Let's get one thing straight: I am no chef. In fact, you could call me the anti-chef. My Thai cooking, in my 28 years on this planet, has barely stretched beyond flipping a meal prepared by Tesco's finest onto a plate. Or reheating some street food and furnishing it with a few lonesome bean sprouts. But one hot, spicy afternoon at the Bai Pai Thai Cooking School has changed me, hopefully forever...
It all happened so quickly. Within minutes of arriving, an apron is hanging off me, and a towel dangling out of my left pocket. I look quite the pro. Within 20 I'm dicing lemongrass, galangal and numerous other fragrant herbs like a seasoned veteran. And by the time this four-hour, half-day class is out I'm convinced that I can, contrary to what my mother thinks, be allowed in the kitchen without being thought a fire risk. It's nothing short of a miracle.
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Relaxed, Home-style Schooling
Perhaps the six-year-old Bai Pai Cooking School is so effective because it's so relaxed. As you walk into this two-storey wooden house littered with palm fronds and plants, a feeling of calm washes over you. There is a bright open-plan cooking area with individual cooking stations and utensils downstairs, and a rustic dining area upstairs. No classroom, no black board, and no surly teacher to put the fear in you - just a quaint home-style learning environment that's conducive to gastronomic growth.
That and Mick. "This is not a serious course, but it does have serious flavours," this young Thai lady with a winsome smile, announces in impeccable English. She, our guide during the gastronomic adventure that is 'Set Menu 4' (there are seven available), is brilliant. And incredibly welcoming - as I await the arrival of my classmates (six friendly ladies) she even teaches me some Thai. Bless her.
Four dishes of many flavours
We will make four dishes she tells us: 'gang keaw wan gai' (green chicken curry), 'por peea tod' (spring rolls), 'yam nuea yang' (spicy grilled beef salad) and 'sang ka ya' (egg custard). We are sitting around a long wooden bench as the head chef, a sweet-faced lady named Noi, demonstrates how to make each one. I sit there, my stomach growling, while Mick explains all things salty, sweet, bitter, sour and spicy (the central components of Thai cooking) and others ask questions.
And there are a lot of questions. "What do I use if can't find eggplants?" "Do you have to use kaffir lime leaves? "Why is a spring roll called a spring roll?" They span the gamut from useful, mundane to just plain daft. And never are they treated with anything less than graciousness and, more importantly, 'Bai Pai' wisdom (this, incidentally, is something teachers have in spades: each has at least ten years experience in the kitchen). After each dish has been prepared its then "Tasting Time!" And each time the consensus is the same - Noi is a darn good cook.
Putting Culinary Theory into Practice
Then it's our turn. Trays bristling with brightly coloured local ingredients materialize, as if by magic, in front of us. Our first mission? Green curry paste. We tentatively pick up our knives, and begin slicing jalepeno and birds eye chilies, galangal, garlic, shallots and coriander, kaffir lime rind.
The room erupts into a cacophony of stone grating as we pummel them together in a pestle and mortar. A sprinkling of coriander, cumin and pepper, a dash of shrimp paste, followed by some more pounding, and voila!
The spring rolls are a bit trickier to master - for me anyway. The Japanese girl next to me puts her innate origami skills to great use, while I struggle. Then, when it comes to deep-frying, mine would have been inedible charcoal lumps were I not warned just in time (thank you, Khun Noi).
Next, for the egg custard we get our hands messier than a cake-throwing toddler at a cake party, as we squeeze a mixture of egg, coconut, palm sugar and pandanus leaf through cheesecloth. My, my, isn't cooking Thai fun, I think to myself.
The Finale: Your Self-cooked Feast
Still though, it can't compare to the real thrill: eating the outcome upstairs afterwards. My spring rolls, despite my suspect technique, are crispy and soft in all the right places, perfectly set off by the zesty dipping sauce. The beef salad heralds the arrival of a party in my mouth, to which every taste bud seems invited.
And my gloriously green chicken curry, zesty with its kaffir limes leaves and coriander, is spicy and scrumptious. Finally, I dive headlong into my spongy egg custard, only to surface with a stupid smile sprawled all across my happy face.
"You've all passed!" announces Khun Mick, as we sit back in our chairs, stuffed, satisfied, proud. I feel like hugging her. I feel like I've never felt before: like a chef.
Bai Pai uses a hands-on teaching method, during which participants are fully equipped with cooking tools and get to prepare, cook and consume the food they make.
Two sessions run each day, from Tuesday to Sunday. The morning session is from 09:30 till 13:30, the afternoon session from 13:30 till 17:30. Participants learn four Thai dishes, and there are seven set menus to choose from.
Bai Pai Thai Cooking School
- Opening Hours: Tue - Sat Morning Class 09:30 - 13:30, Afternoon Class 13:30 - 17:30, closes on Sunday
- Address: 8/91 Ngam Wongwan Road, Soi 54 Ladyao, Chatuchak
- Tel: +66 (0)2 561 1404