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Winter Sizzle 2014_International_Flavors

  1. 1. 36 Sizzle Winter 14 international flavors thailand international flavors M y first experience eating Thai food is still a vivid memory. At age 12, a friend took me to a Thai restaurant in the Chicago suburb where I grew up. We shared vegetarian pad thai and spring rolls. The fresh, bright flavors and complex heat of those Thai dishes immediately stole my heart. In the early 2000s, I moved to California, where I was exposed to authentic Thai cuisine in Los Angeles’ Thai Town. This elevated my appreciation for the cuisine even further. As a lover of American Thai food, I never imagined there could be a possibility that I would love authentic Thai food even more. During a food-styling shoot in Los Angeles, I learned about a weeklong authentic Thai cooking class taught by renowned Thai chef Roongfa Sringam. The classes took place on Koh Samui, an island off the east coast of Thailand, at Samui Institute of Thai Culinary Arts (SITCA). I knew I had to attend this program and added it to my mental bucket list. After several years of daydreaming about this trip, I finally signed up for the classes and embarked on an epic culinary journey to include Bangkok, Northern Thailand and Vietnam. After two long flights, my trip to the “land of smiles” began in Thailand’s Thailand By Marla Simon, chef instructor at The Art Institute of Colorado, Denver, and Metropolitan State University of Denver, and a MBA student at Johnson & Wales University in Denver.
  2. 2. capitol Bangkok. At first glance, Bangkok appears to be like any other metropolitan city. The fast pace, crowds, noise, extreme heat and traffic were intimidating. And once I began to scratch the surface, I experienced a complete sensory overload. The sights and smells were unlike anything I’ve experienced. I could happily walk the streets for hours and shop in the funky markets, watch the locals’ commune on sidewalks and eat street food. What was originally planned as a stopover became one of the most thrilling parts of my trip. The walking food tour through the Bangrak neighborhood was an exciting experience. Hosted by Taste of Thailand Food Tours, it allowed me to see this “village of love” through the eyes of a local. Tour guide and company cofounder Puu led our group of 10 through a series of interesting locations, stopping along the way to educate us and offer samples. Throughout the day, we visited an assortment of unique vendors selling curry puffs, fresh-made curry pastes, fish cakes, Thai desserts made from coconut and exotic Thai fruits, herbal/medicinal drinks, traditional roast duck, fried bananas, and lemon grass and papaya salads. The tour ended with a sit-down top: Peanut relish with grilled prawns. Courtesy of Nahm, Bangkok bottom: Spicy pork salad with roast rice powder. Photo by Roongfa Sringam
  3. 3. 38 Sizzle Winter 14 meal at Than Ying, a restaurant known for its royal Thai cuisine. While in Bangkok, I was fortunate to land a reservation at Nahm, the only Michelin-starred restaurant in Thailand. I ordered the tasting menu, which allowed me to pick one item from each section. The meal began with an amuse-bouche of tamarind pork ma hor (galloping horses), served with pineapple and followed by a selection of canapes. The rest of the courses were served “Thai style”—everything placed on the table at once. However, I was instructed by the server to eat the courses one at a time. Quenelles of steamed jasmine rice were served tableside along with lobster and mangosteen salad; clear soup of roast duck with Thai basil and young coconut; fresh tamarind relish with minced prawns, pork and chilies served with braised mackerel, deep-fried quail eggs and fresh vegetables; coconut and turmeric curry of blue-swimmer crab with calamansi orange; soft-shell crab stir-fried with chilies, holy basil and green peppercorns; and coconut ash pudding with poached bananas. The multi-course meal at Nahm is one of my most memorable dining experiences. The courses were light, but bold with the perfect amount of heat. Executive chef David Thompson creates dishes in such a way that it seems possible to individually taste the aromatics and such ingredients as kaffir lime and Thai basil in each bite. A green mango palate cleanser was served before dessert, and dinner ended with a selection of Thai petit fours. After this dinner, I felt inspired and ready to immerse myself in Thai cuisine. I arrived on the island of Koh Samui, and was greeted at SITCA by Roongfa left: Coconut and turmeric curry of blue swimmer crab. middle: Sweet Thai wafers. right: Lemon grass salad with prawns, crispy squid and pork. opposite: Roongfa Sringam teaching a Thai cooking class at Samui Institute of Thai Culinary Arts, Koh Samui. Photo by Marla Simon Photos on top left courtesy of Nahm international flavors thailand
  4. 4. The first menu item was krung gaeng ped daeng (red curry paste). Sringam showed me two types of mortar and pestles we would use in the kitchen. She explained that the set used to crush ingredients for curry pastes was made of heavy stone, while the other set is for salads and is made of a lighter material– typically wood or clay. Red curry paste is made with two types of red chilies, garlic, shallots, kaffir lime peel, lemon grass, galangal, black peppercorn and shrimp paste. Seven small red Thai chilies were on the platter of ingredients to make the curry paste. When Sringam asked me how many chilies I wanted to use in my dish, I told her to use all of them. She laughed and said two would be enough for me. I convinced her to let me add a third chili, despite her reservations. Using the mortar and pestle, she pounded the ingredients into a paste. Sringam Sringam and her devoted staff. On the first morning of my weeklong intensive professional training, I was told that I was the only chef signed up for this course. Sringam typically teaches four chefs at a time on a monthly basis. Additionally, her staff hosts multiple cooking classes for tourists throughout the day. Professional chefs from all over the world come to learn from Sringam, who has won awards for her fruit and vegetable carvings and has been a guest chef at The Culinary Institute of America, Hyde Park, New York. I was thrilled to learn that I would be receiving one-on-one training from her. The first day began with a lesson on Thai ingredients such as lemon grass, galangal, betel leaves, coconut cream, crispy eggplant, dried shrimp, chilies and different types of basil. Sringam explained that several of the ingredients used in Thai cooking also have medicinal benefits. regional flavors Thai cuisine varies between the Southern, Central, Northeastern and Northern regions. Southern Thailand The food from this region tends to be spicier. Coconut is heavily used, and the abundance of fresh seafood makes it an easy protein choice. Jasmine is the staple rice variety. The curriculum at SITCA covers a wide variety of Thai food, from all four regions—but the majority of the recipes were based on traditional Southern Thai cuisine. David Thompson, executive chef at Nahm, also relies heavily on the cuisine of Southern Thailand for his menu. Central Thailand The curries of this region are less spicy than those of the South. The artfully prepared royal cuisine of Thailand is historically a part of Central Thailand cuisine. Jasmine rice is preferred over sticky rice. Typically, the curries and noodles of this region influence Thai restaurants in the U.S. While Bangkok is in Central Thailand, the cuisine varies, and it is possible to find cuisines from all regions. Northeastern Thailand Laos and Cambodia influence the simple and often spicy food from this area. Sticky rice is the staple. Som tam (green papaya salad) is the region's most famous dish. Northern Thailand Laos and Myanmar (Burma) cuisine influence the food in this region, which uses the least sugar. Sticky rice is preferred. Traditionally, food is served on a khantoke (low, round table) to diners who sit on the floor. Larb or laap, a minced meat salad seasoned with fish sauce, lime, chilies and toasted rice powder, is popular. Interesting fact Chopsticks are not native to Thailand and are used only when eating noodles—both of which were brought to Thailand by the Chinese. Spoons are the preferred eating utensil in Thailand.
  5. 5. 40 Sizzle Winter 14 stressed the importance of making curry paste from scratch. Good curry paste should be made daily and is what sets the best Thai chefs apart. Many Thai restaurants rely on store-bought paste. This is unacceptable to Sringam. She watched as I used the mortar and pestle for the first time and joked that I would get better as the week progressed. On the first day, we whipped through six dishes to include red curry chicken with potatoes; tom yum soup with prawns; crispy golden cups with fried fish and herb salad; two types of pad thai; and a steamed Thai pancake with mung bean and coconut. My instruction continued in the same fashion for the rest of the week. I spent up to 10 hours a day in the kitchen, rotating between the cutting board, mortar and pestle, and wok stations. Every morning before I arrived, the staff shopped for ingredients at the local market to prepare the day’s mise en place. I prepared salads, soups, appetizers, entrees, noodles, curries and desserts. I lost count after 70 dishes. I was given extra instruction in the art of Thai fruit and vegetable carving. At the end of the week, I felt confident in my wok skills and Sringam commended me on my mortar-and- pestle abilities. My tolerance for spicy food had increased, and I was able to handle seven chilies in my curry pastes. Sad to leave, the hospitable Sringam sent me on my way with gifts, and I was on to my next adventure. After I left Koh Samui, I spent time in Northern Thailand and Vietnam. Now that I’m back home, my former favorite Thai restaurants seem lackluster and uninspiring. I can tell that the bland curries served at most Thai restaurants are made with premade pastes, and the ingredients are nowhere near as fresh or flavorful as those found in Thailand. Someday, I hope to return to the “land of smiles.” I’m thankful for this experience and can’t wait to pass on my new skills to my students.  top left: Yellow rice with chicken. Photo by Roongfa Sringam middle left: Papaya fruit carving by Marla Simon. Photo by Roongfa Sringam bottom left: Crispy golden cups with fried fish and herb salad. Photo by Roongfa Sringam middle: Clear soup of roast duck. right: Ma hor. Photos on top right courtesy of Nahm international flavors thailand