I absolutely love Pad Thai; it is one of my favorite foods. I have attempted to make it at home, but have not mastered the cooking technique. The noodles are the wrong consistency and the sauce is nowhere near as delicious as Pad Thai I have had at restaurants. So, to rectify the situation, I signed up for a half-day Thai cooking class. I looked at a couple of different schools but settled on Zabb E. Lee Cooking School because I liked their menu choices better (they are rated #2 on Trip Advisor). For less than $30, I would be cooking a 5-course meal (and, of course, eating it!). I selected the following:
- Appetizer: Thai Fresh Spring Roll
- Stir-Fried: Pad Thai
- Soup: Tom Kha Kai
- Curry: Chiang Mai Curry with Egg Noodle (Khao Soi)
- Dessert: Mango Sticky Rice
I was picked up at 8:45 am at my hotel. After picking up a few more people, the van took us to a local produce market. We were divided up into groups; there are several options through this particular school. There were 9 of us that had signed up for the half-day course. Our teacher, Shampoo, introduced herself and then showed us around the market. We were shown each of the ingredients that we would be cooking with and given a chance to smell them. Then we had 10 minutes of free time to stroll around the market. In addition to fresh vegetables and fruit, there were stalls selling packets of Thai spices, including pre-made flavoring packets for common Thai dishes (cheating, right?). Naturally, there were also stalls selling the ubiquitous elephant pants and shorts seen everywhere in this neck of the woods.
Next, on to the cooking school! While Shampoo and her assistants finished preparations for our class, we were offered coffee, tea, and cold water as well as some insect repellant. The classroom was divided into two areas – prep and cooking. At each station were a chopping block and cleaver. Shampoo was at the head of the table. Our first two dishes would be the soup course and the stir fry course. Since there were three choices of each course, we were not all cooking the same items. But, though we were cooking different things, each had similarities. So, she gave a general demonstration, and then specific directions to those making the same dish. Some, but not all of the prep work had been done for us. I noticed that many of the participants were not super comfortable using a cleaver, but fortunately, no one chopped off a finger! However, some took quite a while to chop their veggies.
After cutting and chopping our ingredients, we moved to the cooking area which was arranged in a U-shape. We were shown several times how to safely start our gas burners; Shampoo really didn’t want us to do it wrong and cause a fire. We placed plates of ingredients on the shelves below and covered them with plastic baskets to keep the bugs off (not that bugs were a big issue, but better safe than sorry). Shampoo showed us the sauces and flavorings that are used in virtually all Thai dishes. Each person had their own wok but shared sauces with one other person. She demonstrated how to make Pad Thai (7 out of the 9 of us had selected that particular dish) and then it was time for us to cook! There were two people that chose Cashew Chicken, so she moved off to work with them. There were a few assistants that were there to help if you got stuck. They also monitored us to make sure we were putting the right quantities of sauce in our dish. We plated our dishes, covered them, and placed them on the tables. Now, on to the soup course. Rather than demonstrate step-by-step, Shampoo just gave us directions on how to make the soups. She tasted each and then sent us to the tables to eat the fruits of our labors.
Let’s just say that the dishes were absolutely delicious! Unfortunately, after a big bowl of soup and a plate of noodles, I was pretty full, and we still had 3 dishes to go.
When we returned to the prep area, mortars and pestles had been placed on the table in addition to our chopping blocks and cleavers. All Thai curries are made in a similar manner; adding a few ingredients changes the flavors from green curry (uses milder chilies) to red curry (spicier), Penang (uses peanuts), or Massamun (uses cinnamon, star anise, and another ingredient that I can’t remember). We were put into teams of three for the prep work for the curries. We started by grinding peppercorns into a fine grind using the mortar and pestle. We then chopped up our flavoring ingredients (lemongrass, galangal, chilies, garlic, etc.) and then ground them up as well. We alternated the heavy work of pounding the ingredients into pulp. While we were doing this, Shampoo pulled another member of the group and me aside and asked us to make the filling for the spring rolls. We went over to the cooking area to stir-fry. By the time we returned, the curries were ready to go. I didn’t mind helping out but do feel like I missed out on a couple of the steps in making curry. The good news is that the likelihood of me actually creating my own curry from scratch runs from slim to none, so I didn’t really miss anything important! And, we were given a recipe book at the end of the day, so if I was crazy enough to go to all of that work, I could just look up the directions there.
Next up was the cooking of the mango sticky rice, which was the only dessert option. Rather than have everyone cook up a portion, Shampoo asked for 2 volunteers – a master chef and a sous chef to make the dish. No one seemed to want to volunteer, so I did. Another woman agreed to be the sous chef. I made the rice, she made the coconut sauce that was added in. Let’s just say that mango sticky rice is made with an incredible amount of palm sugar! I couldn’t believe how much palm sugar I had to put into that wok! The rice had been prepared earlier, so after boiling some coconut cream with all of that sugar, the rice was added. Next, some blue tea was mixed in (for color). And, then I stirred and stirred until the texture was right. Finally, the coconut sauce was drizzled on top. We all tasted a bit to make sure we agreed it was yummy, and then returned to the prep area to make our appetizers.
Let’s just say that I have not mastered the technique of creating the perfect spring roll. The rice paper sheets were a bit challenging to work with; my rolls kind of fell apart. But, they still tasted good!
Our last step was to cook our curries. The ingredients (besides the curry pastes that we had created) were waiting for us at our woks. Again, Shampoo did an amazing job of instructing groups of people making different dishes on how to create the perfect curry. She taste-tested each for flavor, and we headed back to the tables to eat. I managed to eat a few bites of the Khao Soi (it was amazing), and a couple of spring rolls. The mango sticky rice had been pre-packaged for us to take home. I think that it is quite common that people cannot eat everything that they cooked! I asked that all of my leftovers be packed into to-go containers. Shampoo came around to collect the fee for the class and distributed our recipe books. She explained the meaning of the name of the cooking school (Zabb E. Lee). In Thai, it means “very delicious”, though she used a completely different term for “very”! We were then driven back to our hotels.
I can’t recommend this class enough. Shampoo made the day so fun! The food and companionship were both excellent, and it was so economical (only 1000 TB, a little over $30). The only downside was that there was way too much food to eat!