Saturday, November 6, 2010

Silom Cooking School, Bangkok, Thailand

A love of the flavours and colours of Thai cuisine was the incentive to do a cooking class during this two day stopover in Bangkok.

Food is a visible part of everyday Thai life. The hawkers start setting up their food stalls from an early hour along the streets of the city.   Little carts with burners line the sidewalks producing a variety of food from fried chicken, take-away bags of green curry to more exotic morsels - all emitting those pungent and enticing aromas of Thai cooking.   Some hawkers set up tables and chairs next to their carts along the sides of busy roads - the Thai version of alfresco dining.  Bowls filled with water become make-shift sinks to cater to the constant stream customers.

After researching on the net I decided to join a class at the Silom Cooking School in the infamous red light district in Silom Road, Bangrak with it's colourful bars and equally colourful characters of the night.   Early in the morning, however, life along Silom road is all about people going about their everyday lives in the markets and shops.

The cooking school website states that  'pick-up' from hotels is included in the cost of the class however I received an email saying that the Vie Hotel is in a 'high traffic area' so it is faster to get the sky train - apparently most areas are 'high traffic areas' so don't let 'pick-up' entice you.    I did receive detailed instructions how to get to the meeting point - quite easy - and Nusi, the chef and owner of the school, was waiting there as planned.
Busy local markets. Watch out for the tuk tuk! 
With 8 other 'students' we started our day at the local markets - an amazing blend of sights and sounds not to mention trying to decipher the various fragrances of herbs and spices.    The visit to the markets was the reason I chose this particular cooking school.   I wanted a 'hands-on' experience including sourcing the raw ingredients as opposed to sitting in the sterile kitchen of a big hotel.
The variety of beautiful, fresh herbs and produce available at this market was a dream - I was like a kid in a candy shop. 
Our first stop was to buy chicken (note:  ignore the flies and lack of refrigeration).   The produce looked very fresh - one good reason to do the morning class before temperatures begin to soar.   With deft hand the poultry merchant wielded his cleaver, jointing a chicken in record time.  I watched between the fingers covering my face - so sharp - so quick!
Jointing a chicken
Next was a visit to the fishmonger - an amazing variety of seafood on show with a small poodle (the owners pet) sitting amongst the fish and prawns!  (I didn't notice it until it moved).

Poodle fish
At the coconut stall we purchased older fruit which was put through a machine and grated - from this we would later make fresh coconut cream and milk.

Our final stop was the greengrocer stall where Nusi explained the different varieties of chillis, herbs and vegetables used in Thai cooking.   Our chef was quite a flamboyant and somewhat eccentric character - not only informative but amusing!
"This is ginger..."
...and more ginger
...and even more ginger (this one is called 'finger ginger' - I wonder why?)
With laden baskets students followed Nusi through the streets and laneways of Bangrak until we came to the cooking school - a  3 room establishment located above his apartment.
Silom Thai Cooking School
Before entering the school we removed our shoes and then washed our hands "thoroughly".   Some students were given the job of washing the produce (not rinsing, WASHING - every individual leaf), others peeled prawns or prepared meat.

Once the washing was over we started preparing the first of five courses - Tom Yum Kung.  The school teaches basic Thai cooking and techniques.    If you're after something a bit more challenging then this is not the class for you.  Having said that, we produced a very respectable tom yum - as good if not better than those I've eaten back home.

Each student had their own wok and cooked their own dishes - this allowed the student to tailor the dish to his/her liking.   Nusi explained... "In Thai cooking meat, seafood or vegetables can be changed because the meat and vegetables are just your choice - they just add texture, colour and decoration.   But what is very important is the seasoning and the key ingredient because these bring flavour and aroma to the dishes...these CANNOT be changed."   So for TBG's tom yum kung (hot and sour prawn soup) he added a lot of the nam prik pow (roasted Thai chili paste).
My delicious Tom Yum Kung
We sit in the preparation room, cross legged, on the edge of a large red mat with the ingredients in the centre and begin our cooking experience - making coconut cream and milk.  (TBG finds sitting on the floor a bit of a challenge! - pillows are provided which gave him a little more comfort).    Water is added to the grated fresh coconut and 15 seconds of 'squeezing' ensues resulting in a rich coconut cream.   To the strained coconut, more water is added and the process repeated.    The second squeezing produces a lighter liquid - coconut milk.
Nusi pours the rich liquid from the first 'squeezing' - coconut cream
Cooking is carried out on an open verandah - considering the number of burning woks, this is a good thing - I can only imagine the smoke and heat that's generated wouldn't be pleasant if done inside.
Ready, set....cook!    Rows of woks ready to burn...um, well, cook.
Tom Yum Kung - a hot and sour prawn soup - tasted as good as I've had in any restaurant at home!
There is a different menu of 5 dishes for each day of the week.   The menu for Thursday consisted of:

Tum Yum Kung (Spicy Shrimp Soup)
Gai Phad Med Ma Muang (Chicken with Cashew Nut)
Pad Thai Sai Kai (Fried Noodles Thai Style)
Nam Phrik Kang Phanaeng (Green Curry Paste)
Kang Khiao Wan Gai (Green Curry with Chicken)
Kow Neuw Mamuang (Mango on Sticky Rice)
Ingredients for my Chicken With Cashew Nut laid out on individual platters in front of each student - each ingredient is explained - the raw ingredients laid out on the red mat were a feast for the eye!
Once we'd eaten our first course it was back into the preparation room - TBG cooked the Pad Thai and I cooked the Chicken with Cashew Nut - wasn't fussed on the Pad Thai although it could be 'tweaked' to taste - the chicken was delicious.   Preparation takes the longest time - cooking is done on a very high heat and only takes a few minutes.  Flavours are fresh and strong - vegetables are crisp and colourful.
Into the wok they go - high heat and stirring constantly - cooked in a matter of minutes - I nearly burnt this trying to take photos as I cooked!
One of the joys of doing a class like this is meeting other travellers from all over the world and hearing their stories.   Nationalities today included Canadians, Japanese, Americans and, of course, Australians.  Classes are limited to 14.

Back in the preparation room, this time to make green curry paste - from scratch using a gigantic mortar and pestle (where's a food processor when you need one?)    It was fun and we all had a turn pounding the ingredients until we had a beautiful green paste to make our curry.
Taking turns...
making green curry paste.

Into the wok goes the paste and the other ingredients - the result was a delicious, fragrant curry full of flavour.
Our green chicken curry using home-made green curry paste and home-made coconut milk - we were very proud!
The last course on our menu was Mango on Sticky Rice.   Now I have to confess that by this time I had eaten far more than I should have and there was still dessert??!!!

Nusi explained the different types of rice used in Thai cooking - for this dish 'glutinous' rice is used (it's actually gluten free).  In any other context, 'sticky' rice would be a disaster!     
For the sticky rice, Nusi employs a traditional method using a bamboo basket to steam it.  The basket keeps the rice from drying out as the moisture is held within the bamboo.   This dessert could only be described as heaven on a plate.   So good!!
Fellow students enjoying their 'work'.
 Our 5 courses cooked and devoured, we relaxed and chatted in one of the rooms.
Relaxing in the preparation room - we'd worked hard cooking all morning!
So friends, if you're ever in Bangkok and want to enjoy a taste of Thai culture then I'd recommend the Silom Thai Cooking School.   For $30 AUD/USD you get:

Market Tour and Lecture on Thai food and ingredients
  Instruction on Thai food preparation techniques
  Learn how to make homemade curry paste
and coconut milk from scratch!
  Hands-on cooking and assembling 5 courses
EATING your dishes
  A comprehensive recipe booklet with instructions and information about Thai ingredients.

The course is good value.  The cuisine is basic Thai cooking but the results are delicious.
TBG will definitely be doing another class on one of his frequent visits to Bangkok.

To learn more, visit the school's website: http://www.bangkokthaicooking.com/index.html 

To see more photos of our foray into Thai cuisine, see my flickr site:   www.flickr.com/photos/annmaxine  

Come for dinner and I'll cook you a genuine Thai meal.

Till next time...   keep smiling :)

Love Annie xxx

Annie McLeod Photography:    www.flickr.com/photos/annmaxine

Heaven on a plate - Mango on Sticky Rice
Contact:   annm07@hotmail.com


Friday, October 29, 2010

55 hours in London


I’ve been fortunate to visit London 3 times in the past 12 months so I felt no urgency to do the tourist thing…you know…Tower of London, Museum of Natural History, Buckingham…well, all those places that visitors usually flock to.   They’re all places I enjoy but have only recently visited.  With a mere 55 hours on the ground, I decided to make the most of this great city but try to relax as well and get a little Christmas shopping out of the way.   People either love London or hate it.    I belong to the former group.   There is always something to do, somewhere to go, something to see – the list is endless.

We landed at Heathrow, checked in to our hotel, Grosvenor House on Park Lane, Mayfair and then walked down to Oxford Street – a 10 minute stroll.   Grosvenor House is a rather grand hotel as you’d expect with an address straight out of a game of Monopoly.   (I still remember how expensive those Mayfair hotels were to buy!) Our room was rather large by London standards and tastefully decorated.   Crisp white linen monogrammed sheets and fluffy pillows with décor of yellow, green, burgundy and white.

Our niece, Hannah, had recently taken up a position as Nanny to an English family living in Wimbledon so we’d organised to meet her at TBG’s ‘local’ when he’s in London.   Most London pubs have a certain charm and The Audley was a warm and inviting place on a cold autumn evening to meet with Hannah and catch up on her new life in England.    The Audley boasts “Good British Pub Food” and after a couple of drinks and some good music we decided to stay on for dinner.    So how would I define good British pub food - uncomplicated and reminiscent of childhood – fish & chips, hearty pies, roasts with Yorkshire pudding – nothing too fancy but filling and comforting on a cool evening.   We had a fun night with our beautiful niece – by the time we returned to our hotel a touch of jetlag had hit and those fluffy pillows were much appreciated.  
Come 3.30am, as expected, we were up and had begun our day.   Over the years I’ve learnt not to try to fight my body clock and it’s just as easy to get up, make a cup of tea and catch up on emails, news or read a book until the sun comes up and the city begins to awaken.

We walked down to Oxford Street and had a typical English breakfast which was far more substantial than I’m used to and ruined my appetite for the rest of the day – perhaps that was a good thing!    There are a few rituals we have in London and one of them is visiting Foyles, the famous bookshop on Charing Cross Road. Foyles is a London institution.  If you’re a lover of books then walk through the doors and you’ll think you’ve gone to book heaven.   Imagine your favourite subject and you’ll often find that there won’t be just one or two shelves devoted to it, but a whole room!   Floor upon floor of books on everything from the latest fiction (many newly signed first-editions), to art, history, design, science, languages – you name it, I’m sure there’ll be something for you.   We spent a couple of hours here, including a coffee in their delightful café.   

I have to admit that I rarely buy books in shops these days, preferring to support Better World Books http://betterworldbooks.com - an online company devoted to improving literacy in third world countries.   I also love to buy second-hand books, when possible, because they turn up in brown wrap, usually from another part of the world and I find it intriguing to think that they’ve had a previous life and I’ve saved them from becoming landfill. 
Do you ever buy second-hand?  You should think about giving an old book a new home.   Unfortunately I tend to hoard books (amongst other things) and can’t bear to part with one.  I hope when I go to that big library in the sky my own books will be loved by one of my children or grandchildren.  Anyway I digress…a signed first-edition copy of the latest offering from historic novelist Phillipa Gregory, The Red Queen (19 GBP), caught my eye and I couldn’t resist.     There’s something special about walking out of Foyles swinging one of their red bags containing a treasure!

Covent Garden was our next destination and the place was buzzing.   Londoners and tourists alike were out in force enjoying a perfect autumn afternoon watching buskers, eating in the cafes and restaurants, drinking in the bars and visiting the shops and markets filled with antiques, souvenirs, exquisite gifts and art.   Still without hunger, we settled for afternoon tea however I did find the huge pans of paella being cooked in the open very tempting.    It was a pleasant way of spending a relaxing afternoon.   I loved the string quartet busking outside one of the cafes - their music was beautiful.

From Covent Garden we made our way to Kensington and Harrod’s. I like to pretend that I can afford to shop there but the truth is I only ever buy their food. Walking through their food hall is an experience.  Nobody does food like Harrods.   The displays are works of art.   Here you can buy amazing produce from every corner of the globe.  In the photo below ‘wild prawns’ from Africa at $69 GBP per kilo sit next to ‘wild octopus’ from Cornwall at a more reasonable $13.95 GBP per kilo.   The one treat I always buy there is fudge which is creamy and heavenly.  My girls and I are addicted.     In summer, choosing one of their filled baguettes and taking  it down to the banks of the Thames or Serpentine is a also a treat.   

Like the food hall, Harrods source quality goods from every part of the world however gone are the days when you can purchase a live tiger (thank goodness).  Floor upon floor of every conceivable item from rugs & furniture to designer clothes & bags are on offer to those who can afford them! I remember years ago I took my daughters there for their Santa photo and whilst the queue was long the girls were kept entertained by the beautiful fairies and pixies that fed them treats and danced and sang.    Ah Harrods, I can pretend but back home I’ll still shop in DJs where the prices are more affordable – after all, ‘There’s no other store…’  
By this time the sun was beginning to set and we dashed to High Street Kensington to do a bit of shopping for our son.  We called in to a quaint little pub called ‘The Greyhound’ to rest our feet and quench our thirst and whilst there it became apparent that we were both beginning to ‘fade’ after our 3.30am start.  Did I want to go out for dinner?   Pass.   So it was off to ‘Whole Foods Market’ to pick up some hot food and take back to our hotel.  Whole Foods sells delicious organic, natural food and they have a wonderful selection of self-serve, take home dishes.
I think I was asleep before my head hit the pillow.

Looking out my window this morning showed a vastly different London to the previous day – cold, grey, wet and windy but hey, I mustn’t forget that this IS autumn in Great Britain!   After a baguette & coffee at Pret in Oxford Street we once again braved the rain and wind and made our way to Tate Modern.  

Have you ever noticed other people looking at art?   If you asked 100 people to give their interpretation of a work you would get 100 different answers.   Many artists refuse to explain the meaning behind their work as this defines the piece and leaves no room for the individual’s imagination – no mystery.   I love to watch people’s expressions as they stand and contemplate or sometimes eavesdrop on a conversation (quite by accident of course).   As for me, I like to make my own mind up but then I always cheat and read what’s written next to the work or listen to the audio tour …and that’s what I did today.     Whilst flash photography is forbidden in the gallery for obvious reasons, you can still take images.   Today I wanted to capture not just a shot of the artist’s work - a nice momento of the visit - but I also wanted to capture people contemplating the work.    
I love watching kids as they stand before art.  The piece below was quite dark and confronting with the bodies of two birds pinned to the wall with arrows.   The little girl stood for quite a while before declaring, “Yuk! Dead birds. That’s sad!”  I think that was probably a simplistic view of what most people would have first thought but didn’t audibly express. 

Next time you’re in a gallery, try watching people watching art.   It’s both interesting and amusing – I’m sure the artists would love to have the opportunity to be ‘a fly on the wall’ and watch them too.
http://www.flickr.com/photos/annmaxine

After leaving Tate we once again braved the bad weather and made our way across the Millennium Bridge and the choppy waters of the Thames below.   A good old British pie with mushy peas and mash was TBG’s comforting late lunch – mine was an edible veggie roll that filled the spot and then it was back to the hotel to pack and make our way to the airport.

So here I write, 33,000 feet above northern Afghanistan – 6 hours since take-off, another 4 hours until we reach Bangkok.   Below the scenery is spectacular.   As far as the eye can see there is nothing but rugged mountain ranges that appear devoid of vegetation and human life.   The land looks inhospitable and uninhabitable – the word ‘barren’ comes to mind.  Forces deep inside the earth millions of years ago pushed the land together like a giant concertina and the result is breathtaking.  As winter approaches I have no doubt that the brown ranges will turn white with snow.   The further south we fly, evidence of human life begins to appear.   I can see rectangular shapes that look like animal enclosures as well as roads and small villages with huts the same colour as the landscape.  I wonder what their lives are like?  I have no doubt that existing in this landscape would be difficult and so very different from my own life in a little seaside town in Australia.

I might try to catch a little sleep before we land in Bangkok.

More images at http://www.flickr.com/photos/annmaxine

Bye for now…

love

Annie  x

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

24 hours in Hong Kong


24 hours in Hong Kong

We landed at 6.30am, Saturday, at Hong Kong International Airport on the island of  Lantau.   From there it was a pleasant trip to Hong Kong Island,  hopping over a series of islands via super long bridges – amazing feats of engineering and tunnels under the sea. Our hotel, The Regal Hong Kong, http://www.regalhotel.com  felt like it should have been in Rome rather than Asia with its Roman statues and ornate chandeliers - it seemed a little out of context! Our 2-room suite was large and comfortable with views over the city and I did appreciate the spa that evening after a long day exploring the city.


Shortly after we hit the streets of  bustling down town Hong Kong.  Every available space seemed to be filled with colour and sent the senses reeling at first.  If you can find a place to stop in the crowded streets it’s worth briefly closing your eyes and letting your other senses take over – it’s only then that you can focus on the sounds and the smells of this city that seems to marry the old with the new. The sounds of traffic mix with an unfamiliar tongue as people go about their daily lives – and people, there are many!   This was Saturday morning and with offices closed, people were out in force making the most of their weekend in the markets, shops, restaurants and sunshine.

Cooking on the sidewalk - as you walk by you can choose from an array of different foods and eat on the run!  This particular stall offered pork buns and satay sticks.
There is an abundance of ways you can satiate your appetite from 3-star Michelin restaurants to the street hawkers with their carts filled with pork buns and other delicacies.   TBG is a regular traveller to Hong Kong  so we decided to have our brunch at one of the little Asian cafés he frequents near our hotel.  TBG is addicted to pho soup – a spicy Asian broth often filled with a variety of meat including beef, tripe and spicy sausage although you can get vegetarian varieties as well.   To the pho you can add bean sprouts, chillis and different herbs.  I opted to begin with fresh spring rolls & dipping sauce followed by a pad thai filled with prawns & chicken.    Including a plate of chicken sticks, the meal cost $20 AUD and was excellent value.   

Pho soup - a beef broth filled with different meats, vegetables, spices and noodles
Our tummies full, we  headed down to the Central Pier to catch one of the iconic Star Ferries across to the China mainland.   For .30 cents AUD you can board the ferry for the short ride – a great way to see the harbour first-hand with it’s luxury liners and junks sharing the waves.    It’s also a good way to get a different perspective of the city.     I was hoping the usual Hong Kong smog would disappear however it wasn’t to be!  The city was shrouded in a veil of white making photography a little disappointing.  Still, this is the real Hong Kong and smog is part of it!

Another of Star ferry glides past.  A ride across the harbour costs 30 cents.
Alongside towering space-age highrise buildings with their mirror windows sit much older apartment buildings with their washing hanging precariously from poles over the streets below.  I was glad that Hong Kong hadn't become as sterile as Singapore.  Don't get me wrong, I love Singapore however it's nice to get a glimpse of how life was in Hong Kong in years gone by.



After our brief journey to the other island we made our way to Mong Kok and the famous ‘Ladies Markets’ with street upon street of stalls selling everything from designer bags (copies of course) to jewellery, jade and clothing.   Being Saturday, the markets were packed.  I’d also hoped to visit the bird and fish markets – both are prized as pets as they don’t take up much space – however we were running out of time and I wanted to make it to the famous Peak before the sun set behind the island and a photo op would be lost.

The 'Ladies' market - Mong Kok
There are a few different options for getting to The Peak however the most popular by far is by the Peak Tram which has been in operation since May 1888 (and never had an accident I believe).   We queued for about half an hour before boarding however it was an interesting wait as you walk alongside a museum-style history of the Tram with artefacts from the days when it was operated by coal-fired steam boilers.   These days it is powered by a microprocessor-controlled electric drive system but even so, it almost groans at times as it strives to reach the Peak on some of the inclines.  

Hong Kong city shrouded in smog - taken from The Peak
Once at the top you can visit the Peak Tower which is basically a modern building filled with shops and restaurants however a viewing platform on the roof, 428 metres above sea level, affords 360 degree views of the island and across the water to the outer lying islands of Cheung Chau, Lamma and Lantau.  Oh how I wish the smog had disappeared!  We did manage to get the last rays of sunlight on the buildings before the sun disappeared behind the mountain. The photos I took do not do this beautiful city justice.


After visiting The Peak we walked (mostly downhill) to the Soho district of the island with it’s many bars, cafes and restaurants.    Soho clings to the mountain-side and one of the longest escalators in the world runs down the centre of the district allowing easy access to the various streets.    Two years ago when I visited Hong Kong we did a ‘tapas crawl’ starting at the bottom of the escalator and getting on and off when we spied a bar that appealed as it crept up the mountain.    Tonight, however, we returned to the Bacar Wine Brasserie for a large glass of French beer and a platter of dips - hommus, tabbouli and Lebanese bread, to begin our evening.   After a long walk in the warm Hong Kong air, an icy Kronenbourg was most welcome.  I must say that we were very fortunate weather-wise.   The temperature, in the high 20’s, was perfect and the humidity was bearable.

French beer was appreciated.
TGB enjoys his tapas and wanted to take me to one of his favourite Spanish restaurants called Rico's.  We ordered 4 plates of tapas which was probably 2 plates too many as servings were very generous.    First to arrive was the Ensalada de Jamonera Con Queso Manchego – a plate of ‘refreshing Autumn salad consisting of Jamon de Serrano, Manchego cheese, roasted bell pepper and artichoke hearts’.    Delicious even though the bell peppers were served raw rather than roasted.  

 The thin slices of beef with a pepper sauce were tender and we named the chicken dish ‘Death by Garlic’ – so tasty however we felt for those people in close proximity on our flight to London!   

My favourite dish was the whole roasted red bell pepper stuffed with mushrooms and garlic – yep, more garlic.     We ordered a jug of Sangria to compliment the meal. 
After dinner I decided we needed to walk off some of the tapas – “I have no idea why they invented these damn trams going past because nobody obviously uses them!”  TBG mumbled.  Well, people do…just not us.   With a 4.50am call in the morning for our flight to London, we fell into bed (after my spa of course) and slept soundly … until the phone rang to say… time to get up and another adventure begins.    Why don’t you come with me to London…