Saturday, May 20, 2006

Fit To Be Thai: Pat's cooking class

With a name like Pat in Thailand, I was a bit skeptical. But, we'd read about her in both Lonely Planet and "To Asia With Love", so we called from a payphone outside of 7/11 and signed up for 'Pat's Home Cooking Classes'. After hearing that we'd be learning to make our favorites like Penang curry and papaya salad, Andy and I walked inside the 7/11 to pretend to shop, but really just to cool down in its blissfully cold air conditioning and celebrate. Finally, we'd have the chance to learn about the dishes we eat daily with near reverie while in Thailand!

Arriving on a rainy morning foreshadowing the imminent monsoons, Pat, a petite, wholly-Thai looking lady in her forties with a modern hair cut, greeted us with glasses of lemongrass ice tea wrapped in banana leaf and garnished orchids. "Whoa! Nice! Classy and SO Thai," I thought.~> read more

  People from Thailand take such care in food presentation and arrangement, truly like no other countries we've encountered so far, and this simple yet elegant start made me positive that Andy and I were going to come away with the best of souvenirs: secrets of Thai cooking.

I was so eager that I wanted to talk tofu, then cook it, immediately. But Pat wanted to sit in the entry parlor to her home and talk about herself, Thailand and us. Very nice, very polite, very Asian -- I felt so American and typical. Here I was ready to rush off to the kitchen and be productive, but she wanted to exchange pleasantries and ease into the moment. can take the American girl to Asia, but you can't take the American out of the girl. Soon enough, Andy and I were in her large indoor, yet open air, cooking studio (it was the largest and most professional of all that we've visited so far) donning burgundy aprons and washing our hands in a clay basin. Pat handed us each cutting boards and knives, and then started going through the exotic yet now familiar ingredients of the Thai kitchen.

For the next three hours, Andy and I choppped, smashed, squeezed, sauteed, stir-fried vegetables, herbs and noodles for curry, soup and Pad Thai (noodles), plus tumbled a jumble of ingredients gently in a mortar and pestle (something that is essential for true SE Asian cuisine) to create a perfectly spiced som tam (green papaya salad). Then, for an hour or more afterward, we sat in Pat's dining room and gorged ourselves on our creations.

What I liked best about the classes with Pat (we liked our first one so much that we called her back that evening and signed up for a private lesson), is that I finally feel like I got tips, shortcuts and insider information so I can replicate some of these dishes at home...wherever that may be. Thai food is exceptionally challenging because there are so many fresh herbs and spicy chilies (which come thanks to the exploration of the Portuguese) and even one "wrong" ingredient spirals the taste off in a less authentic direction. Now I know how to shop for fish sauce (it should be the clear color of maples syrup), you can substitute any fresh mushrooms for straw mushrooms, and Chaokoh coconut milk is the best brand. Pat cooked for six years at a Thai restaurant on Melrose Avenue in LA and convinced a few stars to break their rigid diets and taste her dishes, so she knows what ingredients are available in the US.

Also, Andy and I spent close to 15 minutes under her tutelage squeezing desicated coconut meat (from the older and fuzzy brown coconuts) in hot water to make fresh coconut cream, which we later used for curries. We smashed stalks of lemon grass ever so perfectly (three whacks until they're flat, but no more) and learned how the root of coriander/cilantro is incredibly flavorful and valuable for soups, so we should pound on it too and throw into herby stocks! Plus, under Pat's sharp black-brown eyes, and even sharper tongue that wasn't afraid to tell us when we were doing things wrong ("Too fat!" or "Mmm, no good! I show you!" she'd chirp in the perenially foreign and incredibly shrill rising and falling tones that dominate Asia's languages, and seem to leak into english as well), we picked up a few new knife skills. We shredded kaffir lime leaves into dental floss size strips for fish cakes and Penang with cleaved whacks, while tearing others only in half...because for soups, you need fuller flavor and for curries and cakes, you need only bits of their floral yet tangy limeness.

Pat especially loved Andy (who wouldn't, really?) because he's a whiz with a knife and she could tell that he does chopping and cooking at home. And, he has "very strong, very big (beeg is how Pat says it) hands" for squeezing coconut creme. Each class she smiled and spoke of his hands and strength, and I laughed silently thinking their exchange was a funny, not so wicked twist on Little Red Riding Hood. Sort of a "Little Flowered Sarong meeting Big Bad Western Man-Hands" fairy tale...

In the final moments as we plated hot foods, mounding noodles into dome shapes or squeezing fresh lime juice into soup bowls to make the "sour" of "hot and sour", Pat imparted direction on how to serve with Thai flair. We cris-crossed scallions, sprinkled peanuts and dusted a green layer on white plates with kaffir lime leaves and sweet basil. Now, she nodded with approval, our meal was ready! Thai food is as much about perfect, harmonious presentation as it is about the hot-sour-tangy-salty-sweet layers of flavor. Pat liked to leave us alone to stuff our faces in silence for the first few minutes, then she'd bound back with the same energy as her darling Beagle puppy that adored us and our paper napkins, and ask questions about how much things cost in America (that's very popular over here), gently offer the rental of her mountain house, give advice on traveling Thailand and more.

As we finished the most perfect plate ever of sweet sticky rice and just in season mango, Pat had us sign her guestbook (this is also very popular in Asia and India) and I felt a little twinge of something. It wasn't the heat of chilies in my stomach, it was something different...almost a type of sadness. For the fleeting beauty of the meal, perhaps a little. But even more, I believe, it was about our hours with Pat and how fun and free it was to share food and friendship. Like the Thai cuisine, many of our travel moments are hot, sour, salty and sweet, and also like those definitive, satisfying flavors, I don't always want them to end.

A few more photos from this great class are here:


Anonymous Stefanie Jones said...

Oh, I can't wait to try our some of your newly learned culinary masterpieces and gain some insight about the ingredients and techniques. What a wonderful description! Miss you guys!

4:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My mouth is watering just looking at the pictures and reading your descriptions! It's amazing how much prep work goes into it all and I can't wait for you to cook for me sometime! Love, Wendy

5:48 PM  

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