Chop chop - man in the kitchen

I’VE always had a small repertoire when it comes to culinary performances. Over the years I’ve collected a small number of recipes and I trot them out from time to time, offering to cook for family and friends when they come over. They usually come back, so I can’t be that bad.

But I have to admit they’re the usual man-in-the-kitchen bunch of recipes though – usually revolving around pasta. I do a really good Spaghetti Bolognese (a few steps above the student halls of residence version, thanks to a few extra steps I got from an old Antonio Carluccio recipe), some really good roast potatoes – and recently a very good salmon chowder thing, which I’ll tell you about some other time.

(and of course there are a million filthy saucepans lying around afterwards, various lids separated from jars, seemingly hundreds of spoons and forks, leading Andrea to describe me sometimes as 'Genghis Cook')

Andrea loves Asian food, and she grew up steeped in that tradition, so I’ve always been on the back foot when it comes to the world of pak choi, nam plaa and the like.

As part of the trip to Chiang Mai, one of the day excursions on offer was a full day’s tuition at a Thai Cookery School. Much to my own surprise, I jumped at the chance – fully expecting some Generation Game disasters as I wilted this and pan fried that while the sound of sirens came gradually closer.

It turned out to be a really magical experience. The format was fairly simple – there were about eight of us, and we all trooped into the classroom, a room fully equipped with a counter and a cooker with four gas burners, where the instructor would explain the ingredients of each dish, and why each ingredient was included. For example, a simple thing – he said, always cook the garlic and onion at the same time. The onion releases water as it cooks, and if it’s in the pan at the same time, this stops the garlic from burning. He had the most awe-inspiring knife technique I’ve ever seen. This guy could dice an onion in five seconds without even looking at it his hands. Do not try that at home.

After the instruction, and a demonstration, we would troop back outside to our station (a preparation area and a burner with a wok). There were rows of them – it looked like the school could take groups of 20 or 30 at a time, in a roofed-in area without walls, open to the gardens. We picked up our own ingredients, chopped ’em and diced ’em and got to work, with the instructors and helpers there to guide us when things were burning, or reminding us what order to throw things in.

The first thing we did was make our own curry paste. For someone first exposed to curry through the good auspices of Vesta (remember those little tear-open sachets of powder with bits of dried chicken rattling around inside? Yuk) this was quite a revelation. We threw the ingredients into a mortar and pestle and got pounding. Coriander seed, cumin seed, mace, cardamom pods, black peppercorns, red chilies, ginger, garlic, shrimp paste, lemongrass, kaffir lime peel, salt, coriander root… Ten minutes later we had our own curry paste. And we went on to use it (I won’t bore you with all the details – I’ll show you the next night you’re round at the house) to make a Panaeng Curry with Pork (proudly pictured, below left).

Other delights were to follow: Between 10am and 4pm, Andrea and I also made: Chiang Mai Curry with Chicken, Fried Fish with chili and basil, sweet and sour vegetable stir fry, spicy glass noodle salad and black sticky rice pudding.

We went back to our hotel well-fed, sticky, sweaty, tired and with our mouths faintly burning. And thankfully devoid of any burns, slashes or cuts. And we each got a copy of the cookbook. Now the pair of us are all wired on Thai recipes, and keen to trot down to St. George’s Market and start asking for exotic spices.

Kaffir lime leaves, anyone?