Friday, March 21, 2014

Cooking the Thai Way at SITCA

Me with the wonderful staff of SITCA
I don't remember the first time I had Thai food, but I know I liked it. Starting with Pad Thai, I eventually worked my way up to the curries, gradually becoming more adventurous and being able to tolerate spicier dishes. So when I decided to go to Thailand I knew I had to learn how to make some of these culinary delights. There are cooking classes given all over Thailand, but I found a cooking school on Koh Samui that I thought would be something special. It was quite a bit more expensive than the others I saw, but you can't put a price on the experience I had that afternoon.  Taking a class at Samui Institute of Thai Culinary Arts  also known as SITCA was one of the greatest  and most interesting travel experiences I have had in a long time.

Leaving my flip flops at the door I entered a well- lit, very clean room, greeted by smiling faces and a glass of ice tea. I then settled in to a couch to watch a short video about fruit carving. That stuff is truly amazing. In just a couple minutes, the woman on the video turned a watermelon into a beautiful flower. But that's not why I was there. Shortly after the video started I met honeymooners Marcela and Horacio from Texas who would join me for the class. It was just the three of us, so it sort of felt like a private lesson.

Beautifully fresh ingredients

Sweet and sour tofu with veggies
Proudly donning our aprons, we moved to the prep area where all of our ingredients were laid out and perfectly portioned. Our lovely teacher, Natsuda told us about each ingredient and what its purpose was as we prepared the three dishes. I tried to take notes the best I could, but there was too much to write down. Eventually I stopped writing and just took it all in. We started with sweet and sour tofu with vegetables. I didn't think I would like this one, but it was fantastic. We started with learning about different kinds of oils and to never use olive oil when cooking Thai food because the flavor is too strong and competes with the other strong flavors. We learned how to fry tofu, and we chopped veggies and some pineapple. The sweet part of the sweet and sour sauce was chili sauce and palm sugar and the sour came from tamarind paste that we made into juice by squishing it together with water and removing the seeds. Throw in some fish sauce for flavor, and voila, you have sweet and sour sauce.

Spicy glass noodle salad with shrimp & pork
I also learned that there is a special kind of ginger called galangal, and galangal, lemongrass and kaffir lime are the holy trinity of Thai cooking. The type of dish will determine how they are chopped. For example, lemongrass is chopped finely in a curry but longer stalks are used for soup. The aromas floating around in that room were heavenly, smells of fresh cilantro and chili peppers, all the ingredients starting to come together. Next up was the glass noodle salad. Here was where we learned about the difference between the red and green chilies and how the larger ones aren't spicy; they're just for a pop of color. The little guys are the ones that add the spice. The red ones are much hotter because all parts of the pepper pack a punch whereas the green ones hold their heat in the stem and seeds. There was more chopping and more sauce making to get ready to put it all together in the wok at the end.

Green curry with chicken
The last dish was the green curry and curry paste. This was what I had been waiting for. I have developed an extreme love of curry after living in Amsterdam (I lived in the Asian part of town and there were amazing Thai restaurants on my walk home). Back to the curry. More chopping was done; this time is was potatoes and chicken. Then the paste, all of the fresh leaves and spices crushed together with a stone mortar and pestle. I did my best to keep all of it in the stone vessel, but some of it definitely went flying. I'm kind of a messy chef. Can you believe this was all done barefoot? Absolutely, even when we went over to the woks to put it all together.

Making green curry paste 

We cooked each dish in a separate room with many woks then brought it back out to garnish. Then it was back to the wok to complete the next one until we had each prepared a feast for a small family. When all the hard work was complete, we all went upstairs to the dining room to feast on our achievement. Everything was amazing, some of the best Thai food I have ever had! It had just the right amount of spice, the curry was thick and all of the flavors were perfectly balanced. Success!  The truth is, anyone who takes this class will be a success because the staff is so helpful and does a lot of the work ahead of time. After sharing stories and our beautiful meal, my new honeymooning friends excused themselves, and I stayed to try to eat as much as was humanly possible. I also got a chance to spend some time talking to Natsuda. What a lucky afternoon for me! I also got a chance to meet some of the other staff and students and try a dish that they were working on.  The lesson here is that if you are going to Thailand, go to Koh Samui and stop in for a class at SITCA and give Natsuda a hug for me. It is worth every penny and then some.

So excited about my new recipe

Me and Natsuda

Walking through the door to my waiting shoes, I smiled from ear to ear with a strong reminder of why I love travel so much. Natsuda was wonderful, and I felt connected to her right away. It was so much fun to learn about the important ingredients in Thai cooking and how it all comes together. The food was amazing, but more than making the food, I enjoyed my time there.

At one point in the lesson, she said that I was a strong lady, and at the time I didn't know how right she was because from that point on I was traveling alone in Thailand...