Amidst the heat and bustle of Chaweng, the Samui Institute of Thai Culinary Arts is a cool and orderly oasis for food lovers on Koh Samui. When I arrived for my Thai cooking class, I stepped out of my shoes and then through the glass front door into a room dominated by a long white table set up with stations for each student with an apron, recipe book, cutting board, mortar and pestle, knife, and trays of ingredients, all neatly tagged with our student numbers. I was invited to sit at station number ten, and we were provided with sweating glasses of ice water and sweet iced tea.
Our instructor laid out the plan for the next two hours: we would make a series of Thai dishes, including Glass Noodle Soup with Soft Tofu, Deep Fried Fish with Turmeric, and Yellow Curry with Chicken. At the end of the class, the students and their guests would get to enjoy all of this for lunch. She gave a short presentation on the basic flavors in Thai cuisine: salty, bitter, sweet, and hot.
Then: “Stand up, please!” We all stood and followed her rapid instructions, chopping and adding ingredients to our stone mortars, then grinding and pounding. “Don’t look down!” she warned, as bits of fiery pepper flew from our exertions. Assistants circled the table, looking into our mortars to check our progress, giving advice, and even offering to take over the grinding if we were getting tired. I declined the offer, but found that it takes a surprising amount of arm strength and patience to create a smooth curry paste from whole ingredients.
More beautiful trays of fresh ingredients appeared, and our instructor walked us through each of them, describing nuances such as when to use ginger versus galangal, and encouraging us to sniff and nibble as she talked. We grimaced at the fiery ginger, and stained our fingers trying slices of fresh turmeric. We moved on to chop the ingredients for our yellow curry, then for our fried fish. We rolled ground pork and shrimp into tiny meatballs for our soup.
Our instructor held up some dried red peppers. “One pepper is medium. Two or three peppers is hot. Four or five peppers is very hot. Burns your mouth, then burns your bottom.” She giggled at this, then said again, “Stand up, please!” Another session with mortar and pestle followed as we created the sauce for the fish. The Indonesian woman next to me threw in all of the peppers in her dish, and asked for five more. “We are used to very hot food in Indonesia,” she explained, to glances both respectful and amazed.
When all of the preparations were complete, we moved into a glass-walled room where a semi-circle of gas burners faced toward the instructor’s burner in the middle. Our ingredients awaited us at our numbered stations. We lit our burners, allowed our woks to heat up, then started frying our fish. I felt a bit vulnerable, standing there in bare feet while stirring my fish pieces in furiously bubbling oil, but survived without mishap. When my fish was judged brown enough, I removed it to a plate.
We moved on to simmer our soup until the tiny meat balls were cooked through, then we created clouds of fragrant steam while cooking our spices for the chicken curry. Spatulas and spoons flying, we slid ingredients into our woks, scraped, stirred and removed to serving dishes, as our instructor directed us and her assistants circled, peering into our woks and occasionally adjusting the flames on our burners.
At last, Michael joined me as my lunch guest, and we all trooped upstairs to a dining room where our culinary creations awaited us. We feasted on the crispy fried fish enhanced by the spicy, sour sauce. The soup was a mild and salty tangle of rice noodles, greens, mushrooms, studded with delicious pork and shrimp balls. The chicken curry, served over mounds of steamed rice, was rich and full-flavored with the intense yellow curry paste that I had pounded so laboriously. The variety of flavors, textures, and spices in each of the dishes came together to make a pleasing, well-rounded meal.
We relaxed over our food, and chatted with the other students, and ate until we could hold no more. Then our leftovers were packaged up for us—easily enough for our dinner. I was proud of my day’s work in the classroom.
Deep Fried Fish with Turmeric (Pla Tod Khamin)
- ½ fillet of snapper, sea bass, or other white fish (about 5 oz)
- 1 tsp fresh turmeric or ¼ tsp turmeric powder
- 1 clove garlic
- 1 root of coriander
- ¼ tsp black peppercorns
- ½ tsp sugar
- 1 tsp seasoning sauce (Maggi sauce)
- ¼ tsp salt
- 1 tsp dry sherry, brandy, or cooking wine
- ½ cup tempura flour
- 1 tsp deep fried garlic for garnish
- cilantro leaves for garnish
- 1 cup vegetable oil
- *chili sweet and sour dipping sauce
Cut the fish into 2×2 inch pieces. Place the fish in a bowl. Pound the garlic, turmeric, black pepper and coriander root in a mortar until smooth (or use food processor) and spread evenly onto the fish. Sprinkle the fish with sherry, salt, and sugar, then dredge the fish in the flour, shaking off excess.
Heat the oil in a wok or large frying pan over moderate heat. Add the fish and fry for 2 minute, or until golden on both sides. Transfer the fish to a warmed serving platter. Sprinkle the fish with fried garlic and cilantro leaves for garnish. Serve with sweet and sour dipping sauce.
*To make the sauce: put 1 clove garlic, 1 coriander root, 1 fresh hot chili into a stone mortar (or food processor) and grind coarsely. Add 1 tbsp fish sauce, 1 tbsp lime juice, and 1 tsp palm sugar. Mix well and pour into a small sauce bowl.
Next installment: Where to eat dinner in Chaweng