I had such an amazing time today learning to cook Thai food at the Issaya Cooking Studio at Central Embassy! I first made a spicy green papaya salad (Somtam) with salted egg–why am I not making this everyday? I often eat somtam but this is the first time I had it with salted egg. It gives it a creaminess I dig.
Then I made a spicy minced chicken dish called laab gai–and I learned how to make it pretty with cucumber slices and edible butterfly pea flower petals.
After snacking on these two dishes I learned how to make a stock for Tom Khlong Thalay soup. It has similar ingredients to Tom Yum soup but the galangal, kaffir lime leaves, shallots, and dried fish are intensely roasted before they are simmered to make the stock. I think I like this soup better than Tom Yum as I like that smokiness and depth to the broth.
Finally I learned to cook stir-fried chicken and rice with holy basil (ka-phrao kai cham ron). This is definitely going to be in my kitchen recipe index. I shall never waste rice again–it will be turned into this dish instead! I was completely stuffed by the time I made this so I got the last dish as take-away and it will be on our dinner table tonight!
This cooking lesson was a gift from Anna for my birthday (she just gets me!). I have another lesson tomorrow. It’s my understanding that pomelo salad and green curry will be on the menu. I am super excited!
During a recent trip to Luang Prabang, Laos (a full article on that adventure here), I had an opportunity to learn how to create a few typical Lao dishes through the Tamarind Cooking School (official webpage). Note: Tamarind is actually a restaurant that also happens to offer cooking classes.
In the jungle…
The Tamarind Cooking School is not located at the Tamarind restaurant. The site for the “school” is actually outside of the town of Luang Prabang in a jungle setting. Students get a chance to get out of the city and dine amongst the cacophony of jungle noises. These noises seem to grow louder and louder as the night falls (we participated in the later class which went from 4:30pm – 8:30pm).
We learned to cook Oua Si Khai (Chicken Stuffed Lemongrass), Mok Pa (Fish Steamed in Banana Leaves), Jeow Mak Keua (Eggplant (Aubergine) Dip), Jeow Mak Len (Lao Tomato Salsa), Khao Niaow (Sticky Rice), and Khao Gam (Purple Sticky Rice with Coconut Milk).
Tamarind Cooking School – Learning the Basics
The first thing we learned to cook was the sticky rice (both white and purple). I’ve made a few attempts at home to try and make sticky rice and found the easier and failsafe method is to just go and buy it from somewhere already made! This course illuminated many of the errors I’ve been making (not soaking it long enough, using too much water to steam it, not rotating it properly as it steams). It also encouraged me to get the proper steaming equipment (bamboo baskets). As the rice was steaming we learned how to make a couple of “jeow”.
Jeow is the Lao answer to salsa!
A “jeow” is basically a dipping sauce, and in Laos there are many kinds of dipping sauces. My favorite being one with chili paste and strips of water buffalo skin. This course taught us to make two different kinds of jeow: a fiery roasted aubergine one, and a tomato based dipping sauce that was very similar to salsa. I was surprised at how simple they were. You roast the ingredients over a coal fire, peel of the charred skin from the eggplant, then put everything in a mortar and pestle and smash it to a paste. It was very therapeutic, actually! The dipping sauces go with everything really. We rolled small balls of sticky rice and dipped that in the sauces.
Next we learned how to make fish in banana leaves. The marinade for this fish was incredibly flavorful. It combined garlic, shallots, chili, lemongrass, kaffir lime, basil, and dill. Steaming the fish filets in tied banana leaves made them incredibly tender and flavorful (sorry no pictures!).
The jungle Fry Daddy.
Impress your friends with chicken stuffed lemongrass!
The highlight of the Tamarind Cooking School lesson menu is learning how to make chicken stuffed lemongrass stalks. This is one of Tamarind’s most popular dishes and should you ever find yourself in Luang Prabang I highly recommend giving it a try! It’s also a pretty simple dish to make at home, that only looks like a lot of effort. Basically you make small incisions into the lemongrass so that it begins to separate (you have to pound it a bit to loosen it up, too). After awhile you have a segment of the lemongrass stalk that has thin ribbons of stalk that can be formed into a basket. You stuff the minced chicken mixture into this “basket” then pull the ends of the stalk to close it up. These are then dipped into beaten egg and deep fried in oil. Delicious!
After we finished cooking the chicken we prepared small bowls of sticky purple rice with coconut milk and fresh fruits for our dessert. All of the cooking completed we were finally able to eat the results of our labors. As a bonus the workers had cooked up some additional dishes to add to the feast. Included in our feast was: Soop Pak (Steamed Vegetable Salad with Sesame), Orlarm (Luang Prabang Stew), Koy (Minced Water Buffalo Meat and Salad), and fresh local fruits. It truly was an incredible meal and a fantastic learning experience! I felt that this was one of the highlights of our Luang Prabang adventure.
It was also an amazing deal. For all of the recipes we learned (recipe book included), and the huge feast we enjoyed at the end of the cooking session, it was an incredible value at 218,000 kip (about $26). If you have any questions about the recipes or the course offered by the Tamarind Cooking School please feel free to contact me.
For those not familiar with Vietnamese cuisine, a banh mi is basically a sandwich stuffed with various meats and veggies. Every banh mi maker has their own choice of/amount of fillings. But a good banh mi is so much more than just a sandwich!
My love for bahn mi sandwiches sprung from my very first experience trying one from a food truck (originally called Banh Mi Boy) here in Bangkok. Their sandwiches were so good they were able to park their food truck and open a small restaurant. They had to drop the “y” and become Banh Mi Bo, but their amazing sandwiches didn’t change. They’re one of those things that you crave every now and then. You HAVE to have one.
So when Anna and I planned to spend New Year’s in Ho Chi Minh City, I was thrilled we’d be going to the Land of Banh Mi Sandwiches. Certainly Vietnam is known for more…but I really, really, really like these sandwiches and could think of nothing else!
The search begins…
We are so lucky to have the Internet. It used to be about the only resource a person had to get a bead on where they’re going was a Lonely Planet book. But now we have the Internet–combining all the resources of travel blogs, videos, as well as various ratings and “best of” sites. Now I am able to research and zero in on recommendations I am looking for from the comfort of my home and at the speed of my Internet connection. “BEST BANH MI SANDWICHES HO CHI MINH CITY”, my fingers speedily typed into the search engine. From research I picked one that had great reviews and was closest to our hotel–within walking distance even!
I picked a banh mi winner!
I chose Bánh Mì Huỳnh Hoa (unofficial Facebook page), and after a long day of walking about the city we decided to go there for an early dinner. One thing about the Vietnamese language, it seems to my American eyes that it is 80% comprised of the same 10 words but with different accents in different places. My eyes are used to crossword puzzles so maybe that’s what creates that illusion for me. To make a long story short, I felt doubtful that I had found THE Bánh Mì Huỳnh Hoa place. Especially since it looked pretty empty.
But after standing in line for just a couple of minutes a long queue quickly formed behind me. I felt very confident I was in the right place! There’s no seating area to eat there so with fresh banh mi sandwiches in hand, we started walking…and eating.
When we travel Anna usually takes over the camera duties. She’s got an eye for it. But it also often results in not getting too many happy snaps of my gal. I am proud of this picture I took. It captures that very moment of pure sandwich eating bliss right before the immediate descension into fire mouth hell. She still talks about the moment she bit into a banh mi sandwich and got a mouth full of red death chili paste. Normally it’s spread on the sandwich in such a way it disseminates the heat appropriately. But not this time. Not this sandwich. Not for Anna.
A hero is rises to the occasion…
I’ve never seen her look so panicked. She couldn’t breath. She couldn’t speak. She was in trouble and I was there to save her. Like Richard Gere in that Officer and Gentleman movie….or was it Pretty Woman? It doesn’t matter, I was a hero. I saved the day. Ignoring the deadly Ho Chi Minh City traffic, I darted across the street, purchased an ice-cold can of 333 Beer and brought it to her…opened. Anna enjoys beer but I wouldn’t catalogue her as a drinker. In this moment I was proud of her, she’d have put any frat boy to shame. She was pledging to save her insides from the fire she’d just introduced to her guts. She was in fireman mode.
I am confident this particular sandwich was a fluke…a slip of the knife…something. My sandwich was excellent! They really pile on the meats and fillings. Anna’s a trooper. She wanted to have a good banh mi experience story and so we went there the our last night in the city for a very successful round two. We even found a nice corner bar that let us eat there so long as we bought some ice-cold Bia Saigon beers. Deal!