KRABI, May 15 — The most commonly heard Thai greeting after “Sawasdee Krab/Ka” (“Nice to meet you”) is possibly “Tan Khao Ma Rue Yung?” This is what our instructor Fah asks us at the start of our class at Smart Cook Thai Cookery School in Ao Nang, Krabi. Observing our bewildered expressions, she tells us it means “Have you eaten yet?”
Naturally, the right answer should be “Yung” (“Not yet”) since we have to cook our own meal today.
Why join a cooking class when we are in a beloved beach destination? There is the trinity of sun, sand and sea here in Krabi, after all. But for those of us who are bored of island hopping — at least after the third day straight of snorkelling and sunbathing — learning how to cook the local cuisine is an experience to be savoured (Better than buying more fridge magnets as souvenirs, at any rate).
Located in a nondescript house amidst lush greenery, Smart Cook Thai Cookery School was first established in 2001 and has a staff of experienced and professional teachers. Fah tells us the class today is entirely hands-on so she’ll be showing us the ropes but we’ll have to prep and cook at our individual cooking stations.
The open-air kitchen is clean and organised; the surrounding garden a riot of bromeliads (air plants) and orchids. Fah begins by discussing the ingredients we’ll use today, from the different types of chillies favoured in southern Thai cuisine to the difference between ginger and galangal. Then it’s time to put on our aprons and begin cooking.
First up is pad Thai, the one Thai dish everyone knows. The trick to this wok-fried rice noodles with prawns, according to Fah, is to fry the slices of firm tofu first, giving them a light golden crust before adding the noodles. The rest of the ingredients — prawns, bean sprouts, chives, garlic, nam pla (fish sauce), oyster sauce and sugar — follow in rapid succession.
There’s an art to breaking the egg into the wok and spreading it around quickly to barely coat the noodles so you don’t end up with large clumps of scrambled egg. Plenty of wrist work here.
Next we steam fish, Thai-style. Here, lemon juice is used to give a nice acidity to the dish the locals call pla neung ma nao. Whilst we prepare the dressing — using quite a bit of sliced bird’s eye chillies — we chat with our instructor and ask her questions about Krabi. Fah tells us that the best market is the Krabi Maharat Market, which opens at 3am; we should get there before 8am to get the freshest produce. (But who wakes up that early while on vacation?)
Possibly the most challenging dish to prepare is the chicken in pandan leaves (kai ho bai toey). It’s not the marinating (just soak the meat in soy sauce, sugar and pounded peppercorns) or the cooking (hot oil in a deep wok; pretty straightforward). No, it’s the folding of the pandan leaves to form neat little pockets that takes some getting used to. Consider this Thai origami.
Fah announces it’s time to take a break to eat the first three dishes we’ve cooked. We are sweaty from the hot woks and the sweltering Krabi heat, but we are all smiling too. A cloth is laid down on the floor and we sit down for our meal; each dish shared from a common plate. Fresh coconut water cools us better than any chilled isotonic drink can.
After a bit of rest, it’s time to return to our stations. We start with a savoury salad of beef (yum neue yaang). The pieces of beef is simply fried dry, without oil, in the wok till done. Fah shows us how to slice the beef, once rested and cooled, very thinly and to toss it with cucumber, lemongrass and mint leaves. All that remains is to dress it with a mix of nam pla, lime juice, sugar and more spicy bird’s eye chillies. Refreshing and guaranteed to clear your sinuses.
My favourite Thai dish is Massaman chicken curry (kaeng matsaman kai), which I order every time I see it on the menu. Turns out making it from scratch can be quite labour-intensive, given the amount of spices required to make the Massaman curry paste (nam phrik kaeng matsaman).
This rich but mild Thai curry used to be called “Mussulman curry”, a nod to its Muslim roots, having been brought over by traders from the East in the 17th century. Fah explains this is why the spices used here — cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, star anise and cumin — are not frequently seen in other Thai curries; these are more commonly used in India and the Middle East.
The southern Thais, mainly Muslims, added their own twist by combining these with local spices such as lemongrass and galangal to create the Massaman curry paste. We give our biceps a workout by pounding the spices with the pestle and mortar, before frying the paste with coconut cream. Meat and tamarind paste are added later; lastly the indispensable aromatic peanuts that make this curry instantly recognisable.
Our last dish is sticky rice with mangoes (khao neeaw ma muang), the quintessential Thai dessert. Fah had already soaked the glutinous rice in water overnight and steamed it earlier in the morning, so we only had to heat the coconut milk in the wok with some sugar and salt to taste. We add the cooked rice, stir and let the grains soak up the milk.
Who knew this could be so simple? We plate the sticky rice with freshly sliced mangoes, pour a generous amount of coconut cream over it and we’re ready to eat yet again! Certainly it feels more satisfying to sit down to a meal knowing that we’ve cooked it ourselves — with plenty of guidance from our patient instructor, of course — and every bite, I swear, tastes better.
“Now you can make these dishes at home,” beams Fah. I’m not too sure about that, knowing far too well my penchant for making excuses in the kitchen. Right now, though, I’m relishing in the best part of joining a cooking class: no need to wash dishes afterwards!
Smart Cook Thai Cookery School
32/1, Moo 5, Tambon Ao Nang Muang, Krabi, Thailand