I came to Bangkok to eat and to eat well. But moreover, I wanted to learn the basics of Thai cooking. So I enlisted for a short cooking course at the Silom Thai Cooking School located on Silom Soi 13.
I’d been warned not to be late. The day before, instructor Sanusi Mareh explained over the telephone that the day would start with a visit to the local market to learn about fresh ingredients. After that, we had to cook and eat six dishes. So no breakfast either.
The local Silom fresh produce market was a fantastic yet bewildering experience.
In the meat corner, fresh cuts of beef and pork hung on hooks from the rafters. Whole belly of pork, rubbed with Chinese five-spice was being grilled over charcoal fires on makeshift grills. In large silver pots, big chunks of pork leg stewed slowly in dark soy and fish sauce.
Live fish and poultry were for sale in another corner. Dried, whole squid hung across tables like washing on a line. Plastic pegs and all.
Dragon fruit and bunches of yellow and green bananas were stacked to form perfect symmetric circles.
Claws of fresh, bright orange turmeric lay interspersed with big bundles of runner beans, some almost half-a-meter long.
Back at school we got our tasks. Of all people, I got to clean the coriander roots. It took me a good ten minutes to fit all of six foot one and one hundred and thirty kilograms into a kitchen the size of a swing lid dustbin; to scrape the thin skin of roots smaller than matchsticks with a knife the size of a cleaver.
Making green curry paste by hand was a test of endurance. Bob, a tall, retired Dutch executive, complained bitterly about leg pains from sitting cross-legged on the floor. He made it clear he had not signed up for this; he was henpecked by his wife.
Lying on his side with his legs stretched out, supporting his head on his elbow, he managed a few lackluster whacks before giving up. After that, he just laid on his back, legs stretched out talking out loud to no-one in particular.
For almost six hours we chopped, pounded, grated, squeezed, cooked and cleaned.
Fresh coconut cream and milk, green, red and yellow curry paste, sweet and sour vegetables, chicken and cashew nut, green curry with chicken. Panaeng curry with beef, and sweet sticky rice with mango.
It was late when I walked back along Soi 4. At Nana Plaza the go-go bars were in full swing. The vendor selling fried insects offered me free samples but charged ten baht for a photo. Everywhere was food; some were selling it, some were buying it. Everyone was eating. Bangkok is intoxicating, exotic.
All the while Sanusi’s words stayed with me: “… watch Thai people work with raw ingredients and you’ll learn a lot about their culture. Ingredients are everything”. Looking around me I realized how right he was. Respect for ingredients was everywhere, down to the last insect.