Monkey and I have started a nice tradition of taking a cooking class whenever we travel. Last year we learned how to make gnocchi and other Italian delights, and this time, we tackled Thai cooking at the Blue Elephant Cooking School in Phuket Town.
Located in a beautiful old colonial-style building – the Phra Pitak Chinpracha Mansion – the Blue Elephant is home to a well-known restaurant, as well as the cooking school. First stop, a guided tour of the local food market ‑ the wet market and food purveyors are located inside, while the fruit and vegetables are mostly outdoors.
Inside and out, the market is bustling. Odors compete for your attention like clamoring toddlers: from roasted duck to sweet sticky rice, Dorian fruit and fresh and dried fish. And there’s a ton of traffic. Mopeds whizz around, weaving in and out of fearless pedestrians. The loud hum of chatter and traffic, coupled with the intense heat, all add up to a busy slice of humanity.
Our guide, Molly, walked us around and shared insights about staple products and ingredients used in many Thai dishes. From brown, toasted shredded coconut, to crunchy, ground, toasted rice; brightly colored fresh curry pastes, made in bulk, to freshly pressed coconut cream and milk. Fresh galangal, lemongrass and beautifully presented greens, are just a few of the fresh items on sale.
There are no cans of coconut milk on sale here, instead it’s all freshly made. First the coconut flesh is shredded and then it is pressed. The first pressing produces coconut cream, which is used mostly in desserts, while the second pressing yields the milk which is typically blended with cream for savory dishes.
Flowers for sale, often used for temple offerings, include tight water lily buds and garlands of marigolds. Ready-to-eat warm curries are packaged up in little plastic bags, like goldfish at a fair. This is the way takeaway food is packaged all over Thailand from what I could see.
Upstairs, things get even more pong-y as we tour the fish market. Molly tells us: “The best way to tell if a fish is fresh is make sure the eyes aren’t cloudy, and the spine shouldn’t be rigid.” A handy tip.
Piles of crabs, chickens—including organic ones dyed yellow with turmeric, to tell them apart from those industrially-farmed‑and dried squid, all team up for an assault on the senses. Vibrant colors, loud chatter, slimy floors and water filled gutters, all vie for your attention.
Outside, we each enjoy a fresh coconut and discover the higher class of cashew nuts (another staple crop of Thailand) which come with their rather bitter, purple skins. Molly picks up treats for us to enjoy back at the school: sticky rice cooked with coconut or mango, caramelized inside a banana leaf over a hot grill, and little round fried dough-balls.
All too soon we head back to don our aprons in the kitchen, but not before Molly shares a local delicacy – a giant-cockroach-sized bug, roasted and salted. These are not cockroaches, but a beetle that lives in the paddy fields. She invites us to smell them – surprisingly, they smell just like potato chips. Not surprisingly, no-one wants to try one, although Molly professes to loving them. Perhaps it’s like Marmite, you have to grow up eating them or you’ll never be a convert.