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Thailand

19 Feb

If you follow my blog regularly you will know that I recently returned from a trip to Thailand. My sister and I travelled together and we had an amazing time with many highlights, including a Thai cooking class, snorkeling, island time, and exploring numerous temples. It may be hard to believe but I do do other things on my trips besides eat, although I can see why you have your doubts! But this ain’t a travel blog…this is a food blog. So here are some of my food highlights from my first (but not last) trip to Thailand.

One of the first, and probably the most important things, that I noticed about authentic Thai food was the flavours. Thai food relies on a balance of salty, sweet, sour, and spicy flavours (generally speaking most dishes incorporate an element of each flavour). If you want to add more of any of these flavours, you can use the condiment jars that are delivered to your table when your meals are served. The picture above is an example of the four flavours that you can choose from. I got addicted to adding the fresh chilli and fish sauce to everything, particularly fried rice.

The street food was absolutely captivating and I found myself struggling to keep an eye on all of the mind-boggling food on display whilst trying to maneuver through the crowds.

Bugs!

Common sense (and a paralyzing fear of spending days in the bathroom) kept me from trying anything that had been sitting out but we did eat at hole-in-the-wall places, which I really enjoyed. The dishes were not only incredibly tasty but they were also dirt cheap (every food-lovers dream!).

Panang Chicken Curry – $6 CAD

Fried rice – $1.30 CAD

Chicken Noodle Soup – $1.10 CAD

Throughout Thailand we encountered “pancake” stands. The pancakes are not the pancakes we are familiar with as they are more like a fried crepe. A small ball of dough is kneaded and rolled out into a thin consistency and then fried using a hot wok-like pan. The fried and crispy pancake is then filled with either a sweet topping, like Nutella or banana, or a savoury filling, like cheese and tomato.

Our first sample was the above pancake which was filled with banana and then finished with condensed milk and a sprinkle of salt. Delicious! And it cost us less than a dollar. Another night we had a light dinner of beer and a cheese and tomato pancake on the beach – a light and extremely cheap dinner.

My two favourite meals of the whole trip were actually from the same place, L. Maladee on the island of Ko Lanta.

The Panang chicken curry (above) was thick and fragrant with the perfect level of spice. It was hands-down one of the best curries that I’ve eaten…ever. Oh, and it cost me only $3 CAD (!!). I was so impressed that I asked the manager how I could re-create this dish at home and she told me it was all to do with the coconut milk. She said most coconut milk in Western countries was just too runny to get the right consistency. I am now on the lookout for a thick, authentic Thai coconut milk.

That same evening we returned to L. Maladee for our evening meal and I was almost going to order the Panang curry again, this time with fresh, fat prawns that had been caught that day. However, I let the manager talk me into ordering their house curry (below) and what a smart decision that was! It was quite spicy and there was a level of complex flavours within the paste that just made this curry unforgettable. I will dream of this curry forever.

Have you seen the Hangover 2? I watched it just before I flew to Thailand and I was in awe of a scene in the film where they are at a restaurant on the top of a skyscraper, looking out over Bangkok. Needless to say, it went on my list of “things to do”. My sister and I found ourselves at the base of State Tower at 10 minutes to 6pm and decided that despite our disheveled appearance that we’d try to get in. We took the elevator to the 63rd floor and managed to be some of the first few patrons in the line for the 6pm opening of Sky Bar.

The view was absolutely spectacular and being so high up, the cool air was a relief from the sticky heat at street-level. Drinks are not cheap (I think our cocktail was about $20 but the glasses of champagne were more than a whole bottle back at home!) yet it was such a unique experience that I’d pay it again.

One observation that I made about eating in Thailand was that the service for the most part is pretty crap. That’s fine with me – I don’t travel for things to be the same as at home but I was just surprised of the lack of organization at some of the places we ate at. Some places had incredible food and would have made more money if the service was stronger but often we couldn’t find a server to order that extra beer or to pay the bill. Another observation that came as no surprise was that the cost of food went up and the quality went down the further we moved into the touristy areas (the islands). I found the prices in Bangkok to be much, much cheaper than that of the islands and the quality generally seemed to be better.

Thailand has a charm that seems to have people returning time and time again. The allure has not been lost on me and it is likely that I will also return. How could I not when I have vivid memories of sitting bare-foot in an open-air restaurant, sticky with sweat but cooled by a tropical breeze, slurping on a banana smoothie whilst my tongue is tingling from the curry that I’ve just devoured? These memories are the reason that I travel. Besides, I’ve only just begun to scratch the surface on the food scene…

Cooking Class in Thailand

30 Jan

The first thing people seem to ask you when you get back from a vacation is “How was it? What was the best part?” Some people answer with “The people, they were just so welcoming!” or “The culture. Said country was just so rich in culture”. For me, it is always about the food. Having returned from Thailand just two weeks ago, my memories of the food are still very vivid. And how could they not be? Bold, spicy flavours tend to leave a lasting impression.

One of the highlights of my trip to Thailand was participating in a Thai cooking class. There is no shortage of opportunities to attend a cooking class in Thailand. Almost every place we visited was offering a class of some sort but the most well-known place to take a class is Chang Mai. We didn’t have enough time to visit Chang Mai so we did our class in Ko Samui at a school called SITCA (Samui Institute of Thai Culinary Arts). For just over $60 CAD the class, which went for about 4 hours, was well worth the money.

Dishes that we would spend the afternoon tackling were:

  • Spicy prawn salad
  • Deep fried spring rolls
  • Massaman chicken curry (including handmade curry paste)

After years of being spoilt with Massaman curry in my hometown of Darwin, it is one of the dishes that I find the hardest to replicate. My family and I chose this class mostly because we wanted to learn how to make a proper Massaman curry from scratch.

After having completed a number of cooking classes here in Vancouver, I was a little stunned when we arrived at SITCA. This is Thailand after all so health and safety requirements are definitely not on par with Canada. Health and safety red flags were:

1/ We weren’t encouraged to wash our hands before starting the class,

2/ We weren’t told to wear covered shoes (Hello?! We are cooking with hot oil!),

3/ The kitchen assistants were constantly trying to clean up around you whilst you are in the middle of chopping ingredients. I almost accidentally sliced a few hands that were getting in my way!

Hmmmm, a professional kitchen it was not but fun, it definitely was.

First up, we used a mortar and pestle to pound our own Massaman curry paste and it was a lot of work! We were told that if you use a food processor that the end result just won’t be as good – it’s the hard way, or no way! I watched the way that the instructor used the mortar and pestle and he used a rolling motion, rather than just an up-and-down motion so I copied that and it seemed to work well.

The best tip I learnt was using red peppers (not chilies) to add colour and depth to the paste, and when a Thai person says that 5 chilies makes your dish mild and 10 will make it extremely hot, don’t believe them! 3 chilies was hot enough (I stupidly added 4). Once the paste was combined we allowed it to sit for an hour or two whilst we constructed the rest of the dishes.

The next dish was the spicy prawn salad. Now this was the dish I needed when I got sick a few days earlier – this was a salad that cleansed the sinuses! The colours of the dish were so vibrant and the flavours were a salty/sour/spicy combination which is exactly what Thai cuisine is known for.

My favourite part was cooking the prawns in boiling flavoured water for exactly 20 seconds and watching them go from grey to light pink immediately. I realize now that I’ve been cooking my prawns completely wrong. No more!

Following the prawn salad, we made and fried spring rolls. Spring rolls have always been a favourite of mine so I was pretty excited to be cooking them for the first time, although I was extremely nervous of getting burnt with hot oil. Terrified, is another way I’d describe it. You would be a little nervous too if you found yourself cooking with hot oil in a sun-dress, flip-flops, and using flimsy tongs to turn your spring rolls. I made it out with no burns (thank goodness) and these spring rolls were fantastic. 

They were made from a mixture of prawn and pork mince, wood ear mushrooms, vermicelli noodles, cabbage, carrot, and a sauce mixture. We first sliced up all of the vegetables and stir-fried the vegetables with the mince, the noodles, and the sauce (which was delicious on its own) before rolling the spring rolls. In the hot oil they went and a few minutes later we had golden spring rolls to munch on (probably more than we needed but whatever!).

Finally, we used the Massaman curry paste that we had made earlier to make a chicken Massaman curry. What I learnt from this was just how fast this was to cook – 5 minutes! Wow have I been doing it all wrong! This is exactly why I do cooking classes! Lesson learnt and this was the second best Massaman dish I’ve had (still can’t beat the curry from my hometown). This was quite spicy though so when I make the paste again, I will be careful not to be too cocky.

I absolutely loved participating in this class. To know that I can create some authentic Thai dishes at home is comforting as I haven’t found much Thai food in the city to rave about (although I had a pretty good experience at Pink Elephant Thai recently). My only limitation will be sourcing proper Thai ingredients, like a really good tamarind paste and thick coconut milk. I highly recommend doing a cooking class whilst in Thailand. My only regret is not signing up to do more classes whilst I was there.

A belated welcome to 2012!

19 Jan

Happy 2012! I am now back from exotic and chaotic Thailand and we are already more than halfway through January! How did that happen?! That is crazy!

Thailand was interesting, inspiring, and exhausting all at the same time and I had plenty of food adventures that I want to share with you. Unfortunately, jet-lag has gotten the better of me this week and so once I climb out from under my sleepless fog, I will get on that. Until then here is a quick post about an unexpected find that I had whilst on one of the islands.

I spent my birthday in Ko Samui re-united with family but away from B. That put a bit of a damper on the day but I still managed to keep myself well-satiated and happy. Whilst in Ko Samui I discovered that a past chef at the famed el Bulli, Alex Gares, is now cooking at the Four Seasons. As a treat for my birthday, my family and I dined at Lan Tania, one of the restaurants that Gares oversees at The Four Seasons.

The restaurant has absolutely spectacular cliff top views over the ocean – breathtaking! You’ll have to check out the website to see pictures of the view. Regrettably we didn’t realize just what a spectacular view this would be and we booked our dinner too late to enjoy sunset and dusk with this million dollar view. Damn! A slight oversight on our behalf.

Lan Tania focuses more on Thai and, oddly, Italian food (not what I expecting in Thailand), whereas Pla Pla (the other restaurant) focuses more on Western food and fish. El Bulli this is not – the dishes were traditional Thai rather than innovative culinary quizzes but we had wanted to stick with the local food.

Massaman Nua – Massaman Curry of Beef

Kaow Soi – Curried Noodles with Chicken, Chiang Mai-Style

 Paneang Goong – Red Curry of Prawns with Coconut and Lime Leaves

Phad Thai Goong – Fried Rice Noodles with Prawns, Egg, Bean Curd, Chives, Bean Sprouts, Peanuts and Tamarind Sauce

Nua Phad Nam Prik Paow – Stir-Fried Beef with Fragrant Spices

Caramel Chocolate Mousse Tart with Pistachio and Vanilla Ice Cream

This meal was easily the best meal that we had whilst in Ko Samui and it wasn’t overly expensive considering the high standards of quality (it came to about $300 CAD for 5 people, including drinks). The location, the food, the service, and the company, was a memorable way to celebrate my birthday.