Sunday, 31 August 2008

Bad Cooking Lesson

I wasn't going to write about this experience, as I was worried it would all come out quite negative. But time has passed and I hope this will be quite objective. We'll see ...
I had read that in Kota Bharu, the Director of the local tourist centre, Roselan made cooking courses. Apparently they are quite popular. We popped along, as we wanted to get some more information on the city itself and what we could do there. 
Roselan is a very cheerful guy and very likeable. He even made Kota Bharu sound much more exciting than it was. The lesson was based on 3 courses, a meat dish, a fish and a vegetable dish. We went with his suggestions on what dishes would be best. All sounded good. The price was comparable with that of classes in Thailand. We were to meet him at one of his other moonlighting jobs the following day. 
Kota Bharu was a nice city, but turned out to be less interesting than we thought. Much promise, but nothing lived up to its promise. Just like the cooking class. 
We met Roselan and he took us to his house. The contents of what we were going to cook were in shopping bags on the backseat of the car. We were to have a fruit selection at the end, and the dreaded durian was purchased. This is where I first tried it. See blog below re my thoughts of this fruit.
We were to cook chicken curry with potatoes, fish steaks in soya sauce, and stir fried vegetables. The evening started with the ingredients for the chicken curry being laid out on the table and we helped cut them up and pound them in a mortar. Lina was enjoying pounding the shallots and chilli's. 
When we asked what this dish was called in Malay, we were given the English name. The chicken curry was a standard Malay coconut curry. This one just had potatoes added. I have had this before somewhere else in Malaysia and can be a great dish. Unfortunately when we got to eat it, the sauce was very nice, and the potatoes were cooked well, but the chicken was a lot overcooked. 
He opened, what seemed like a very old bottle of Cream Soda. This brought back memories of my mum having cream soda in a glass with a scoop of ice cream added. 
The fish dish, we had tuna steaks. This could have been really good, but the fish was shallow fried, and was forgotten about and therefore overcooked and dry. Plus the other ingredients were still undercooked, as they were rushed through. Bit like the evening really.
The stir fried veg was a bit of a disaster as corn starch was added to the veg along with water to thicken up the sauce, because it had not been cooked out long enough. 
All in all it was a bit of a mare. 
The whole night was a bit weird. It was as if we were going round to a friend of a friend's house and helping him cook dinner. When it came to eat, he wouldn't eat with us, and we ate alone in the dinning room. All very uncomfortable. 
He claimed to be running these cooking classes several times a week for over 10 years. But if he was me and you were having strangers in your house, you would tidy up a bit, and give the walls a bit of a clean. If he has been doing these regularly for a few years, he would have some sort of order in which to do things. We asked for the recipes and he said "Oh if you want to write them down I may have some paper around somewhere". Lina scribbled a lot. I didn't really want to pay the remaining monies to him, as I felt it wasn't deserved. 
All in all it was a bad but different night. If you are in Kota Bharu and are in the tourist office and are offered a cooking class with Roselan, as Nancy Reagan used to say "Just Say No". 

Fish, fish glorious fish

Over looking the South China Sea in Kota Kinabalu is the Philippine Market. A monstrous, colourful collection of stalls and people grilling a wider selection of fresh fish. Luckily the wet or fish market is located right next door. Handy. It's a fantastic and atmospheric place. May not be everyone's taste but for a great cheap meal, it's a must.

Walking through the open area, being blinded by the smoke, dodging the many Philippino women enticing you to eat at their tables, trying not to trip over as you keep looking at peoples plates to see what they are eating. The fish is really cheap ranging from about 8 to 25 Ringitt, depending on if you want a tiddler or a whale. Between them all, there really is no difference. fish the same, grilled the same, sides the same, prices the same. Only difference are the women trying to get you to sit at their tables and eat.

We sat with one that was pretty much full of locals. Good sign of freshness. We ordered a nice sized squid, and a huge monster of a fish. Been finding recently, the bigger the fish the bigger the bones, which makes it easier to find them, so as not to choke on them. Problems in the past. 

I made up a dipping sauce, of chilli, sugar and lime juice. Spicy, sweet n sour. The fish came and was nice and crispy on the outside and firm and moist on the inside. It was fantastic feeling to pull the chunks of fish with my hands and dunk it in the sauce and eat it. So so so so good. So very good indeed. 

It's really strange that I come from an island, but do not really eat that much fish. More of a meat eater. But with fish like this I am being easily converted. 

Happy times. 

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

Kuantan - A diamond in the rough

Kuantan was just a stop over en-route to somewhere else. It is a small provisional town with not a lot going for it apart from a very helpful Tourist Information Office, who when asked what there is to do in town, replied with a blank look. They were very generous with brochures of the Tioman Islands though.
There really is nothing to do in town either. It has a nice large Mosque, a walkway along the river front and a cinema which we went to. A word of warning, like Malaysian buses, Malaysian Cinemas also have the air conditioning on full blast. We were happy to leave, just to warm our bare feet up. 
That night we didn't really want to go far to eat, so we asked in the hotel, and they pointed literally across the street to the Tjantek Art Bistro. This little place turned out to be a little oasis in an otherwise very dull town. It is we found out after the meal a very long building, as with most Nyonya houses of similar design. They were charged taxes on the width of the building not the length of it. Clever those Chinese were. 
As we entered the open shop front, immediately we felt a very relaxed vibe with some Jazz playing and a lot of art on the walls and books in cases in cabinets on either side. The lighting had been set to make for a pleasant evening of food and chat.
The menu had a major slant towards Europe, with a few Asian dishes for good measure. This we found out later off the owner was to give the local population something familiar to eat when they visited if they were not adventurous enough. 
Some nice salads were on offer, along with some solid steaks dishes and some equally appetising fish on the menu also. Lina opted for a fillet of fish whilst I had a salmon steak. Both came with a nice lemon butter sauce, sauté potato's and a medley of vegetables and coleslaw(?) . No idea why that was on the plate. The fishes were grilled to perfection, cooked but still moist on the inside. 
It was a fantastic meal, simple food, cooked very well. All that was missing was a glass or two of wine, but as the owners were Malay and Muslim it is illegal for them to sell alcohol. If they would have been Chinese or Indian (Hindu) then they could have an alcohol licence. Licensing laws are always weird. 
The owner gave us a tour at the end of her restaurant and told us about the art on the walls, which most is from local artists. She asked us where we were going tomorrow, knowing everyone only spends one night in Kuantan. If you happen to get stuck there, then head for Tjantek for a great evening. In a dull town, Tjantek shines like a diamond. 

Tjantek Art Bistro
46 Jalan Besar

Sunday, 24 August 2008


We were supposed to be in Cherating for several days before heading down to Palau Tioman but due to Malaysian school holidays, buses being full for a week and the need to change money. We only managed one night. 
Cherating is a small village next to the sea. It has that village feel to it. The beach is not the draw here, as it is not fantastic. It is the quiet laid back atmosphere and the friendliness of the people that draws visitors and keeps them there. 

As it is next to the sea you would expect a lot of fish restaurants. Actually not that many. But we did search one out. Not really a restaurant by European standards but more of a cafe by Malaysian. It was a typical shop front, with loads of plastic chairs and tables outside, with a counter out front displaying a vast array of fish and shell fish on offer. A set of scales to weigh your fish, so you knew how much it was going to cost before we had it cooked. A large flat skillet was the cooking device here. It seemed all the fish was cooked one way, one top of a banana leaf and coated with a real yummy spicy sauce. 
We saw this cafe earlier in the afternoon, by the time we returned at night the fish display had weaned down to just a dozen or so fish. The crab and clams had gone. We opted for a beautiful looking monster that weighed about 700g. No idea what type of fish it was, but it was the freshest one there. As I prodded around and checked the gills and eyes. Definately caught that day. We also ordered some rice and a plate of mixed vegetables. 
The fish was cooked to a tee, and was still nice and moist on the inside. The sauce spicy but not mouth burning, just gave me a nice glow at the back of the throat. Thankfully the fish had large bones so they were easy to sort out. No medical emergencies there. We stripped that bugger clean. That had been our best meal in quite  while, as Island food in  the Perhentians had not been that great. 
This cafe was run by three girls, all in their late teens I guess, and a boy making the drinks. Incredible that people so young could be doing so well. The only people eating their were Malays and a couple of Germans who did not like fish and just ate noodles. It baffled me. 
It was a shame we were only in Cheariting for one night, as I know we would have eaten there every night, trying all the seafood they had. 

Friday, 22 August 2008

What's that smell ?

 I have seen and smelt Durian many a time in Asia and even in London. Before you get to see it, you can generally smell a mustiness in the air. Then as you get closer the smell becomes more and then your eyes gaze upon this fruit, brown and prickly on the outside and soft and green/yellow on the inside. In some countries it is banned on all forms of public transport and public buildings including hotels. It is normally sold on roadsides away from buildings and the general 
population. Thankfully. 
I am not a fan of it, although I had never tried it before, but the smell was enough to put me off. But we were offered it one day, and decided to accept it and give it a try. I really wish I hadn't of. The only thing I can say about it is that it tastes of cheesy feet. Although I have never tasted cheesy feet, that is what came to mind as I popped that small piece of soft fruit into my mouth. It really does taste worse than it smells. 
It baffles me that people drive for miles to buy this fruit and inspect each one until they find the right one. Then saviour each morsel of the soft green fruit.  Wether they have conditioned to it from birth, fed it by their mothers to get them off baby food, and then they grow a liking to it, or they are just plain mad I do not now. 
They also serve it in cakes and ice creams bu
t I am not tempted to try it again. 
But give it a try if you can and decide for yourselves. Maybe you will like it. Maybe you will join the millions of Asians who love it. Maybe you will be mad, who knows. I for one have joined the long list of people who do not like Durian. 

Wednesday, 20 August 2008

Malaysia, the joys of Indian food

Oh the joy of having the choice of which restaurant to goto to have some good Indian food. Normally travelling you may have one place doing a curry but it is either very watery like in Vietnam or taste of nothing like in Laos. I'm sure they forgot to put the spices in. 
Georgetown on Penang Island is heaven. Not for your everyday curry addict, as the food is what you would expect to find in either South or North India, not at your local Ruby Murray joint back home in Blighty. 
As we were in Georgetown about 8 years ago, we knew what goodness lay ahead. Fortunately for us Restoran Kapitan was still there selling the same great food to the vast array of people who sat at its tables everyday. 
Sometimes its nice that places never change with the times, changing with new trends that come and go, they just sell the same trusted food day in day out always to a great standard. It's a lesson some places never learn. 
The Indians in Malaysia were brought over by the British to work in the mines and to work in the plantations. As times passed they have blossomed into a fantastically colourful community in Georgetown. The bright blue temples of Southern India shine out on the streets of Little India. Bright colourful Sari's are being sold in shops, Indian music deafens you as you walk past the music shops. The sweet shops tempt you in to try the delights behind the glass cabinets. We were tempted. The smells of Spices being sold in shops transports you right back to India. It's heaven.
The most famous dish is Roti Canai, which I consider a Malay dish of Indian origins. It is a flatbread composed of a fluffy dough, which is continually kneaded, oiled and tossed in the air to give it its lightness. It is cooked on an oil drenched flat skillet. It should be crispy on the outside and light on the inside. It is fantastic at breakfast but equally good anytime of the day. It is served with a simple curry or gravy or even a dhal. This changes from place to place. We have even searched this out in London at our old favourite Malaysian restaurant, before it went upmarket and charged 4 times the amount for the same food but in plusher surroundings. 
The speciality of most restaurants in Little India is Tandoori, and Restoran Kapitan serves the best. To be honest I prefer the Chicken Tikka dishes to its Tandoori Chicken. There is something about the bright red colour that puts me off. It is a glorious place just to sit and have a thick mango lassi. Delicious on a hot day. They are served on a Thali dish with some god Naan bread, some mint sauce and a simple curry sauce to go with. These and with most Malay or Indian food is best eaten with your hands. You kind of get more of a feel for the food, the spices seep into your skin and the food tastes a whole lot better. 
In the Good Old Days, old men used to wander around town with a bamboo pole over his shoulder and to large pots at either end. In one pot would be rice and roti, and the other would be a selection of curries and vegetables. The pole was known as a Kandar. Nowadays you can get Nasi (Rice) Kandar in most Indian restaurants and a lot of Malay places also. You get a plate of rice hen you can choose from a wide selection of pre-cooked foods from simple chicken curry to grilled fish to spiced veggies. All the food is at a lukewarm temperature and depending when you arrive, it could have been cooked the day before. We have had some good Nasi Kandar, some average ones and some bad ones. It's kinda pot luck, but as always if it's full of locals then it's bound to be ok. 
There is a difference between the Southern Indian dishes which contain more heat, more coconut milk and centre on rice. Where the Northern Indian dishes are more meat based and are eaten with more breads. These are normally the Muslim Indians or Mamak's who serve the Tandoori foods. 
We ate a lot of Indian food whilst in Georgetown, feeding three months of deprivation. Who knows where the next one will come from....

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Nyonya Cusine

Malaysia is rich and diverse in its culture, with the population consisting of Malay, Indian, Chinese and the mixes these groups have become. The most famous being the Peranakan Baba-Nyonya. Peranakan means Descended from, whilst Baba means Man and Nyonya means lady. 
So the story goes, in the 15th century, the city states of the Malay Peninsula often paid tribute to various kingdoms such as the kingdoms of China and Siam. Close relations with China were established in the early 15th century, during the reign of Parameswara, when Admiral Zheng He, a Muslim Chinese, visited Malacca. According to traditional accounts in 1459, the Emperor of China sent a princess, to the Sultan of Malacca as a token of appreciation for his tribute. The royalty and servants who accompanied the princess initially settled in Bukit Cina and eventually grew into a class of straits-born Chinese known as the Peranakan. The Peranakan retained most of their ethnic and religious origins, but assimilated the language and culture of the Malays. They developed a unique culture and distinct foods. Numerous sources claim that the early Peranakan inter-married with the local Malay population, this may might derive from the fact that some of the servants who settled in Bukit Cina that travelled to Malacca with the Admiral from Yunnan were Muslim Chinese. In the early 1800s, new Chinese immigrants to the Straits Settlements bolstered the Peranakan population.
Nyonya cuisine is a thing of love. It's not something you can come home from work and throw together ..... It takes care, time and passion to create such delicious tasting food. It does remind me of traditional Mexican food, which you have to spend ages just working on one component, and a dish may contain several of these, before you add them gradually together to create a thing of wonder. Nyonya food is the same in that respect. Peranakan or Nyonya cuisine combines Chinese, Malay and other influences into a unique blend. Nyonya cooking is the result of blending Chinese ingredients and wok cooking techniques with spices used by the Malay community. The food is tangy, aromatic, spicy and herbal.
There are two different schools of Nyonya cuisine. The dishes from the Island of Penang and the North show major influences of Thai cooking, they are more sour from the use of tamarind, compared with the Nyonya of Malacca which shows more Indonesian influences and uses more coconut milk. A classic example is laksa (a spicy noodle soup), which comes in two variants: the sour asam laksa from Penang and the coconut milk-based laksa lemak from Singapore and the southern regions of Peninsular Malaysia. Both are equally delicious but totally different. 
In Georgetown there is a restaurant that still holds true to true Nyonya cooking. It is called Baba-Nyonya Cuisine. The cook Miss Khoo, who is a 4th Generation Nyonya is very proud of her heritage. She was delighted to show us around and show us some traditional Nyonya ornaments to her restaurant come home. The restaurant is on a street of old Nyonya houses, which most have been turned into restaurants. Hers is quite small, only 4 tables greet you as you enter. There is a screen which houses another two tables if she gets busy. Luckily on our visit, only 2 tables were occupied, but we were told the night before around 45 people showed up for dinner. As she seems obsessed with doing all the cooking herself she must have been really shattered afterwards. 
The unique flavour of Nyonya recipes is determined by the rempah, a combination of spices pounded into a paste with pestle and mortar, with a very specific texture and density. It is said that a Nyonya mother can determine the culinary skill of a new daughter-in-law simply by listening to her preparing rempah with a mortar. Nyonya recipes are handed down from one generation to the next, and because of the time-consuming preparation of these dishes, it is a cuisine that is often at its best when served at home or in this restaurant, bit like Moroccan food. 
After browsing the menu we opted a starter of Top Hats. Opened topped deep fried rice wafer filled with a filling similar to spring rolls. They were very delicate. For mains we ordered Chicken Curry Kapitan (so named, some hundred years ago or so, a Dutch sea Captain asked his cabin boy what was for dinner that night. "Curry Kapitan" was the reply. It is a dense curry cooked with chicken and flavoured with candlenuts which also add to the thickness of the sauce. We also ordered a plate of hong bak, pork cooked for an age, and comes finished on the plate in a thick gravy. We also had a plate of local greens cooked in a fish paste. Sorry can not remember the name, and can not find it anywhere, but it was delicious. 
The meal and experience of eating really traditional food was great. The curry was divine as all curries should be, but aren't. The beef was melt in the mouth stuff. It was kind of a privilege to eat here and have someone lovingly cook for you and be very proud of her food, culture and heritage. 
We are looking forward to Malaka

Friday, 8 August 2008

Bangkok Part 2 - When you are tired of noodles, you should goto the Mandarin Oriental

Sometimes and only sometimes, when you have been on the road for a long time. You just reach a point when you get fed up of the local food and just crave something familiar. After 3 months in Asia we were there. Lina was craving cheese and wine. I was just craving a good steak and potato's. Although the thought of a good bottle of wine wasn't to hard to resist either. 
So where could we go. Obviously for what we were wanting, one of the major hotels fitted the bill. Luckily for us, quite a few were situated alongside the Chao Prad River..... in Bangkok. After a visit to their websites. The Mandarin Oriental looked the best bet, as they had a nightly buffet on the terrace overlooking the river itself. A quick shave and we popped on our glad rags. Thankfully we have one nice set of clothes that we keep, just for this type of occasion. Also thankfully the easiest way to get to the hotel was on the Skytrain. So at least we wouldn't end up arriving like we'd been trampling through the jungle all day. Looking slightly red and dripping with sweat. 
The best thing about the 5 star hotels on the river front. Is that they all have small boats to take you from the landing dock by the Skytrain to your chosen hotel. The boat for the Mandarin Oriental was built of wood and had very comfortable seats. It resembled a small junk. Very atmospheric. After a few minutes of cruising the river, we arrived at the dock for the hotel. With the customary bows of the hotel staff, we were beginning to believe, like them that we were staying there. 
We made our way to the Riverside Terrace Restaurant and admired the buffet. I always believe you can tell a lot about a place that puts on a buffet selection. If it's badly presented or looks a bit thin on the ground, then normally the quality of the food is a bit so so. Nothing to fear with this one. There were 5 stations as they call them. Everything was presented to the level you'd expect from a hotel of this class. We'd made the right choice. So after seating on a table outside under the stars, (we were both praying for no rain) and browsing the wine list. I settled on a nice bottle of crisp Italian White, which came chilled in a wine bucket full of ice. After having a sip, yes we have both missed this. 
So we made our way to the selection that awaited us. The first station, was your salad selection, ranging from your usual leaves right the way through to a good seafood selection with various vinaigrettes and sauces to go with. 
The next section had a nice selection of cold meats and oddly enough a nice sushi and sashimi selection also. Not something I would have put side by side, but we live in an age of fusion. Time to get with the times. 
Next in line was the grill. Now this looked really tempting. I think it had something to do with the large prawns slowly chargrilling away and the lovely looking and tasting tandoori lamb and fish pieces. Also a nice beef madras was on offer, and some lovely selections of grilled steaks.
Finally before we hit the puddings was what I had really been missing. The good old carvery. It really was like Sunday lunch was here and alive in Bangkok, even the Yorkies looked pretty darn good. Nice piece of gammon, beef and poultry. 
Now in my view, the puddings really make or break a buffet selection. There has to be a good varied selection, all have to be presented to lift you to a spiritual high, and without a doubt the ice-cream has to be homemade and it has to be to die for. God I love the Mandarin. It was all fantastic. I did reach a spiritual high, in fact me and God were about on the same level for a while that night, especially after having a chocolate truffle or two. The blackcurrant pannacotta really gave my taste buds a work out.  
We knew it was gonna be expensive, and it was, but as a one off it was really worth it. Not going to be doing it again for a long time. So we justified it to ourselves. The ride back on their boat and the Skytrain was fantastic. One thing about nights like these is a damn shame it has to end.
We both slept very content that night. Very.
Next morning, we were both still very happy and the noodle soup from a small stall on the side of a road for breakfast tasted pretty good.

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Street Food Part 4 - Thailand

Street food in Thailand is where it's at. It's fresh, great and cheap. What more can you ask. The best street food we had was in Northern Thailand, especially in the two Chiangs'. Rai and Mai. 
Chiang Rai's was at the nightly food market, where at least 50 odd stalls are set up selling everything from Grilled Fish to Tom Yam. Although we were kinda fed up with deep fried foods by this point, we still managed to eat a few fried chicken wings. The best was the whole grilled fish we managed to devour in moments, closely followed by some grilled cockles, they tasted exactly how we remembered them from Vietnam. The huge amounts of perfectly grilled pork on skewers that we dipped in a sweet chilli sauce were pretty good also.
The day of our arrival in Chiang Mai blew us away. We turned up to witness the Sunday Night Street Market. This weekly street market has to be one of the best street markets I have seen in a long long time. Really, only the street markets of the Middle East beat this one on sheer scale. The quality and sheer quantity of handicrafts was really impressive. An entire road is blocked off from the Eastern Gate right through to a Wat over a mile away. Dozens of small side streets are also filled with stalls also.
I'm not sure wether this started purely for us tourists, like the other daily night market in Chiang Mai, but after a while there were many more Thai's than Falangs. And we all know that shopping is hungry work, so with a market this grand there was an adequate supply of street food to keep everyone fed, and importantly waiting times were kept to a minimum.
I think we had a good bash at trying as much as we could. Especially good were the local selection of sausages. Well I am English after all, and you can never keep a good sausage down. All were filled with pork, and some had red paste inside, others had lime, others were just down right fierce. All were grilled, and most of them were delicious. There were rows upon rows of women turning out Phad Thai and other noodle dishes. The Papaya Salad we had was nicely spicy and sour, which our throats were saved by the passion fruit juices we were consuming. 
Sushi was on offer and at only 5 or 10 Bhat a piece definitely good value, although at some attempts I saw, even I could of set up shop and made a profit. 
There were some dedicated areas, mainly inside Wats that had tables and chairs to sit down on and consume larger meals, like curries, noodles etc. I tried a green curry noodle soup which to my surprise was pretty damn good for a snack food. Must remember that one for when we get back home. Also chose a couple of portions of other curries and a plate of rice to munch on also whilst Lina was busy shopping away. 
My old Thai favourites were there also, like marinated chicken pieces, tied to some wooden sticks and grilled over live coals. This served with a sweet chilli sauce is my idea of heaven. Huge amounts of satay sticks were available also, pork, beef, squid, prawn and chicken all coated in delicious sauces and all grilled to perfection. 
It really was paradise and writing this is making me very hungry. So I have to stop and go get something to eat ........

Saturday, 2 August 2008

Recipe for Chiang Mai Curry

Below is the recipe from Baan Thai of their version of Chiang Mai Curry described in my own way.

For the Paste you will need : 

10 Dried Red Chilli's
5 Tbsp Chopped Thai Shallots
2 Tbsp Minced Garlic
1/2 Tbsp Very finely chopped Galangal
2 Tbsp Finely Chopped Lemongrass
1 Tsp Shrimp Paste
1 Tsp Salt
1 Tsp Chopped Coriander Root. 

For the Chiang Mai Curry itself : 

150g Pork Belly, cut into 3cm cubes
1 Tsp Chiang Mai Curry Paste
1/2 Tsp Masala Powder
10g Peeled Garlic
10g Sliced Shallots
15g Pickled Garlic
2 Tbsp Fish Sauce
20g Brown Sugar
1 Tbsp Tamarind Juice
10g Sliced Ginger
4 Tbsp Dark Soy Sauce


Curry Paste

1. Soak the dried red chilli's in water for about 2 minutes.
2. Pop the garlic into the mortar and pound it well. Add the shallots and lemongrass and pound again.
3. Add the galangal, kaffir lime peel, coriander root and pound it some more. 
4. Add the red chilli's and pound again.
5. Add the shrimp paste and pound it until all is combined and is a smooth paste.
6. This paste can be kept for a few months in a jar in the fridge. But fry it off in oil in a wok until it releases its aroma. This will stop it going sour.
7. If you make the paste in a blender, if you can, pound it a little to release the oils. This will make the finished curry taste so much better.

Chiang Mai Curry

1. Put the pork, Chiang Mai curry paste and the masala powder into a bowl and massage the meat until well covered. Leave to marinate for at least 1 hour. More if possible.              Over night in the fridge would be best.
2. Heat a wok. Add the pork to the wok. Cook over low heat and stir constantly for 2 minutes. No oil here, as the pork will release a lot of fat.
3. Add water to the wok, just enough to cover. 
4. Simmer for 1 hour covered over a low flame. Keep checking and keep replenishing the water to the same level. Stirring occasionally.
5. Check the pork after an hour. If it is cooked, add the garlic, pickled garlic, shallot and sliced ginger. Stir.
6. Add the fish sauce and brown sugar. Stir. 
7. Add the tamarind juice. Stir. Once the sauce is nice and thick, it is ready. Check seasoning one last time.
8. Serve with Sticky Rice and Enjoy .......

This was one f my most enjoyable curries I have ever made. Not only was it fun to make, but it ate very well also. If you do get the chance, I recommend you give it a whirl. You will not regret it. Enjoy. 

Baan Thai Cookery School

Friday, 1 August 2008

Baan Thai Cookery School - Chiang Mai

I had been planning to do some cooking classes in Chiang Mai since before we left England, but as time wore on and the more I researched it the less I became interested in doing one. As every school I looked at had exactly the same schedule. Day 1 - Goto market, buy ingredients, go back to school, cook same dishes as everyone else. Day 2 - Repeat as day one. Same same, days 3,4 and 5. Plus you are one of up to 25 plus in every class. 
So after a while I gave up looking. Then oddly in Laos I heard of Baan Thai School, they had the basic classes as everyone else, but they also had an intensive class which they had from only 2 - 8 people. Plus the dishes were different from the others. Not just green curry and fish cakes. 
So when we arrived in Chiang Mai, I popped along to the school. It's set in a family house, which gives it a nice feel to it. They had both good news and bad news for me. Yes the class could run the next day, the bad news was that it would be the only one that week, and I was going to be the only student. As the teacher was heading back home because of Buddha day. Just my luck. Hey ho, it was meant to be, but as I was here, why not. So I signed up for the following day. 
I got to the school at 9.30am, and met my teacher for the day, Boon. She said as I was the only student I could choose 6 dishes from the weeks schedule. So after much deliberation I chose, a Chiang Mai Curry, Mussaman Curry, Chicken in Pandam Leaves, Pork Satay and Peanut Sauce, Spicy Seafood Soup and a Spicy Salmon Salad, but as the salmon needs to be brought from a supermarket not the local market, I opted instead for a plain old Papaya Salad. Always wanted to make one. 
So with basket in hand, we wandered through the quiet back streets of the old part of Chiang Mai to the local market. As we passed a tree or a bush, Boon would tell me this is a ginger plant, or this is a kaffir lime tree. Amazing to think these things we sometimes have to hunt high and low back home for are growing in peoples back gardens.
The market itself was a pretty small affair, but there were already about 5 other schools there with at least 10 - 20 students each. I felt special just having a teacher to myself. Most of the vegetables they were selling I already knew as I cooked a bit of Thai and Asian food back in London. Only a few things came as a surprise, like the oversized bright green and knobbly cucumber. Which Boon said you can stuff with minced pork and spices and cook it in a soup. So we brought all the ingredients we needed, some chicken, some pork belly and fillet, some seafood like crab, prawns, cockles and squid. Gonna love that soup. 
When we got back to the school I was put to work straight away, chopping ingredients to make the Chiang Mai curry paste and the Mussaman curry paste. Then came the hard work, no easy class this. I was plonked on a small elephant stool, heavy stone pestle and mortar in front of me, and ingredients in the bowl, pounding away whilst Boon added the different components bit by bit, until all were added. This pounding took about 15 minutes, but it is a great stress reliever. I used to enjoy making curry pastes back in London, as I used to release a lot of pent up anger pounding my stresses away. Worked wonders on my days off. 
The interesting mix was for the Mussaman curry. I had to dry roast all the ingredients in batches, the dry spices together, then the fresh ingredients and finally the shrimp paste that wrapped in a banana leaf. I had never dry roasted fresh ingredients before. My mind was buzzing with how this would make the final curry taste like. Then more pounding came. Boy was I relaxed after this. I had to marinate the pork for the satay, pork belly for the Chiang Mai curry and the chicken for the mussaman and for the pandam leaves before she would let me start the salad. By this time I was I getting really hungry. 
I had always wanted to make a Papaya salad, as I had seen it made countless times in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos from women in the street. So with clay mortar and a wooden pestle (I think it is that way around). I began to pound the chilli's, small shrimps, onions together. Just to break up not to pulverise to a paste. I did not opt for Thai style salad, as Boon popped 10 small chilli's in there. I popped 3 fresh ones, plus a dried chilli for effect. Then came the shredding of the green papaya and carrot. Thankfully Boon was not going to get me to shred these by my knife, as I had so often seen people doing this in the street. I used to wince thinking that they were going to cut off a finger or two in the process. Luckily for us, everyone now uses a simply hand held shredder, much like a peeler. I made easy work of the papaya and carrot. We added a handful of these, and with the pestle in one hand and a large spoon in the other came the difficult process of pounding and mixing in rhythm. It's not as easy as it looks or sounds. It's a knack that I imagine comes with time. But I think I did a pretty good job. Once thoroughly mixed and the papaya and carrot softened a little. It's time to taste and add last minute seasoning. I felt mine needed a bit more lemon and fish sauce. Then tossed once more to let it come together. Then popped it all on a dish and we sat down to eat. Mine was nice and sour but not to spicy. It could of done with maybe one or two more chilli's. Boon's on the other hand was certainly Thai style, as it had a powerful kick right away, the chilli just kept moving to the back of my throat, but the other ingredients mellowed the chilli hit and they all seemed to work together. They were both really nice but totally different. I preferred hers, as mine lacked that slap in the face I love so much. Sucka for punishment. 
Next we cooked the spicy seafood soup. This started off the same as most soups in Thailand. It all needs like all soups is a good base. Ours had lemongrass, young ginger, galangal and some of the chiang mai curry paste and some chicken stock. We first added some clams, when they started to open we popped in the bashed crab claws. After a little while in went the prawns and sliced squid. In moments it was finished. Served as prettily as I could get it into a bowl. This we both tucked into pretty fast. The crab meat was the highlight. It was sweet and succulent. The soup also had a great sea taste to it. T'was a yummy dish.
Then came the messy job of threading the pork fillet onto a lot of small wooden skewers. Quite an easy task and made plain sailing of it. Boon had already turned on the electric grill. I suppose a charcoal grill would have been asking to much. They were put on the grill whilst we whipped together the peanut sauce. Heated some coconut milk until the oil separated then added some of the Chiang Mai curry paste I had left over. Gave that a quick stir, then added some ground peanuts, sugar and salt. Stirred for a few minutes, so it would not stick to the wok. During all this I was turning the pork skewers over and mopping them with a badly made banana leaf brush I made. Boon's was much better so I stole hers. Really good idea. We turned the sauce onto a plate so we could cover the pork skewers with the sauce. The pork was a little over done and a bit chewy, but the sauce was awesome. Never again will I use peanut butter to make a satay sauce. 
We popped the Chiang Mai curry onto cook before we both took a well earned rest. As it contains pork belly it takes over an hour to cook, so the fat can become very tender. It's coked in the normal manner of any Thai curry. Covered and topped up with water or stock every once in a while so it would not dry out. I ventured outside, really quite shattered after a mornings hard cooking and eating. 
After our break we began the cooking of the Mussaman curry. For this we had two woks on the go. One to cook the curry in and the other to fry off the chicken pieces to crisp up the skin. This I would have done in a shallow pan to render off any fat from the skin, but as in Thailand its easier to deep fry them. I had cooked Mussaman curry before and it always amazes me how this starts off as a white liquid and by the end it has transformed to this muddy brown colour. It looks amazing as the oil separates out, this for me only adds to it. It gives it a great look, that no photo can recapture.
Whilst they were cooking it came time to insert the chicken pieces into the pandam leaves. Boon made it look so easy, to fold it twice to make a small pocket, then fold and fold over on itself to create a small triangle. This I could not do, but practice makes perfect, as the last few were pretty good. These are deep fried. I didn't really like these as they were too greasy for me. I seem to have grown to dislike deep fat fried food. Really not liking this at all. No more fish n chips for me back home. 
The last addition of seasoning to the Chiang Mai curry really brought it to life. The pickled garlic and tamarind really bursts through and adds that sour note you need with the fattiness of the pork. Really really good. 
When it came time to eat everything. There was just me. I now saw why it made sense to do the classes for 2 people or more, as there was a mountain of food to eat. We had to bag some of the satay sticks and the curry for Lina, as there was enough to feed about 3 people. 
In a way I was sad that I only got to do one day, but also happy that I enjoyed it so much, and I really want to do this as a job when we finish this trip. So looking forward to Colombia. So exciting. The freakiest thing of the day was that I had to cook and use knives in bare feet. It's a weird feeling, but by the end I got used to it. I can not imagine Gordon Ramsey allowing his chefs to work in bare feet. He should, it's liberating, but weird. 

Baan Thai Cookery School