» Archive for May, 2008

The Blue Elephant Cooking School

Thursday, May 29th, 2008 by Tina

There is no shortage of cooking classes in Thailand, especially in Bangkok. What appealed to me about The Blue Elephant School was the tour of the Thai food market before the morning session. This is not the cheapest class you could do in Bangkok but it is good value in my opinion if you haven’t been to a Thai food market before. The tour was fascinating and the quality of the teaching was on par with good cooking classes in Sydney.

The School is located right near the Surasek skytrain stop, in the Southern area of Bangkok. The skytrain quickly became my favourite mode of transport as it is clean, fast and most of all air conditioned. It got me from my hotel in Siam Square to Surasek in five minutes.

Despite my quick journey and arriving on time, I was one of the last to arrive. Our young modern host offered me a seat and I was brought a tall glass of ginger and lemongrass iced tea. The perfect remedy for Bangkok’s stifling humidity.

Once we’d all arrived and had a drink we all hopped on the skytrain and were at the Markets in less than ten minutes. We first had the option of iced tea or coffee, I chose tea and it was served in a small plastic bag with a straw. Looked strange but tasted delicious. Then on to fresh noodles, an expert rice paper maker in action and a thorough explanation of which fish sauce to buy and the special paste for the tom yum soup we’ll be making later.

The bamboo shoots look abundant as do the array of dried and preserved fish. The herbs are the freshest I’ve seen. The fresh fish being gutted is a bit messy and certain parts of the market make me appreciate the fact that we are going back to the nice clean Blue Elephant to make our lunch. My enthusiasm for local food in Bangkok is always met halfway with an innate streak of self preservation.

Once back at the school we get another iced tea and are then straight into the first of four dishes- Green Chicken Curry (Keang Keaw Wan Kai). We first learn how to make the paste, with a tip being if the paste is not looking green enough for your liking, add a paste of fresh coriander and thai basil leaves to enhance the green colour. The combination of tiny green chillis, garlic, eschallots, galangal, kaffir lime, lemongrass, cumin and coriander combine with the heady savouryness of shrimp paste to make a killer curry paste that fills the room and makes our mouths water.

This is then cooked up with chicken, thai eggplant and coconut cream and a few other things to make the curry. Then we taste. It is delicious, balanced, hot but not so much that you can’t appreciate the flavour. I want to replicate this.

The kitchens are stainless steel and each station has a tray of small pyrex dishes with freshly prepared ingredients. This is cooking heaven. All the hard work done, now I just need to check my notes to make sure I get this right…but there are plenty of staff around to point helpfully to the next ingredient to be added, or peer curiously into my pan to check how I’m doing.

I am reasonably happy with the end result and as I put my number ’12’ on my dish (this is so we eat our own food for lunch later) my area is already being cleaned up by the efficient crew.

Next on the Menu is Sour & Spicy Prawn Soup (Tom Yam Koong, also called Tom Yum). Possibly my favourite Thai dish, at least when I’m feeling a little run down anyway. The most vital part is the prawn or seafood stock which adds most of the base flavour. To this is added coriander roots and stems, galangal, lemongrass and kaffir lime and button mushrooms. The prawns are added near the end and the lime juice is added at the end to retain the tang. This is after all a sour and spicy soup. This is where the small jar of ‘magic paste’ shown to us at the markets is used ‘Nam Prik Phao’ or chilli paste in oil. It contains shrimp paste and plenty of other tasty bits too, so chilli alone does not give the same roundness of flavour. This is a quick recipe but it is all about the balance. Mine turns out a bit too sour as I get a bit excited with the lime juice, but then I like my soup on the sour end of the scale.

Third is Pad Thai Noodles, which is my favourite dish of the day if only because we have been taught to make such a popular dish but so that it sings. The softened noodles take on the smoky tastiness of the wok with a few pieces bordering on crispy. These are the most flavoursome bits. It is really the best Pad Thai I’ve ever had, and yes I was very hungry when I tried it. Nothing should be left out, from the prawns, eggs and tofu to the dried shrimp powder, bean sprouts and spring onions, it is the sauce that really makes the dish. I promise to make this when I come home, and I know I will be held to that 🙂

Last we make a Pomelo Salad which is meant to come with wing beans but they are not available at the markets so we’ve left them out today. The pomelo is similar to a grapefruit but less sour and with larger pulpy sacs that are quite firm and you can break up quite easily in your fingers to make a base for a salad. Sort of like shredding cooked chicken, which we also add along with a little cooked prawn. The dressing is garlic, chilli, magic paste, tamarind, palm sugar, fish sauce and lime juice. It is thick and dark and is mixed into the chicken and prawn meat until all is covered and then the pomelo segments are gently tossed through with finely sliced eschallots and sprinkled with deep fried shallots, dried chill and a few hard boiled quail eggs. Divine. This is not just any salad. It is a meal in itself and was surprisingly moreish.

While the crew clean up our last attempt at culinary excellence we move downstairs to the school’s dining room where paying guests are in for lunch.

After we sit down to feast on our wonderful creations and all the photos have been happily snapped we get a surprise, dessert. Homemade coconut ice cream. Heaven.

The Meat & Wine Co.

Sunday, May 18th, 2008 by Tina

I got a call on my mobile about a week ago asking about the food and service we had at The Meat & Wine Co. on the Friday night before I flew out to Thailand the next morning. Unknown to the caller was the fact that it was 3 am in the morning in a little town called Longcrendon near Oxford in the UK. It may have been expensive feedback for them but I think I was coherent at least, being still somewhat jet lagged.

We wanted to have a nice meal in the Parramatta area and though not cheap we have had consistently good food and professional service and were not disappointed this time either. What is lacking in cosiness is made up for in the quality of the meat, which is flavoursome and decently cooked. I like the crunchy fat cut chips and the basting they use on the meat. It is not too much, just a bit of sweetness that hits the spot.

We haven’t managed to stay for dessert yet as the servings are generous and are unusual in that you get quality and quantity. I had the New York Sirloin 300g medium with mushroom sauce and chips and my partner had the Prime cut also 300g but medium rare with mushrooms, wilted spinach and chat potatoes. We were both happy. The side dish of vegetables (bok choy, cauliflower and squash) was possibly too much for 2 people as the steak also come with chips and a small homemade coleslaw that bears no relation to the KFC version. It was fresh, perfectly dressed and moreish. A wonderful complement to the steak and better than a few wilted lettuce leaves and an unripe wedge of tomato.

Booking is a good idea, as the strip of restaurants on this street that houses the Riverside Theatre next door and crosses the Parramatta River is always a popular location. Parking can be a bit hard so parking a few streets away might be the closest you get. We booked for an early dinner and got lucky with a parking spot just across the road that was metered parking, but sometimes you just don’t mind.

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