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Food

Culinary Odyssey In Thailand

By Iris Brooks
Published March 20, 2007

Investigating ingredients in this Thai market excursion is a prelude to my cooking class in the new Culinary Odyssey program at the Peninsula Hotel. While spirit is at the heart of the Thai culture, my focus is the food.

I navigate through Bangkok, Thailand – a colorful city where yellow, green, red, pink, and blue are the colors of both taxis and teas – to the 80-year old Sam Yan Local Fresh Market, accompanied by a chef. She points out crunchy beans that look like items from a sci-fi movie, eggplants the size and shape of a ping-pong ball and a pea, and bright crimson, artichoke-shaped dragon fruit, which yields a refreshing interior of mostly white pulp dotted with black. Looking at the dragon fruit, I think of the riddle, ”What is black and white and re(a)d all over?” In Thailand, the answer is not just “a newspaper,” but also the dragon fruit.

Not all the items at the market are edible. The floral offerings include luscious lotus blossoms and garlands of golden marigolds (in a land where yellow flowers have become synonymous with AIDS), while the Chinese booths display ancestral worship items used for funerals. Offerings are important here, and can be found at the spirit house, just outside the market. Housewives stop by before shopping and pray amidst wafting incense.

Investigating ingredients in this market excursion is a prelude to my cooking class in the new Culinary Odyssey program at the Peninsula Hotel. While spirit is at the heart of the Thai culture, my focus is the food. The culinary journey includes a progressive dinner – with a different course eaten in each of four restaurants – a tour of the market with the chef, a cooking class (with take-home recipes), and a Thai tea appreciation class where I fall in love with blue tea.

After cocktails with names like Mango Delight on the outdoor terrace, the meal moves on to the Thiptara Restaurant (literally “Heaven on Water”) aside the Chao Phraya River. It’s a traditional Thai restaurant, lit by torchlight bamboo poles and shadow puppet lamps with a Ramayana or Ramakien theme. The sound of the jakhe, a hammered dulcimer, provides an ethereal soundscape in the tropics. While munching on succulent appetizers including sliced green papaya, we order the main course in advance for another restaurant, Jesters. I opt for mouthwatering vegetable rolls in phyllo with saffron sauce while my partner chooses steamed orange roughy. This sophisticated eatery, with a live jazz quartet and abstract colored light projections on the wall and ceiling, has an international vibe. Their weekend chocolate buffet includes chocolate sushi rolls, chocolate wontons, and soufflé, plus sculptures crafted from this fragrant sweet.

The next day, it’s time to dive into the private cooking classes. No longer a mere taster or observer, I’m now handed recipes in an outdoor gazebo where much of the prep work has already been done. I peel bits of pomelo (akin to an oversized grapefruit but with a more subtle taste) for the salad, wondering what could substitute for this at home. Then it’s on to the spicy soup known as Tom Yum Goong with roasted chili paste, lemongrass, coriander and lime leaves. While the traditional recipe calls for river prawns, I’m instructed in creating a vegetarian version.

I listen closely to the chef as she explains the secrets of cooking one of my favorite Thai dishes, Pad Thai. Use the corner edge of the metal spatula to separate the fettuccine-shaped rice noodles from one another. Then add the egg and fully cook it over easy on top of the finished noodle and veggie combo before breaking it into strips to be mixed with the other ingredients. The recipe comes complete with a wine – Riesling or chardonnay – and a garnish suggestion of banana blossom, lime, and chives. Cooking class ends with Thab Thim Siam, or chestnut balls with coconut milk, syrup and crushed ice. During lunch we eat our meal. Feeling sated, I am eager to sample the Thai Tea Appreciation class.

Unlike tea traditions of China and Japan, where a master presents the tea in an elaborate ritual, the Thai presentation is more straightforward. The instructor, War