The Oriental Thai Cooking School, Bangkok, and the Mandarin Oriental Culinary Academy, Chiang Mai, Thailand
The food of Thailand is rather like its boxers — light and quick, but packing a punch that will make your eyes water. I love it, and want to learn how to make it. The first of my two Thai cooking-school experiences begins with a brief boat ride across Bangkok's muddy, churning Chao Phraya river from my hotel, the Mandarin Oriental.
The Oriental Thai Cooking School is housed in a 100-year-old wooden villa. Here, me and my three fellow students meet chef Narain Kiattiyotcharoen, who sets to work introducing us to the fragrant and alien ingredients we'll be cooking with today: grassy pandan leaves; bright blue butterfly pea flowers, used for their colour in desserts; and dried lotus seeds. Most extraordinary of all is a horseshoe-shaped candle, flavoured with coconut, lime, cinnamon, brown sugar, jasmine flowers and myrrh, which is used to smoke cooked rice for delectable desserts.
Equally fascinating is the centuries-old technique of soaking limestone to get lime water, for use in all manner of dishes — today, some dumplings. I am still trying to get my head around this when the chef introduces us to fresh turmeric root (intoxicatingly aromatic), palm sugar (buttery, like fudge) and whole kaffir limes. We learn that there are two types of tamarind — sweet and sour. And I discover the ingredients of 'magic paste' — chilli, garlic and coriander root ground together — make a perfect rub for meats.
Fortunately, things move at a gentle, beginner's pace over the three-hour course. Ingredients for the hands-on cooking are pre-prepared and, after we have assembled the four dishes on the menu — a bitter gourd and minced pork soup, crispy shrimp with herbs and spices, rice steamed in lotus leaf with chicken and sausage and rice flour dumplings in sweet and savoury sauces — we eat together with the chef.
'You know,' he says as we tuck into a delicate bitter gourd soup, 'in Thailand, when you eat in a restaurant, the cooking process is not over when the food comes to your table. You are expected to add vinegar, soy, fish sauce, salt, sugar, lime, chilli — whatever you fancy to fine-tune your dish. That's the secret of Thai food.'
The Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi resort in Chiang Mai, an hour's flight away in northern Thailand and home to the second of my Thai schools, is an oasis of tranquillity. It looks more like a Burmese temple complex than a hotel, with its graceful carved teak pagodas, rice paddies and frangipani trees. Here, chef Aum Amara is my guide on a visit to the local market, the first part of the morning's course. She responds patiently to my ceaseless questions
— 'What's that? And that? What are those
for?' — with expert explanations.
Afterwards, she and I return to the hotel's purpose-built cooking school to make four utterly delicious, simple dishes, including my new go-to beef dish, yam nue yang a-ngun. It blends all the classic zingy, sour, sweet and umami-flavoured Thai ingredients — lemon grass, chilli, coriander root, fish sauce and sugar — with the addition of grapes and mint.
As we cook, Aum puts me right on my perennial green curry problem of split coconut milk (add the cream first, heat it well, then add the milk), waggles her finger admonishingly when I tell her I always begin my green curry by frying an onion ('No onion,' she says) and lets slip that the chillies we are using — bird's eye — are known as 'rat turd chillies' in Thailand. Now, that's the kind of thing you're not likely to learn from Delia or Nigella.
British Airways (ba.com) flies to Bangkok from London Heathrow. Kuoni (kuoni.co.uk) offers three nights (room only) at the Mandarin Oriental, Bangkok, including BA flights, from £1,296 pp*. The Oriental Thai Cooking School at the Oriental costs £82 pp. Doubles at Mandarin Oriental Dhara Dhevi, Chiang Mai, cost £335 pppn B&B. Thai Culinary Academy costs £102 pp. Visit mandarinoriental.com/chiangmai. *Includes private transfers and based on two sharing.