- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 9, 2007

BANGKOK, Thailand — For cooks new to Thai cuisine, its distinctive blend of salty, spicy, sweet and sour can present a complex and intimidating challenge.

It shouldn’t, Rungsan Mulijan told a classroom of foodies during a day of hard-core cooking in Bangkok. Thailand’s richly flavored dishes are easy to make — or at least not as difficult as you think, the Thai chef said.

Even amateurs can experience the magic that comes with lifting the lid off a wok, taking a whiff and smelling the balance: ginger-scented coconut milk, garlic, chilies and a trace of fresh basil that, fused, become a delicate, aromatic curry.

“I couldn’t believe that I actually cooked it,” said 73-year-old Canadian Norman Crossley, sharing the sentiment of a dozen students attending a class on classic Thai cuisine at Bangkok’s Blue Elephant cooking school. The school is one of many that have sprouted across the country in response to the growing popularity of Thai food worldwide.

From Chiang Mai up north to the beaches down south, Thai cooking courses are available for every budget. Backpacker districts offer classes for about $20, while top hotels offer a range of day courses and multiclass packages with luxury lodgings.

Noncooks might not see the pleasures of standing behind a hot stove during a vacation in the tropics, but more and more food lovers are planning trips around cooking classes or enrolling for a break from the standard temple-hopping and bargain shopping.

“As soon as I knew we were coming to Thailand, I said I wanted to go to cooking school,” said Barbara Crossley, a former assistant instructor at Toronto’s Cordon Bleu school, who took the class at the Blue Elephant with her husband. They booked almost a year in advance, although last-minute reservations are usually fine.

Bangkok’s famed Oriental Hotel offers short- and longer-term classes in a lovely Thai-style dwelling along the breezy Chao Praya river. One-day classes cost $120; a four-day package including five nights’ lodging and a one-hour massage starts at $1,800.

The Blue Elephant, one of Bangkok’s top restaurants, is in a century-old home that once housed the country’s first department store, then served as a Japanese headquarters during World War II. Today, its teak-paneled rooms are filled with orchids and recall a more tranquil time before the invasion of skyscrapers and traffic. Day classes, held in a student kitchen on the restaurant’s third and top floor, cost $85.

The restaurant began offering classes in 2002 as more foreign chefs sought to incorporate Thai techniques and tastes into their own cooking. A five-day intensive course for visiting chefs costs $1,900.

A recent four-hour class began with a morning tour through the outdoor Bang Rak market, an excursion the instructor billed as a foray into “the real Thailand.”

The market has not been tidied up for foreigners. On a typically torrid Bangkok day, students shared the market’s walkways with stray cats and dodged splashing innards as fish mongers cleaned the morning catch.

The tour provided an entry to the world of spices, pastes and produce — the kaffir limes, galangal, lemon grass, tamarind, curry pastes, freshly grated coconut and chilies — that flavor Thailand’s delicate soups and stir-frys.

“Now I have a better understanding of all the ingredients,” says Californian Rhydonia Ring, who runs a private cooking school near San Francisco and spent a week in Bangkok attending Blue Elephant’s chef’s course. “You can read in cookbooks, but it’s not the same as watching someone cook and seeing their techniques.”

During the tour, Mr. Rungsan also suggested substitutes for ingredients that might be difficult to find back home.

Cilantro root — which contributes a pungent lemon-peppery flavor — can be replaced by the stems from a bunch of fresh cilantro, minus the leaves, he said. Galangal is in the same family as ginger, but if it can’t be found, skip it. Don’t substitute ginger, which is sharper and can overpower certain dishes.

Back in the classroom, Mr. Rungsan touched on the history of Thai food, with its influences from China, India and Europe, while leading students through four of Thai cuisine’s greatest hits: green curry with chicken, sour and spicy prawn soup (tom yam goong), phad Thai (Thai-style stir-fried rice noodles) and green papaya salad (som tam).

Mr. Rungsan also offered shortcuts, especially for curry paste — the basis for Thailand’s green, red and yellow curries.

“I suggest you buy it, not make it,” he half-joked while using a stone mortar and pestle to pound out a paste of lemon grass, chilies, coriander root, kaffir lime zest, galangal, garlic, shallots and shrimp paste.

Mr. Rungsan said his grandmother advised that it takes 45 minutes of pounding to make the real thing, but most Thais will tell you they stop at 20 minutes, and a few minutes in a food processor does just fine.

At the end of the class, students ate what they cooked. Filip Ernest, 33, from the Netherlands, who squeezed in two half-day classes during a business trip to Bangkok, said his new skills would be put to good use.

“I came here without my wife, and she’s upset she’s not with me. So this is payback,” he said. “She gets a month of Thai cooking.”

Pad Thai (Thai-style stir-fried rice noodles)

One of Thailand’s best-known dishes, pad thai is a delight for the taste buds. It combines glutinous rice noodles with crunchy peanuts and bean sprouts, and gets a salty kick from fish sauce and a spritz of lime. This recipe was adapted from the version taught at Bangkok’s Blue Elephant cooking school. It makes one serving, but it is easily multiplied.

2½ ounces of flat, thin rice noodles

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 tablespoon chopped shallots

1/4 cup firm tofu, cut into thin, bite-sized rectangles

½ tablespoon sweet pickled turnip, minced or finely chopped (if unavailable, skip it)

1 tablespoon small dried shrimp

1/4 cup water

1½ tablespoons Thai fish sauce

1½ tablespoons sugar

1½ tablespoon lime or lemon juice

2 shrimp, shelled and deveined

1 egg

1 tablespoon ground roasted peanuts, plus 1 teaspoon for garnish

1 scallion, cut into 1-inch pieces

1/4 cup bean sprouts

1 lime or lemon wedge, to garnish

Fresh cilantro leaves, to garnish

In a small bowl of cold water, soak the rice noodles 20 minutes, or until they can be easily bent in half without snapping. Drain.

Once the noodles are tender, drizzle the oil in wok (over the sides and center) set over medium-high heat. A large skillet can be substituted. Once the oil is hot, add the shallots and saute until aroma is released, about 30 seconds.

Add the tofu and saute another 30 seconds. Add the pickled turnip, dried shrimp and noodles, stirring quickly to separate the noodles. Add the water and simmer, covered, for about 5 minutes, or until the water has almost evaporated.

Add the fish sauce, sugar and lime or lemon juice. Stir-fry for 1 to 2 minutes, or until the liquid mostly evaporates and caramelizes around the noodles. Add the shrimp and stir-fry another 15 seconds.

Push noodle mixture to one side of pan and add the egg to other side. Scramble egg with a spatula so it breaks into small pieces, then mix together with noodles. Add 1 tablespoon of the peanuts and stir-fry another 15 seconds.

Add the scallion and bean sprouts, stir-fry quickly for about 30 seconds, or until the scallion just begins to wilt. Remove the pan from the heat. To serve, garnish with lime or lemon wedge, ground peanuts and cilantro leaves. Makes 1 serving, but is easily multiplied.

• • •

The Blue Elephant, visit www.blueelephant.com.

Oriental Hotel, visit www.mandarinoriental.com/bangkok.

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