Thai food has largely been a mystery to me. I’ve never been to Thailand, and when I’ve cooked Thai food at home it’s usually been a case of a spoonful of Thai red curry paste from a jar and adding a tin of coconut milk. That’s Thai food, right? (Uh, not really).
I occasionally have Thai food when I eat out, and my future mother in law really likes a particular Thai takeaway, but the last time we got dinner from there, we waited 2 hours, gave up and went and collected it ourselves! I thought at the time, what I shame I don’t know how to make proper Thai food at home…
Luckily the nice people at the Food at 52 cookery school stepped in to help. You may have seen that I went to an Old El Paso product launch there recently.
The people who ran the cookery school, which Old El Paso had booked for the evening, invited me back to do one of their other courses. I had a look at the list on their website – courses range from kitchen confidence, mid-week seasonal suppers and meat-free Monday meals to the cusines of different countries such as Spanish, Moroccan, Southern Indian, Vietnamese and Thai. I signed up to Flavours of Thailand.
The cookery school is near Old Street in London so very easy for me to get to from work. There were 10 people, each at our own workstation along a long wooden table, with the chef John in the middle. The class was quite fast-paced but they don’t assume any prior knowledge – which is good as when it comes to Thai ingredients I didn’t have any. John also demonstrated good knife skills and passed on all sorts of other tips.
We began by making a Thai salad with green papaya – I’d never even come across a green papaya before and looked more like a giant cucumber than the orange-fleshed tropical fruit I was familiar with when I’ve eaten papaya. It was peeled and pushed through a food processor with a shredder attachment – this would form the basis of our salad.
John demonstrated how to prepare the other ingredients then we each took on one or two tasks – I was finely slicing ginger and lemongrass while someone else did red chillis.
I was then asked to thinly slice a piece of fillet steak which was sprinkled with lime juice, ceviche style, so it did not actually need to be cooked.
To make the dressing a large stone pestle and mortar was used, and we ground together chilli, palm sugar, garlic, lime juice, coriander stems and white sugar. We were encouraged to taste the dressing and while everyone was sagely nodding, saying it was a bit fiery perhaps, I couldn’t speak! I’m not good with spicy food and at this point wondered how I was going to be able to eat anything… then the fish sauce (nam pla) was added and it totally changed the taste. Before, you could almost pick out each flavour individually – the sharpness of the lime (there was a lot of lime) hit you first, then the warmth of the ginger, then the fiery chilli at the back of your throat. The fish sauce somehow brought all the flavours together and toned down the spice a bit.
To make our salad we took a handful of shredded green papaya, some beef, and added dried shrimp, dried red onion and some mint and poured the sauce over the top. It was delicious!
For the main course we made a green curry with seabass and green peppercorns. John held up some green birdseye chillis and asked how many we thought we should add to the dish.. I was thinking one or two or maybe even less, and I almost fell off my chair when he said the answer was 80! We each took 8 and learned the right way to prepare them – slice in half from the end, sliding a sharp knife through horizontally. Then use the heel of the knife – if it’s a big knife with a small handle like we had – to scrape the seeds and membrane out in one go. I used to turn chillis over and cut with the shiny, hard side facing up but this is wrong and you should actually have the soft underneath facing up.
The reason for adding so many chillis isn’t just heat – they also give flavour, and colour. Apparently some cheap curries use green bell peppers to give the same colour. But as you don’t want it too spicy to eat, the taste is tempered – as the salad dressing was – with fish sauce.
The chillis were put in an electric chopper along with something called galangal, some lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, coriander root, shallots, garlic, shrimp paste, peppercorns, coriander seeds and cumin seeds to make a paste.
Did you know you can make oil from coconut milk? When you open a tin of coconut milk you always get a thick layer of cream on top and the liquid – like water – underneath. Spoon off about half the thick cream and heat in a wok or frying pan. Keep heating until the cream actually separates – you are burning the water content off and reducing it down to an oil. This means there’s no need to add any extra oil to your pan.
Place 1 level tbsp. per person of the curry paste into the pan and heat, stirring. Pour in the rest of the tin of coconut milk – cream and water – and scrape around the sides to incorporate the green paste and add some fish sauce and palm sugar. We poured this into an earthenware bowl with a lid and left on one side for a while then put the bowl back on the heat to gently heat through. We added sweet Thai basil and peppercorns at the end to serve.
The curry was served over rice and was delicious – it had quite a kick but was nowhere near as spicy as I was expecting and it tasted so good.
We had a quick dessert which John demonstrated – sticky rice with mango. You just cook some glutinous (rather than jasmine) rice and mix some chopped mango with some mango puree from a tin (which has more flavour and provides the liquid you need). Spoon some rice into a bowl or plate, spoon the mango chunks and sauce around it and sprinkle with some dried coconut and torn mint leaves. Far better than the rice pudding I had as a child!
I really enjoyed the evening and the laid-back atmosphere of the chef- John was a great tutor and happy to answer questions on anything else (e.g. the trick to a good Pad Thai) and made the evening a lot of fun. They don’t stint on the drinks either – aside from suggesting we might want to go easy on the wine until we had finished chopping with sharp knives, the drinks flowed all evening and we really bonded as a group even though most people had come in pairs or on their own as I did. The course cost £115 but for that we started at 6.30pm and went on until 10; had starters of spring rolls, then of course ate the three courses we’d prepared, had plenty of wine and learnt some really useful techniques. I highly recommend Food at 52 – and will definitely be making more Thai food at home!
I was a guest of Food at 52 and asked to write a review – all opinions are my own.