“Isaan people eat everything!” Poo tells our small group as we negotiate the muddy paths of frenetic Klong Toey market on a walking tour to purchase ingredients for our Cooking with Poo experience and the Thai cooking lessons to follow at Saiyuud Diwong’s Helping Hands Thai Cooking School in Bangkok. ‘Poo’ is the nickname of Saiyuud Diwong, our cooking instructor.
Vendor after vendor sells wriggly silvery eels, live frogs, whole animal carcasses, all kinds of raw offal, fermented fish, and the crispy fried insects that Poo says northern Thais like herself love so much, making this a market that’s not for the squeamish. Participants in our group point at and photograph what is an astonishing array of (often icky) stuff on offer, even for Thailand.
Once through the wet market, however, we’re rewarded with the fragrance of fresh tropical fruits and perfectly formed vegetables. Stalls heave with pyramids of rambutans, mangoes, jackfruits, and durians. Baskets overflow with long green beans and polished purple eggplants.
We inhale aromatic Thai herbs – basil, lemongrass and coriander are in abundance – homemade curry pastes, pungent spices, and fresh chillies and limes, packaged together in small plastic baskets.
“Chillies,” Poo says, picking up a tiny, fiery, red birds-eye. “Good for health, going toilet,” she tells the group. “Coconuts,” she points out. “Make Isaan people look sexy.” “Rice,” she says, directing our gaze to dozens of sacks of different types. “For my dad I cook very soft: 73, no teeth”. There are smiles all round at Poo’s delightful introductions to Thai produce.
Poo’s English is limited and her explanations are not the most detailed and probably won’t satisfy foodies looking for in-depth knowledge, however, they’re charming all the same and our group seems smitten by our host.
A former poverty-stricken noodle vendor, the vivacious young Poo established her Helping Hands Thai Cooking School with a loan from an altruistic Australian neighbour, in a modest room opposite her home in the nearby Klong Toey slum.
Poo’s modest cooking school now offers one of the most popular cooking experiences in Bangkok, periodically placing at #1 on Trip Advisor‘s list of Bangkok tours, while the CNNGo website called it “Bangkok’s hottest travel trend”. We’ve signed up to find out if it’s all it’s cracked up to be.
Now a successful businesswoman, Poo’s classes are booked up weeks in advance, she recently released her first cookbook, and she is building a bigger kitchen down the lane. Poo is also lending money to her neighbours to start small businesses to help pull them out of poverty.
Poo herself sold noodles here at the Klong Toey market and knows many of the stallholders. Until she started bringing tourists on walks here, very few vendors had seen big groups of farang, as Thais call foreigners.
We’d been warned the vendors wouldn’t be friendly and wouldn’t want their pictures taken – we’d even read that some travellers found stall-holders hostile – however, we found people welcoming, offering us things to taste and smiling for Terence’s shots. They seem to appreciate the extra business and awareness that Poo’s tours have brought.
After an hour or so strolling around the market and now armed with a better understanding of the importance of fresh, local, seasonal produce to Thai cooking, our group piles into Poo’s husband’s van for the short drive to her cooking school.
Also see Part 2 on our Cooking with Poo cooking class.
If you’re in Australia, check out this month’s edition of travel magazine Get Lost (Issue #31) for our longer and more detailed story on Cooking with Poo. It also includes a recipe from Poo’s cookbook. You can buy the book on her website where you can also sign up for her market tour and cooking class: www.cookingwithpoo.com