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I realized once I moved to Singapore that I had squandered a great opportunity to learn Thai cooking while living in Thailand. With the prospect of many years living there I lacked the urgency one has on a shorter trip to get out and sample the various experiences Thailand has to offer. On my latest trip to Bangkok, I remedied the situation by attending a Thai cooking class at the Blue Elephant Cooking School in the Sathorn area of Bangkok.

The BECS was something I’d always heard about. The restaurant is famous for Royal Thai Cuisine (think anti-fusion Thai cooking, completely traditional and layered). The cooking school here is widely considered to be THE place to study traditional Thai cuisine… sure the experience is a bit canned and not as rustic as diving into the back of a street stall location and learning to cook the floor of someone’s home. But for most this experience will do.

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I arrived early in the morning, maybe too early for me personally at 8:15am. Thankfully the school is easily accessed by BTS (Skytrain station Surasak) so you can avoid the morning commuters and terrible Bangkok traffic. I took the opportunity to check out our the space. The restaurant itself is amazing, with a classic, subtle look that’s not overly garish or dated as some “Royal Thai” restaurants tend to be.

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Equally impressive is the environment in which the cooking classes take place.

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We had brief introductions and then re-boarded the BTS to head one station down to the Bang Rak fresh foods market. The market was familiar to me, but is a great bonus for those who haven’t lived in Thailand before or those not intimately familiar with Thai ingredients, spices, and produce.

The instructors walked us around the market, first showing us the various Thai and Southeast Asian Fruits.

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Then we dove deeper into the back alley market in search of the fresh fish and shrimp we’d need for our dishes. It was amazingly dirty and dingy, but more impressive was the lack of smells…this fish was fresher than the seafood section at the more sanitized Carrefour.

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Next up was Thai herbs and spices. The showed us the difference between Galangal and Ginger and explained when you’d use both in different cuisines (not interchangeable for Royal Thai cooking).

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It was amazing what all you could get in the market if you knew where to look. There was a station with a man and a giant mortar and pestle grinding up fresh curries, people making fresh noodles, and even a place with fresh coconut shavings (no canned coconut milk for our curry

:)
).

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Before we left we were treated to a traditional Thai Iced Coffee in a bag. With the extra punch of caffeine we were ready to head back to the school and get to the business of making dishes.

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First up was Keang Ka-Ree Kai (yellow curry). To be honest I was overly familiar with green and red varieties before coming to Thailand. You’d think Penang curry would be a national dish with the frequency it’s served Stateside, but I honestly haven’t seen a Thai person ever order the dish when dining out. I hadn’t sampled the yellow curry so much and I have no idea why. The flavors were familiar with a subtlety Penang is missing.

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This wasn’t a simple premade curry paste, add water and stir operation. We had to man the mortar and pestle and grind away. After a brief demonstration from the master chef we went to the kitchens to prepare our own (this is how the classes operate – view a dish being prepared, sample it, then make your own). Be prepared before attending this class for lots of grinding action

:)

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Next up came the Plaa Phaow Bai Tong (Grilled or Baked Fish in Banana Leaf). We used fresh cuts of Sea Bass for this dish. Again we were back to work with the mortar, grinding up lemongrass, galangal, garlic and coriander root for a paste to coat the fish in. It wasn’t the prettiest dish to look at, but man was it full of flavor. With the extra chili dipping sauce this dish will make you the toast of any dinner party.

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The third dish had us cooking with the Wok. We made Koong Saam Rod (Spicy, Sweet & Sour Stir-Fried Prawns). The description is woefully incomplete though as other ingredients joined the prawns such as longan berries, pineapple, bell peppers, and sweet onion. This dish was full of flavor but also one of the most accessible dishes taught. I think you could easily serve this to a less adventurous friend to introduce a basic Thai dish without scaring them off with lots of heat and spice.

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Last up is one of my favorite hot day lunch snacks – Yam Nua (Thai Beef salad). This dish is the easiest to prepare and cook, but you have to watch out for those tiny “bird’s eye chilies” (you don’t want to know the Thai name for these guys). This is a refreshing dish perfect for warm afternoons in a tropical climate. (Picture actually from a dinner party here in Singapore and not from cooking school).

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With my arm stronger from beating down 4 different pastes it was time to enjoy the fruits of our labor. All the dishes were familiar yet fresh and new. The ingredients taught here are a bit more labor and ingredient intensive than what you’ll find on most street corners around town, but reward the extra effort with an elevated, complex dish that’ll impress even the Bangkok locals.

After completing the last dish and sampling our plates we were presented with gift bags. We received a complimentary Blue Elephant apron, diploma, all the recipes made that day, and a goodie box of tea/curries/spices/etc. All in all a pretty good value for 2500 THB.

If you’re new to Thailand I’d highly suggest the morning course. This way you can get down to the market and see how to select and find the ingredients. If you’ve living in Asia for any amount of time the afternoon course might be more your speed as they drop the market and teach a bonus dessert dish. They teach a different four dishes every day of the week so look into a package deal if you think you’d like to learn more.

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Blue Elephant Cooking School
Blue Elephant Building
233 South Sathorn Road, Kwaeng Yannawa, Khet Sathorn, Bangkok 10120, Thailand
Tel: +66 (2) 673 9353, +66 (2) 6739354, +66 (2) 6739356
Fax:  +66 (2) 673 9355
Skytrain: Surasak
E-mail: cooking.school@blueelephant.com

Bonus Pics

Fresh pig head anyone?
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Two of our cooking instructors