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Red and green chile peppers abound in the Thai marketplace

Thai Cookery
Nothing Lost in the Translation

Text by Sharon Niederman
Photographs by Sharon Niederman

Not everyone has next door neighbors who happen to be living in Bangkok for two years. And not everyone loves Thai food as much as I do. This fortunate conjunction of friends in the right place and a craving for dishes flavored with coconut milk, lemon grass, hot chile and basil resulted, quite naturally, in a recent trip to Thailand with a stint in Thai cooking school.

My friend living in Thailand researched cooking schools. While there are several of note in Bangkok, namely, at the Oriental and Landmark Hotels, there were over 20 lower-priced schools in the northern city of Chiang Mei, famous for its sprawling night market.

Students at Thai cooking school learn how to select produce at the market

We hoped to find hand-woven cottons and silks there, which we planned to bring to my friend's dressmaker in Bangkok and have our spring wardrobes custom-made. We'd fly up north, a 45 minute flight on Thai Airlines, shop, cook, eat, visit Buddhist temples and enjoy the art of Thai massage.

Through her Peace Corps connections (her husband is Peace Corps Country Director), Nancy located the Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School, considered by Peace Corps volunteers she spoke with to be the best. Run by Sompon Nabnian and his English wife, Elizabeth, the ten year-old school enjoys a good reputation. Sompon, the chief instructor, has a cooking show on British cable TV.

We had a choice of attending school at their restaurant in the Old City or their home in the suburbs. We chose the latter. We were picked up at our guest house and, following a tour of the local market to familiarize us with ingredients, we were driven to the Sampons' garden home where after preparing them, we enjoyed our creations on the spacious, sheltered deck.

Our fellow students were a worldly mix. The included an attorney from England, a chef from France who owned her own restaurant, several American ex-pats living in Hong Kong and various parts of China — teachers, bankers and corporate execs — masseurs from Hawaii and Scotland and Canadian retirees in Thailand to golf. While I had chosen two of the five day-long courses offered, many were taking the entire program, which included making curry pastes from scratch and the art of vegetable carving.

Instruction was in English. First, in the mirrored demonstra-tion kitchen we watched the instructor prepare each dish, say red curry with fish, fried noodles with sauce and steamed banana cake. Then, we each proceeded to our stations — there were 22 — where ingredients for the dish had been prepped. We then each made a single serving of the dish, while Sompon walked about offering suggestions and answering questions.

Sampon explains how to create authentic Thai dishes

Each minute of the day, from 9 am–4 pm, was packed with information, learning and doing. We ate so much we had no need of supper. Costs came to about $25 a day.

My biggest thrill came when after tasting my very own chicken in coconut milk soup, I was able to say it tasted just like the one I was used to at Siam Café in Albuquerque! From then on, I realized that I could master the Thai taste palate, until then so foreign, and familiarize myself with the ingredients enough to impress my dinner party guests for years to come. The experience was like studying a foreign language and hearing yourself speak a coherent sentence for the first time.

Once inside Thai cooking, I recognized its strong Indian and Chinese influences, with its use of curries, ginger and reliance on stir-fry cooking. One popular Thai dish, yellow curry with chicken is virtually indistinguishable from an Indian curry; while spring rolls, chicken with ginger and chicken with cashews as served in Thailand are very Chinese.

Thai food, with its generous use of chiles, is a natural culinary transition for New Mexicans. (Interestingly enough, the one time I got lost in Chiang Mai, the person I ran into who directed me to the celadon ceramic workshop I was looking for turned out to be a cook from Taos!)

Based on fish and vegetables, Thai cuisine is relatively low-fat, or at least, can be readily adapted to a low-fat diet by steaming instead of stir-frying and using less oil.

Most of the work is in selecting ingredients and preparation — quite a bit of slicing and dicing is required to get the timing right. Once cooking begins, dishes can be quickly assembled.

I was surprised to learn that even the Thais usually purchase their curry pastes — red, green, yellow and panang — in bulk at the market, rather than make their own.

I returned home with some knockout new outfits packed in my suitcase and a notebook full of recipes I couldn't wait to try out on my friends.

Here are three recipes for typical Thai dishes. All ingredients can be found at the Oriental grocery stores listed in Resources.

Chicken in Coconut Milk Soup
Tom Kha Gai

1 1/2 cups chicken breast, sliced
2 cups thick coconut milk (the coconut cream that rises to the top after the milk sits)
1 cup thin coconut milk (milky thin liquid that remains when cream is skimmed off)
5 thin slices ginza (pearly pink ginger-like root)
2 stalks lemongrass (lower 1/3 only), sliced into 1 inch pieces
4 shallots, sliced
10–15 small Thai chiles, cut in half lengthwise
2 1/4 cups straw mushrooms, cut in half (can be purchased canned)
3 tablespoons fish sauce
3 kaffir lime leaves, torn in pieces after discarding stem
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1/2 cup coriander leaves, chopped
2 spring onions, sliced

Put thin and thick coconut milk into wok on high heat. Add ginza, lemongrass, shallots, chiles and mushrooms and bring to a boil. Simmer 3–5 minutes, add chicken and stir. Add fish sauce and kaffir lime leaves and bring back to a boil. Add half coriander leaves and turn off heat. Stir in lime juice. Serve garnished with remaining coriander leaves and spring onions. Serves 4.

Green Papaya Salad
Som Tam

3 1/2 cups green papaya, peeled and grated into thin strips (cucumber, carrot or melon can be substituted)
3 cloves garlic
10 small green Thai chiles
2 long beans, cut into 1 inch pieces (green beans can be substituted)
2 tablespoons dried shrimp
2 tablespoons fish sauce
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 teaspoon palm sugar
1 tablespoon anchovy sauce
1 tomato cut in half and sliced
2 tablespoons roasted peanuts

Put garlic, chiles and long beans into a mortar and pound roughly. Add papaya and pound again to bruise the ingredients. Add dried shrimp, fish sauce, lime juice and palm sugar and stir together using pestle and a spoon until palm sugar has melted. Add anchovy sauce and tomatoes and pound to combine. Add peanuts and mix together. Serve with sticky rice. Serves 4.

Red Curry with Fish
Gaeng Phed Plaa

Red curry is not as hot as green. This fish curry may also be made with chicken or beef.

1 1/2 cups (10 oz) fish fillets, thinly sliced
3 tablespoons cooking oil
4 tablespoons red curry paste
1 cup (minus 2 tablespoons for garnish) thick coconut milk
1 cup thin coconut milk
2 eggplants cut in 1/2 inch pieces
1 cup plus 3 1/2 ounces bamboo shoots, cut in bite-size pieces
2 tablespoons fish sauce
6 kaffir lime leaves, 3 stemmed, 2 torn into pieces and 1 shredded
1 cup plus 1 oz sweet basil leaves
2 large red Thai chiles, sliced

Put oil into wok and heat. Add curry paste and fry for a minute or two. Once paste is cooked, add thick coconut milk. When boiling, add eggplants and bamboo shoots followed by thin coconut milk. Simmer about 4 minutes until eggplants are soft. Add fish sauce and kaffir lime leaf pieces. Add fish and cook about 2 minutes, until fish is cooked. Add half basil leaves. Turn off heat and serve garnished with shredded kaffir lime leaf, red chiles, basil leaves and reserved thick coconut milk. Serves 4.


Tropical Thai fruits taste as exotic as they look

Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School
1-3 Moon Muang Road
Chiang Mai 50200
(053) 206388 (phone)
(053) 206387 (fax)

99B Supermarket
5315 Gibson SE
9 am–7 pm every day

Oriental groceries, fresh seafood, fresh produce, cooking utensils, herbs.

Ta-Lin Supermarket
2301 Louisiana SE
9 am–7:30 pm Mon.–Sat.
9 am–6 pm Sun.

Everything you need to cook and serve Thai food, from jasmine rice to lemongrass. Fresh herbs and vegetables delivered on Thursday.

When buying pre-made chile pastes, be careful to read all ingredients.
Products sold under the “Thai Kitchen” label are very good. Thai Kitchen green chile paste is the only one I have found that does not include shrimp as an ingredient, something important for those allergic to shellfish to know.

— Sharon Niederman

This article was first published
in the May 29th, 2002 issue of
The Santa Fe New Mexican

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