They say that the soul of a country lies in its’ food and when the country is Thailand, land of a thousand different spices, smells, flavours and tastes, how better to get under the skin of the country by partaking in a cooking class. My earlier tour of historic Bangkok’s street eats has only whetted my appetite to learn more about the cuisine and on a lazy day in Koh Lanta, we arrive at Roi Thai. Located on Long Beach, Roi Thai looks like your standard cookery school on the outside, but inside you’re pretty much at ocean’s edge, all the better to sip a cold cocktail and gaze at the view beyond.
But we’re here to work and after donning some fetching hairnet caps and aprons, we meet the chef and our teacher for the morning Akkapak. Laid out in front of us is a veritable smorgasbord of ingredients, glistening and releasing tantalising aromas. We spend the first hour just listening to Akkapak give us the basics, I learn that it’s a mistake to classify Thai food into one category, Thai food from the north is very creamy and rich as it’s much colder up north. Southern food is especially spicy to combat the heat and the central region does a halfway house between the two, thus resulting in a unique take of their own.
In turn, we go through all the vegetables and spices and even play a little guessing game of our own to try and see what we are smelling. We learn that there are 5 tastes in Thai cooking, sweet, sour, salty, creamy and spicy and any given recipe requires a balance of two or more of these flavours, resulting in numerous permutations to give you the exact flavour you’re looking for.
When making curry paste, it’s a mistake to use anything apart from a stone pestle & mortar. The fragrance of a curry paste comes from releasing the essential oils in the ingredients you’re blending, something not possible in a modern day blender. There are also some home remedy gems on the day, fresh turmeric rubbed onto skin stops itching after mosquito bites, halved kaffir limes make excellent shampoo and garlic drubbed on dry skin cures any dry skin flaking you may have. I’ll probably pass on the latter but the turmeric is great if you’re in the need for all natural mosquito relief.
First up, we make some Som Tam, or Papaya Salad, you’d think this would be the basic one, after all it’s a series of raw ingredients blended together with a bit of dressing. It turned out to be not quite so simple, sure there are the collection of raw ingredients, green papaya, string beans, a little bit of tomato, dried shrimp and peanuts and you then whisk up a dressing of fish sauce, palm sugar, lemon juice and tamarind juice with some garlic and fresh red chilli. The hardest part is getting that balance of flavour just right – we’re told to add equal weight but Akkapak magically swooshes amongst us, tasting, adding a bit more of different flavours and swishing together till he’s found the perfect taste sensation. No matter our best efforts to ensure our own dressings balance, it’s a tricky business and we’re very grateful to have a master on hand to swirl and taste and add.
Next up, even further along on the tricky scale is Tom Kha Gai, or coconut soup with chicken. We gently poach a selection of ingredients, tomatoes, mushrooms, kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass in a chicken broth and coconut milk with a flavour combo of red chilli, fish sauce, palm sugar and lemon juice. Getting the balance right is even trickier on this dish and required a great deal of assistance to get this one right and I’m not convinced that we did this one exactly right.
Final item on the list was everyone’s favourite Thai dish – Pad Thai. Pad Thai along with other Thai dishes like noodle soups originate from China so are eaten with chopsticks, whereas usually Thai food is eaten with forks and knives and not chopsticks. I don’t know about you, but this is something that has bothered me for yonks, so I’m pleased to have this little mystery ironed out!
Husband prides himself on being a bit of a Pad Thai aficionado (he’s made it once I tell you) but he smugly breezes his way through making the noodles, even offering me some tips and garners himself a well done from the chef whilst I sulk in the background. I can’t argue with the end result though, his Pizza-express loving tastebuds are clearly more advanced than mine and his Pad Thai has the definite edge. Not daunted in the least, I simply swap them over and eat his. Well all’s fair in love and Pad Thai, right?
After all the fun is over and certificates awarded, we spend hours lingering in the shade, gazing out to the bluest of blue oceans, drinking ice cold coconut water and generally making a nuisance of ourselves to the charming staff who are more than happy to chat and have a laugh with us. They even give us a lift back to our side of the island when we’re finally ready to go, clutching our recipe books to try out recipes when we’re back home again.
Disclosure: I was a guest of Roi Thai, but all thoughts and musings are as always, my own. The dazzling photos you see here are all courtesy of Louise, an extremely talented photographer, local to Koh Lanta and a dear friend.