, as if for exhibit in a grisly murder trial.
At the end, we sit at long tables near the river, and the ladies bring the dishes in. I'm hoping there's a mix-up with the tagging so at least I get one edible dish of someone else's.
We sample each other's dishes. 'Not so much Michelin star, as Dunlop tyre!' quips one helpful gent. 'You would've been better off cooking the glove,' volunteers another kindly, referring to the rubber gloves we had donned to handle and mix some of the ingredients.
A fun morning, a great experience at the hands of the wonderfully patient Tam and her team. But one which -- thanks to my butchery -- will live on henceforth in culinary history as The Amita-ville Horror.
On the way out, I casually ask Tam what she likes to cook in her spare time, expecting to hear of some exotic rarely seen Thai dish that perhaps only those who've mastered the elementary stuff could possibly tackle. 'Italian,' she says. 'Carpaccio or pasta ... it's simple.' Jing jing!