When you think of Thai food, do you think of pad thai? Of rice noodles with a slightly ketchup-y sauce topped with too many bean sprouts? Or mild curries, full of almost mushy vegetables? Or do you think of fresh noodles with a tart and savory flavor, created by a mixture of tamarind and oyster sauce? Or curry paste pounded by hand, spicy and complex?
Since I have been in Thailand, I have mostly enjoyed the latter kind of Thai food. Food that is packed with flavor, that has depth to it, layers of ingredients that have been combined with care, with knowledge. One of my favorite things to do when traveling is to take a cooking class, to learn these recipes and techniques. And, in the end, they aren’t as time consuming or confusing as you might think. The ingredients may be hard to find back home, but I can make do.
The day before Thanksgiving, I booked a cooking class for us and our visitors. There were eight of us total, and I thought it would be a good way to all spend a day together, doing something that we really enjoyed. Plus, it would almost be like Thanksgiving what with the hours in the kitchen and the overeating. We went with a company called AsiaScenic, and (after a little confusion) they picked us all up in a van and drove us to a market on the way to their farm north of the city.
Our instructor Juno showed us around the market, introducing spices, showing us pastes and sauces, and explaining the difference between some of the produce we know at home and the produce they have here. We continued on to the farm, which was an incredibly peaceful setting for a day of cooking. There were two other cooking classes in session in the big open air classroom, but because we were eight people, our class was just us. We sat, sipping on lemongrass juice, while Juno talked us through our dish options and we made our selections: laab gai, tom kha gai, pad see ew, khao soi, panang curry, and more. And everything we made was REALLY good. While most of the dishes didn’t take that long (except for the pounding of the curry pastes), they all tasted fresh and flavorful and real, just like the food you’d get at the market down the street.
But perhaps my favorite thing I learned about at this class was chili paste or jam, and the dish it featured heavily in: Tom Yum Koong. I had made Tom Yum Koong before, actually in a cooking class in Chiang Mai with my family. But the one I made at AsiaScenic was more memorable to me. Maybe it’s because I now like spicy food. Or maybe because I feel I’ll be able to hold onto this recipe and this memory for longer. This soup is spicy, sour, and a little fishy. This soup is one I want to make right now for all my friends who are layering on sweaters and scarves on the other side of the globe. It sends warmth to your fingertips, leaves a tingling around your lips. This soup, I will remember.
Note: This recipe serves only one – such is the life of a cooking class where everyone makes their own dishes! But it is easily multiplied.
Another note: Chili jam or paste is a paste made of oil, dried shrimp, dried chili, onion, garlic, tamarind, sugar, salt, and shrimp paste. My guess is that it (or something awfully similar) can be found at your local Asian grocery.
One more: While there are lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, and chilis in the soup, you’ll want to avoid actually eating any of those ingredients. They are large pieces, and should be easily avoidable when you’re slurping this up.
Tom Yum Koong (Hot and Sour Prawn Soup):
1.5 cups water
1 stalk lemongrass, smashed and chopped into large chunks
1 large slice of galangal
2 kaffir lime leaves, torn into quarters
2 birds eye chilis, stemmed and smashed
1 tomato (like the size of a Roma), cut into bite sized pieces
2 crimini mushrooms, cut into bite sized pieces
1/4 of a white onion, cut into bite sized pieces
1 tsp sugar
2 tsp fish sauce
1 Tbsp lime juice
1-3 tsp chili jam
chopped cilantro and green onion for garnish
In a pot over high heat, boil the water. Add the lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, and chilis. Let boil for 2-3 minutes before adding the tomato, mushrooms, and onion. Boil for 30 seconds.
Turn heat to low and add the sugar, fish sauce, lime juice, and chili jam. Mix everything in, and add more of the seasoning to taste. Add the prawns and cook until the prawns are just pink all the way through.
Put in a bowl and top with cilantro and green onion to serve.