Friday, February 01, 2013

Full Circle: A Thai Cooking Lesson

Many (many) moons ago, I worked on the very first book that Travelers’ Tales ever published, a travel anthology on Thailand. And while I’ve worked on over 100 books since that time, it remains my favorite. It was the first book to take me to a faraway exotic locale in a magical way that only really good writing can accomplish.

To celebrate the publication of that first book, and many more to come, I learned to cook Thai food. Inspired by a story by Kemp Miles Minifie about the cooking school at the famed Bangkok Oriental hotel, I went out and bought a wonderful cookbook by Vatcharin Bhumichitr and taught myself about galangal and nam pla, red and green curry, long beans and satay. This was back in 1992, before Thai food became mainstream, so I had nothing to compare it to.

Ten years later, the publishers wanted to update the book, and I found myself on a plane going halfway across the world to replicated Kemp’s experience. For ten days, my friend Jen Leo and I ate our way through Thailand. First at the Bangkok Oriental, where we had some supreme digs and I had 3 days of intensive cooking classes. (We floated on the Chao Phraya, wandered the streets, and had the opportunity to eat thai food at both street carts and fancy restaurants.) Then we went south to Phuket, to Mom Tri’s Boathouse, where we lounged on the beach, went sea kayaking, visited Koh Phi Phi (don’t you love these names?) and had another 2 days of cooking classes. I came away fat and happy.

Since that time, Thai cooking has been a part of my repertoire. And recently I had to privilege of sharing that with a friend. Jan retired two years ago, and as a gift I offered her a cooking lesson. Yes, she is of retirement age, and yes she can cook, but I was thinking of a fun activity we could share and bringing something new into her kitchen. So this week, we set to work and I was the teacher instead of the student.

I set out small dishes of Thai ingredients for her to smell and taste, just as I was taught. I set up 4 prep stations with ingredients for four dishes. And we were off. We made Tom Ka Gai, a coconut milk and chicken soup, spicy beef salad, red curry with kabocha, ginger prawns, and rice. 

It was fun to experience everything for the first time again with someone, and sitting down to share the meal brought back great memories of those long-ago cooking lessons in Thailand.

Thanks for the memories Jan!

Red Curry with Kabocha

2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1/2 medium yellow onion, medium dice
1 teaspoon kosher salt, plus more for seasoning
1 medium green bell pepper, seeds and ribs removed and cut into 1/4-inch strips
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1/2 tablespoon peeled and finely chopped fresh ginger (from about a 1-1/2-inch piece)
3 tablespoons Thai red curry paste
1 (13- to 14-ounce) can unsweetened regular coconut milk
1/2 cup water
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1/2 medium kabocha squash, peeled, seeded, and cut into 1-inch cubes
1 teaspoon freshly squeezed lime juice
1/4 cup coarsely chopped fresh cilantro

Heat the oil in a large frying pan over medium heat until shimmering. Add the onion and 1 teaspoon of the salt and cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion has softened, about 6 minutes. Add the peppers, garlic, and ginger, stir to combine, and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute.

Add the curry paste, stir to coat the onion-pepper mixture, and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the coconut milk, water, soy sauce, and remaining 1/2 teaspoon of salt, stir to combine, and bring to a simmer.

Stir in the squash, return to a simmer, reduce the heat to medium low, and continue to simmer, stirring occasionally, until the squash is fork-tender but still firm, about 20 to 25 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the lime juice. Taste and season with salt as needed.

Sprinkle with the cilantro and serve immediately over steamed rice.

Yield: 4 servings

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