Cooking With Tam: A Lesson in Thai Cuisine
We leave Tha Chang Pier in Bangkok and cruise down the Chao Phraya River in a longtail speedboat. As we curve down the Yai canal, the houses become more affluent as we arrive at a dock behind Piyawadi “Tam” Jantrupon’s property. Soon, an apron-clad Tam greets us from underneath a gateway arch that says: Amita Thai Cooking Class.
Tam opened her cooking school in August of 2008 and named it after her daughter Amita, which means “eternity.” Underneath a backyard canopy, we sit down at a table and begin to munch on flowers and herbs, all fried Tempura style. Tam used to be a legal advisor but ditched the life entirely. Cooking is more fun, she tells us.
She then announces the four dishes we are about to cook: Gai Hor Bai Toey (Deep fried chicken in pandanus leaves), Moo Satay (pork satay), Gaeng Khiao Wan (green curry shrimp in coconut milk), and Khao Niew Ma Muang (mango with sticky rice).
Tam situates herself at her own cooking station in front of the class and we watch. She cooks each dish, explaining each step of the process in precise detail.
For the first dish, small pieces of chicken thigh meat are rubbed with coriander root, garlic, black sweet soy sauce and sesame oil. Then the pieces are wrapped in pandanus leaves for deep frying—not an easy process for beginners. For each piece, the leaf is tied in a loose knot around the meat and then tightened into a wad that one can place into the wok. The leaf forms a casing, preventing the meat from burning. For the dipping sauce, palm sugar, tamarind paste, soy sauce, ginger and a pinch of salt are cooked together, after which roasted sesame seeds and green onion are added.
Pork Satay comes next, with Tam revealing a few secret tips. The wooden skewers should be soaked in water first, so they won’t burn when they’re on the grill. To make the presentation look nicer, the meat should cover up the pointed end of the skewer.
“This is an Indian-influenced dish,” she explains. “India is the mother of all cultures.”
The sauce is made from mussaman paste, tamarind salt, roasted peanuts and coconut cream. If someone has a peanut allergy, says Tam, mashed potatoes can be substituted for the peanuts. Instead of a regular brush to coat the meat with the sauce, she uses a rolled-up banana leaf with frayed edges.
Third up is a delectable curry dish, featuring sea shrimp, kaffir lime leaves, long beans, pea eggplant, fish sauce, and vegetables. For dessert, Tam already has the sticky rice made. The mangos will come later, she says.
We then migrate to our respective cooking stations—ten, to be exact, lined up in two flanks of five, facing each other—and away we go. All the necessary utensils and ingredients are there for us at each station. Thankfully, we are not left completely to our own accords. Tam and her assistants hover about the entire area to help us when we screw up. I, for one, screw up several times, but it matters none. A meal is already being prepared in the back in case we botch the entire thing.
Soon thereafter, we are back at the table, gorging on the entire mélange of victuals, family style, reminding me of an old music professor from college, Allen Strange, who said that composing a piece of music is the same thing as cooking: The creative process is the same, all the way down to the final performance, that is, the eating. I never got a chance to thank him for such a lesson, but his adventurous spirit lingers here in sweltering Thailand.
In the end, I have taken part in one long drawn-out performance of Thai cooking and I am a better person as a result. Piyawadi, Tam’s real name, means sweetheart, she tells me. The logo on her business card is a caricature of herself, a face looking back over her own shoulder, as if she, too, is watching out for me.