Compulsory Splurge: Thai Cooking Class at the World Renown Blue Elephant
Oh my goodness, where to begin…once again, although I’ve “hand journalled” in my blogging absence, it seems somewhat futile to try and recount experiences so many days after they took place and now that I’m back home. Much of the below was transcribed in real time. It’s not entirely that I was being lazy in sharing via blog (maybe a little), but every time it seemed I sat down to write, my mini keyboard that I recently bought to travel with me and the new inherited iPad decided that it didn’t want to work! And typing extensively on the iPad just isn’t worth it.
So, back to the Blue Elephant. This cooking class was my splurge, and it was SO worth it. The Blue Elephant started as a restaurant 33 years ago when a Thai woman married a Belgian man and wanted to share the phenomenal cuisine of her culture with the rest of the civilized world. Thank goodness she did! They now boast cooking schools in both Bangkok and Phuket as well as restaurants all over the world. Unfortunately, they’ve yet to open one in the U.S. I think Seattle would be an ideal first. I’ll see what can be done about that…
I decided to join the morning cooking class as it included a market tour (oh heck yea!). I’d had so many questions roaming the Kathu market, not only about so many of the fruits and veggies and meats I’ve never seen before, but also about the industry and trade of the market vendors. Surely there are stories lingering in every stall.
Upon entering the beautiful restored governor’s mansion where the new Blue Elephant Phuket has recently opened, I was greeted by Charles, Tony, Kim, and Chantelle. Tony offered me a drink (coffee please!), and I sat down to chat with him, Kim, and Chantelle. Kim says he is pleased to hear I’m from Seattle and that he is proud of us for voting to legalize gay marriage and marijuana. “Our pleasure!”, I offered. Kim, Chantelle, and I chatted about global politics and cuisine for a bit and started brainstorming whether or not we had access to Thai ingredients in our respective countries. Chantelle is a beautiful, middle-age French chef who owned a restaurant in rural France (not sure which town), but she’s now retired and living on the coast of Spain. Kim, I later found out, is the general manager and also the son of the Blue Elephant founders and (I assume the son of chef Mrs. Nooror Somany Steppe). Kim was pleased to hear about Uwajimaya Market and the fact that we have access to such a broad array of Asian ingredients in Seattle. He also seemed amused with my (completely lacking) attempt at speaking some French. Chantelle’s English was exquisite, but we sometimes met in the middle with the French & English, occasionally repeating words in both our languages.
The head chef Charles then left us with Tony to take our tour of the Phuket Market. Oh my gosh. I was in heaven. Really, I was having this surreal sort of daydream that I was a chef for a day, off with my colleagues to pick the best ingredients to inspire our evening menu. Tony is half Thai, half American, and guess what?! He was born in Texas, too. He also went to NYU for film school before returning to Thailand and attending the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu in Bangkok. With film and culinary degrees, Tony said he feels he now has the flexibility to explore and travel and pursue his primary passion- photography. He’s a witty, well-rounded and talented guy, and I was excited to have a peer (and Thai culinary expert) who could handle my incessant questions- and random sense of humor.
Rather than talk through all the ingredients we learned about at the market, here’s a general overview of the ones we discussed:
Chilis- there are many varieties. I love the Bird’s eye chili. Often when you sit down to eat, the table will have an assortment of “condiments” including chopped Bird’s Eye Chili, vinegar, sugar, and a shrimp paste or fish sauce.
Coriander- we call it cilantro. TomAtoes Tomatoes.
Curry powder- So I didn’t realize this, but Thai curries are usually always made with fresh pastes rather than curry powder! There’s red, yellow, and green. Green is the hottest and also usually the sweetest since more sugar is used to cut the heat.
Durian fruit- it stinks to high heaven, but if you can get past that, tastes quite delicious. That is, if you can also get past the fact that the consistency is a mix between hard-boiled egg yolk and an artichoke heart.
Kaffir lime leaves- used in all sorts of Thai soups and curries. Either cooked whole or finely chopped. These are something like $14/lb where I’ve seen them sold in the States! I was mesmerized to watch Tony chop these things into oblivion.
Morning glory- this is the Thai equivalent of spinach. Generally served raw and often in soups.
Lemongrass- oh divine! This herb is chopped finely and used extensively in many Thai dishes- curries, spicy soups, and salads. The owner of the yoga studio Kwan makes lemongrass candles for mass export, and they phenomenal!
Banana flowers- eaten often in chip form. They’re very good for breastfeeding mothers.
Shrimp & fish pastes- These are made by fermenting ground shrimp & salt. The smell is intense! Think: fish bait. These are added to several dishes for taste & consistency. I encountered it first when I was eating dinner at a street vendor’s my first night. It’s often packaged in a small container that resembles play dough. The pink plastic lid had me pretty perplexed. I’m glad I didn’t dump it on my chicken stir-fry.
Tamarind- sweet & sour. This comes pickled, dehydrated, in seasoning form. The Thai love their Tamarind.
Thai sweet basil- I love this stuff. It’s used in curries and stir-fry, etc. I’ve made a Thai pesto out of it in Seattle, delish.
Tumeric- yellow colored root originally brought over by the Muslim settlers in Thailand. Used in “Northern style” curries such as Mussaman. They also often use the whole root to flavor while cooking then remove before serving, similar to bay leaves. Tumeric has phenomenal health properties.
Galangal/Thai ginger- I think this is slightly sweeter than the ginger I usually buy. Either way either one, I love it! Candied, minced, pureed in juice- get out your mortar & pestle, I dig ginger.
Monosodium glutamate (MSG)- Tony says the Chinese first introduced this addictive substance to Thai cuisine, and it’s his least favorite table at the market. There’s hoards of it. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monosodium_glutamate
Spearmint/cucumber/long beans- these are often served as dish accompaniments and used as palette cleansers.
Palm & Coconut Oils- palm oil is the predominate cooking oil used, similar to our olive oil. It is quite high in saturated fat (81%), as is coconut oil (86%). My mom and I recently had a conversation on why coconut oil is being touted as such a great health food lately. It turns out that many of the health benefits stem from presence of lauric and capric acid, which have antimicrobial, antioxidant, antifungal, AND antibacterial properites! Plus, coconuts are rich in Vitamins E and K as well as iron and potassium. Tony mentioned that drinking coconut milk can lower LDL and raise HDL cholesterol. Apparently these properties and the pH of coconut water (they call it juice) made it a successful alternative to saline solution during war times! Wowsers. I haven’t checked his facts- yet. J Tony seemed entertained when I told him that coconut water has become such a popularized sport drink in the U.S. It seriously quenches after hot yoga! But I suppose the Thai knew that a long time ago. But then again, they also never had to put Mangosteen in a pill form to make it attractive. It’s always been a staple Thai fruit.
Palm/Betel (Areca) Nut- slices may be wrapped in betel leaf with lime, clove, cardamom, and/or other spices and eaten. It has a fresh, peppery taste. The betel nut is also chewed on as a form of tobacco, and it causes the teeth to turn pink. As I learned when visiting the Sea Gypsy village, the Thai people used to think those with white teeth (when foreigners first arrived) were unattractive. They don’t have pink, rotting teeth, therefore they must not be able to afford their chew! It’s all just a differential…
Tony bought us tastes of various foods as we toured the market and we shared them as we walked and chatted. Once we returned to the restaurant, he left us in the capable hands of Charles, head chef of Blue Elephant. Might I just say that Charles is pretty hysterical and quite impressive. We found out through the course of talking that he not only manages much of the business at their Bangkok restaurant and school, but Charles oversees almost every element of the new restaurant in Phuket- helping hire and staff employees, menu planning, budgets & purchasing, décor, everything. Chantelle had many more technical questions in this arena as she has a background in the business. I was thoroughly impressed that a) Charles knows of (and was excited about!) Tacoma and b) He has the most impeccable manicure with bubble gum pink polish I’ve ever seen. And he cooks 12 hours a day! I must know his secret.
We made a total of four dishes:
- Kai Phad Prik Tua Fak Yao- a delicious red curry (“You like the spice more than the Thai!” GUILTY.)
- Yum Ma- Muang Plaa Krob- a spicy green mango salad with crispy fish
- Tom Kha Sai Mapraow Orn- Coconut milk soup with chicken and young coconut flesh- Holy Yum!
- Chor Muang- crispy golden bag stuffed with prawn and crab
I felt like I was on some episode of Top Chef (I wish) getting to cook alongside such accomplished chefs! My ineptitude became apparent in some of the cutting. Charles would name a type of cutting technique, and they would go to town. I was slowing following suit, but it was great fun all the same. It was most entertaining to see how three dishes could turn out completely different even though we all had the same ingredients in front of us! Charles’s dishes were impeccable, of course. Chantelle’s were always beautiful. Mine were acceptable- I think. I kept hesitating to add all the fish sauce because it’s seriously so salty. At the end Charles would taste mine, and tell me to add more sauce. Hehe. Apparently I did have some “technique” when folding the dough into flower shapes to make “beautiful golden bags.” Folding I can do well. No inherent risk of battle wounds.
There is so much to love and respect about Thai cuisine, and I dare say it also reflects my desired cooking style. First of all, they are often unorthodox in strictly adhering to specific measurements for each ingredient. I also only follow recipes to the “t” when I have to, i.e. when baking. Secondly, the superfluous use delightful and colorful herbs and vegetables is so much fun! Yet, it’s not out of control; there’s a yin and yang to each dish (rather than the occasional anarchy of mine): if you add excess peppers, you temper with a little sugar or sweet basil. Too much bird’s eye chilli? Add more coconut milk. I also love that the Thai tend to have a “zero waste” policy when it comes to food usage. Dehydrated shrimp shells and even fish scales are used in dishes, particularly salads, to create a crunchy consistency! They creatively incorporate the roots, seeds, greens, and oddball animal pieces into some part of their dishes, hence respecting the living creatures that provide for their nourishment in the process. This is also the Buddhist way.
A few days later Tony and I were watching the National Geographic channel (aka Nat Geo) with some of his friends when the topic of food scarcity somehow came up. I’m not sure his source, but Tony said that we currently produce enough food in the world to feed 36 BILLION PEOPLE. There are currently over 7 billion living on this planet, and yet an estimated 925 million are hungry at this very moment (http://www.worldhunger.org/articles/Learn/world%20hunger%20facts%202002.htm).
It seems ironic- or not- that so much of what I’ve been reading (Ishmael, Thich Nhat Hanh, & A New Earth) and thinking about on this trip seem to converge on the theme of over-consumption and under “nourishment”. By consumption I mean not just food but anything the greedy ego wants to want more than it wants to have, anything driven by the blind aim of profit, and anything that will, at least in the short-term, fill some sense of longing or incompleteness the ego may have. By nourishment, I also mean the enlightenment and freedom of giving and receiving that which you truly need- no more, no less, not in the name of greedy abandon- and being truly fulfilled. Recognizing the “habit energy” of our consumption-driven society and stepping away to realize, this is enough. My ego is hardwired like ever other human’s to play into this pursuit of compulsive, competitive gathering, yet as Tolle says, “The ego is destined to dissolve.”
The food industry is the number one producer of waste in the United States. After that is health care. Our ever growing and warming planet is one in serious turmoil, yet our systemic global evolution continues to propel this momentous proliferation. If we do not eventually have a shift in the global consciousness of this market of over-consumption and undernourishment (the food industry being a huge culprit), we may no longer have access to the abundant resources we do today. As a side note, this also brings me back to the Mayan Prophesy of December 21, 2012, which I’ve been peripherally contemplating for a while now. I don’t believe it will be the end of the world by the way (a Mayan in Belize personally confirmed this), but I do believe it may herald a global shift, and hopefully a positive one. Their calendar suggests it will be the beginning of a spiritual enlightenment. Couldn’t be a bad thing, right? Also apparently the Spanish invaders in Central America burned the calendars that came afterwards, so we should be in the clear.
I don’t mean to end such a lively post with Debbie Downer jargon, but I can’t help but think of these things when visiting a country that was pure in its natural state probably 30 years ago, and now has construction cranes lining every 50 meters of the Phuket coastline. It is still a country of regal beauty and abundant resources, don’t get me wrong. Even so, I’d like to try and be a “Leaver” tourist, appreciating yet not depleting the bounty Thailand has to offer, here and now. And so with a thankful heart and a happy belly, I leave you with “food for thought” via the wise words of Daniel Quinn:
Man’s destiny was to conquer and rule the world, and this is what he’s done–almost. He hasn’t quite made it, and it looks as though this may be his undoing. The problem is that man’s conquest of the world has itself devastated the world. And in spite of all the mastery we’ve attained, we don’t have enough mastery to stop devastating the world–or to repair the devastation we’ve already wrought. We’ve poured our poisons into the world as though it were a bottomless pit–and we go on gobbling them up. It’s hard to imaging how the world could survive another century of this abuse, but nobody’s really doing anything about it. It’s a problem our children will have to solve, or their children…. Increasing food production to feed an increased population results in yet another increase in population.
I have amazing news for you. Man is not alone on this planet. He is part of a community, upon which he depends absolutely. Trial and error isn’t a bad way to learn how to build an aircraft, but it can be a disastrous way to learn how to build a civilization.
Namaste, fellow Earthlings.