It was with some trepidation that I headed across the Chao Phraya River for my lesson with the legendary chef and cooking instructor Narain Kiattiyotcharoen at Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok’s Thai Cooking School. I love Thai food, but I love it best cooked for me by the Thai chefs at Spicy Basil on Kilburn High Road in northwest London. Taking a big leap of faith, I step out of my comfort zone and into Chef Narain’s domain.
Tom kha gai (chicken in coconut milk soup)
Since the cookery school opened in 1986, more than 8,000 pupils have passed through its hallowed doors and into this intimate class setting of rows of benches and desks for up to 15 students. Above the demonstration area, an overhead mirror allows acolytes an access-all-areas pass, enabling everyone to see what goes on inside the pans as well as what goes in them.
I am warmly greeted by the cooking team and two fellow attendees, a mother and daughter duo from Kobe in Japan who had signed up for three days of cooking during this, their annual stay at Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok. Mum is a crack cook and daughter is a cake decoration artist.
Chef demonstrates the recipe, deftly blending together all the necessary ingredients, pouring them into ramekins and popping them into the steamer to cook
We are getting settled on the front row when Chef Narain comes in and introduces himself. A beaming, big-hearted man with the warmest of smiles and perfect English (which he used to teach), he immediately makes us feel at home. He is wonderful, and if I were a TV producer I would give him a show in a heartbeat. But more of that later… He talks us through our menu for the day, which includes dishes both familiar – tom kha gai (chicken in coconut milk soup with galangal) and spring rolls – and others slightly more alien – khanom fak thawng (steamed pumpkin pudding) and khao klook gapi (fried rice with shrimp paste).
We are to start with the dessert of steamed pumpkin. This is because, Chef explains, it takes time to steam. Between 15 and 25 minutes. This can seem like a lifetime in Thai cuisine, as most dishes take a maximum of 15 minutes.
Chu chee pla (deep-fried fish in red curry)
Chef demonstrates the recipe, deftly blending together all the necessary ingredients, pouring them into ramekins and popping them into the steamer to cook. Could it really be that simple? What would this gelatinous creation taste like? And would I be able to pull it off? As I trot off to my cooking station, recipe in hand, Chef Narain shoots me a killer smile: ‘You don’t need to bring your recipe. I am your recipe.’ This was reassuring, and he cast his watchful eye over us as we successfully poured our puddings in to set.
Next up was the soup, a personal favourite (and often part of my takeaway order). Chef started by showing us how to turn coconut cream into milk by combining it with water in a wok. The herbs came next. Lemongrass, where you peel off the outer layer and, starting at the fat end, chop until the purple ring inside disappears. Coriander root, which Chef instructed us to inhale, saying, ‘This is what makes Thai food so unique. This magic herb is our secret.’ And finally, galangal, which is to Thai cuisine what basil is to Italian. Next, the chicken goes in.
My favourite part of this demonstration was seeing how to make the egg ribbons that so beautifully decorate Thai rice dishes
As I automatically reach for a spoon to stir it in, Chef Narain stops me. There are four golden rules, he explains, when cooking meat in liquid: first, you must wait until the liquid is boiling, as this will sear the outside of the meat immediately. Second, scatter the meat in carefully rather than dropping it all in off the spoon haphazardly, as this will allow it more room to cook better. Then, make sure your meat is submerged, so that the heat from the liquid can penetrate from all directions; and, lastly, DO NOT STIR, because you want your meat to cook from the outside in. ‘Remember,’ says Chef with a wink, ‘you must let your chicken enjoy its jacuzzi.’
Dessert of tab tim krob (water chestnuts in coconut milk)
While the chicken idles in its hot tub, Chef offers a few tips about cooking with chillies. Perhaps most importantly, size is deceptive. The smaller the hotter, he says, when introducing us to the bird’s eye chilli, a tiny innocuous-looking little thing that Chef says he has nicknamed Jack. Why? ‘It’s Thai dynamite. You must never underestimate him. I nickname him Jack because he’s a giant killer.’
Ok, then… We are about to add these little charmers to our soup. But another top tip: if you want to take the sting out of a chilli, you simply bruise it with a pestle. Like taking scissors to Samson, it robs it of its devastating power and leaves it with a more palatable heat. Perfecto.
Next up, the stir-fried rice with shrimp paste – which has a myriad of ingredients. Here we learn that, with this dish, there is no time for languishing in jacuzzis. When you stir-fry, says Chef, ‘no lazy hands.’ You have to keep your ingredients moving around the wok at quite a pace. Chef teaches us how to dry-roast the shrimp paste by wrapping it in a pandan leaf (you can use tin foil if you have no leaves handy). This was a relief, because in its raw state shrimp paste has a smell that can, at best, be described as ‘funky’. It smells way better once it has been cooked. My favourite part of this demonstration was seeing how to make the egg ribbons that so beautifully decorate Thai rice dishes. It involves making the slimmest possible omelette (Chef deftly removed his from his frying pan with a toothpick!), which is rolled up and chiffoned into fine slices, before it is sprinkled over the rice to make golden ‘string’. And very nice it looks, too.
Our lesson over, we are presented with culinary academy certificates and aprons and led into the gorgeous Sala Rim Naam restaurant
Last but not least are the spring rolls, with their filling of minced pork, glass noodles, crab meat and mushrooms. (Glass or jelly noodles are popular with the Thai ladies, according to Chef, as they have no carbs.) Once again, expert knife skills are required to slice up the extraordinary black wood/jelly ear mushrooms (looks-wise, they really do live up to their name). Chef rolls and chiffons the mushrooms before putting the rest of the ingredients, along with the crab meat, into his wok. Although this took seconds to cook, we cracked on with separating our shop-bought spring-roll wrappers. Chef shows us how to peel these apart carefully. (They are so fine I split my first two.) ‘Pamper your wrappers – keep supporting them as you pull them apart,’ he says. Once they are separated, we are shown how to cut them into a pentagon shape before adding a spoonful of filling. ‘Don’t add too much filling or you can’t wrap. Your eyes are always bigger than your belly.’ We use a glue of wheat flour and water to close our spring rolls tightly before deep-frying them over a moderate heat. Yum.
Our lesson over, we are presented with culinary academy certificates and aprons and led into the gorgeous Sala Rim Naam restaurant, which overlooks the bank of the Chao Phraya River. Seated at a low table in traditional Thai style, my fellow students and I eat our own just-cooked Thai food for lunch. And I think we did pretty well. Whether you’re a novice or an experienced chef, Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok’s Thai Cooking School is a magical place to spend a few hours honing your skills.
It was great while it lasted, Spicy Basil of Kilburn, and it’s not you but me. I’m back from Bangkok and, thanks to the very special Chef Narain, I’m going to do just fine on my own.