We like to think that if discovering the food of a destination is a way into the heart of a place, then learning to cook the cuisine is the route into its soul. That’s why cooking classes are high on my agenda when we arrive at a new destination. In the last 18 months I’ve been lucky to do countless cooking courses around the world, most recently the Thai cooking class at the Mandarin Oriental Thai Cooking School in Bangkok.
I learnt the art of macaron making in Paris, how to cook traditional Mexican in San Miguel de Allende, in Cape Town I learnt how to make Cape Malay cuisine, in Venice we cooked with a Countess, in Austin we participated in a country music cooking class, and in Rio de Janeiro I learnt to cook Carioca style. (You’ll find more reviews of cooking classes under ‘Learning Locally‘ and ‘Food and Wine’ in the sidebar.)
While we’ve always signed up for cooking classes when we’ve travelled, other travellers increasingly seem to be agreeing with us. That macaron-making class I did in Paris is one of the most popular things to do for travellers visiting the city, according to Trip Advisor – even more popular than visiting the Eiffel Tower. And one of the most popular activities in Bangkok at the moment is the Helping Hands Cooking School, which I’ll tell you about in another post.
While in Bangkok, I also did the class at the Oriental Thai Cooking School. From the dock of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel, it’s just a short boat ride across Bangkok’s bustling Chao Phraya River to the school, which is set in an antique wooden house that’s loaded with retro-Thai charm. It’s a beautiful space to do a cooking course.
As you’d expect from one of the city’s most luxurious hotels, this is a genteel cooking school with a full professional kitchen, and a team of kitchen staff on hand who prepare all of the ingredients in advance and assist the cooking instructor. Unlike many cooking courses, these chefs are not missing a shift in the hotel kitchen to teach – they’re full-time.
A lot of prep work is done beforehand by the kitchen staff, and students share tasks when it comes to the hands-on cooking component of class, which won’t suit students familiar with Thai cuisine or people who like to get their hands dirty.
The classes are small – there was just one other student when we attended – so students get a lot of personal attention and learn a lot more than they would in larger groups. This is a great way to learn because you’re not always waiting around for someone in the class who has bad knife skills and is falling behind or missing steps.
The class began by covering Thai herbs, spices, pastes, and produce in a lot of detail, providing a terrific introduction for those new to Thai cuisine, before moving on to cover a handful of dishes step-by-step.
The cooking instructor, Chef Nairan, while Thai, was an English teacher before he became a chef, so his communication skills are excellent and the quality of instruction is very high.
Chef Nairan also shared a lot of excellent insights and tips along the way, picked up from his experience working in a professional kitchen, not just cooking at home. For instance, he advised only ever to use Kaffir lime leaves in Thai cooking, which are very different to the leaves of lemons and ordinary limes, as they are much more fragrant and zesty, and release an amazing aromatic oil. Kaffir lime leaves give off one of the signature aromas of Thai cooking – a dish than requires them should not ever be made without them because it will always disappoint.
A menu of four dishes is taught in each class and the instruction menu changes daily so it’s good to call ahead or check the website to find out what’s on offer if there’s a dish in particular that you want to learn to make.
While the focus is on classic Thai dishes like Gaeng Phed Ped Yaang (red curry of roast duck), there are some interesting dishes too that we love but which may challenge some participants, such as (one of our favourites) Naam Prik Awng (northern-style dip with pork and tomato). It was refreshing to see it wasn’t just your stock Thai tourist menu dishes, like green chicken curry, being taught.
Participants are also introduced to the importance of presentation, of fruit and vegetable carving, and creating pretty plates in Thai cooking, especially in what’s known as Royal Thai Cuisine.
At the end of the class, as in most cooking classes, we got to sit down and enjoy our delicious feast, together with Chef Nairan, only here we sat down at a table with a white linen table cloth, linen napkins, fine silver cutlery, and were waited on by staff as if we were in a fine-dining Thai restaurant. But of course we wouldn’t have expected anything less at a Mandarin Oriental Hotel.
There are an abundance of affordable cooking courses on offer in Bangkok, and indeed all over Thailand, and this course is expensive by comparison. But the quality of ingredients, the knowledgeable staff, the level of instruction, and the personal attention, make this course a million miles removed from some of the other classes we’ve done and most of the cooking courses on offer in Thailand.
Lara and I recently wrote a story on the world’s best cooking experiences for Lifestyle+Travel magazine, in which we included a briefer review of this course. If you’re in Bangkok or any other Asian capital city look out for L+T’s November FOOD issue, featuring that story, plus stories by us on Eating Tokyo and Mouthwatering Melbourne.