The de facto guardian of Thai cuisine is, to many, The Oriental, Bangkok. There in 1986, Charlie Amatyakul, the flamboyant Thai culinary guru, founded the hotel’s Thai Cooking School. Today, Amatyakul’s former assistant Sarnsern Gajaseni oversees the school’s six-day course for visitors.
"I want my students to understand when planning a Thai meal,’ says Cooking Instructor Sarnsern, " they should not select dishes that are similar rather those that complement each other and will create a harmonious sense of balance."
The Oriental’s school sets itself apart with depth of explanation of culinary theory and history. Students attend four mornings of classroom study that focuses on ingredients and technique, slowly laying down a foundation to the understanding of Thai cuisine. After the classroom work, students head to the kitchen for two days of hands-on experience with Krissanapong Kiattisak After the six days, graduates leave with the skills to create a selection of Thai dishes enough to host a modest but impressive dinner party.
It’s 9 am on a Monday, I have just crossed the Chao Phraya River by shuttle boat from the main building of The Oriental hotel. The Thai cooking school is housed in magnolia painted single story wooden traditional Thai style house, by contrast the eaves are Oriental green. As if I had stepped back in time to the opening years of the 20th Century. He class begins by passing around samples of essential Thai ingredients that students will use to start their Thai kitchens at home. At the front of the classroom, he presides over on a large work surface with an angled mirror overhead.
As an example of the detail in the curriculum, on Day One Sanserm focuses on the background and origin of Thai cuisine; the ingredients, herbs and spices. During the morning he focuses the wealth of rice noodles, or guay tiaw, used in Thai cuisine. Progressively he pronounces their names, writing them on the board in English, then passing samples around for each student to touch, feel and smell.
On another day, Sam imparts the secrets of a good Thai curry. "The secret is the paste. It must be made fresh," he says. "Thai curries are nothing like Indian curries." Thai curries are made from wet paste that fried then the ingredients added. " In a curry dish, he says, there must be harmony - the sharpness of the chillies and the spices, toned down by the sweetness of the coconut milk, and enhanced by the flavours of the fish sauce.
Among other dishes Sam teaches during the course: khong wang (snacks and hors d’oeuvres), poh pia (spring rolls), and mhiang kum, (a chewy snack of a filled wild betel leaf). Students will also learn yaam and pla (salads herbed and spiced), sao naam (an herbed fresh rice noodle salad), and laab (a spicy minced meat salad).
"The whole course is six days long," Cooking Instructor Sarnsern said, "the difference we offer is in the attention to details, the depth of knowle in the programme presented by instructors with a good command of English. And its fun."