From Klong Toey markets in Bangkok it’s a quick drive and a short stroll through Klong Toey slum to Saiyuud Diwong’s modest kitchen where we’re going to try our hand at, um, Cooking with Poo at the Helping Hands Thai Cooking School.
Our walking tour through Klong Toey markets to purchase produce for the cooking course may have had participants’ jaws dropping, but our stroll through Klong Toey slum is easily as eye opening.
Poo leads us through a labyrinth of narrow lanes lined with modest, colourful, ramshackle wooden houses, some little more than makeshift corrugated iron shacks that look like they could easily topple over in a strong breeze.
Litter floats in a skinny, smelly canal that runs beside our path. We pass a few dilapidated stalls and a tiny shop in the front room of a rickety house, but the neighbourhood is essentially residential, and accommodation is very rudimentary.
Klong Toey is Bangkok’s largest slum. And I know the word ‘slum’ will offend – I’m not a fan of it myself – but this is the term that locals we met there used to describe the poverty-stricken community.
Most Klong Toey inhabitants come from Isaan, a region in Thailand’s northeast that is the country’s largest and poorest, or are (mostly) illegal immigrants from Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar (Burma).
Another word often used to describe Klong Toey is ‘notorious’ and this reputation is due to its social problems, high incidence of crime, and the fact that many residents battle diseases and addictions: AIDs, substance abuse, alcoholism, and gambling.
The opportunity to see how Klong Toey’s residents live is a privilege that all of the participants in our little group appreciate. That we are with Poo and have a purpose for being there ensures our visit isn’t seen as voyeuristic, and without Poo having said a word or anyone discussing it, we all make efforts to be respectful.
Not a single person takes a photo. Not even the professional photographer amongst us. In return, we’re welcomed by the people we pass, who smile and greet us, including Poo’s elderly father, who, along with the rest of the family, she now supports. This aspect of the tour – this short stroll and the insight it provides – is undoubtedly part of the appeal of Cooking with Poo.
Once at the compact kitchen that Poo rents, just opposite her own wooden house, Poo and her assistants hand around black cooks’ aprons emblazoned with the words “I cooked with Poo and I liked it”, which get a few giggles.
Each participant is allocated a cooking station, although on the day we attend there aren’t enough to go around, so we initially share before letting a couple, eager for some hands-on experience, have their own burners. (This problem should be resolved by the time Poo moves to the new kitchen she was having fitted out down the lane.)
Poo runs through the menu: khao pad sai pak (fried rice with vegetables), geang kiowan gai (green curry chicken), nuea pad met ma-muang (beef with cashew nuts), and khao niow ma-muang (mango and sticky rice).
They are pretty straightforward dishes, nothing too strange; they’re dishes best suited to people cooking Thai food for the first time. It’s quickly apparent that this is not going to be a cooking course suitable for people already making Thai food at home on a regular basis.
Poo introduces each dish, provides instructions while doing a quick demonstration, and then participants begin to pound, grind, chop, stir, and fry according to Poo’s simple directions.
A bonus for first-timers is that Poo has simplified recipes considerably, keeping ingredients to a minimum, thereby ensuring the dishes are all very easy to prepare. This makes the cooking course ideal for newcomers to Thai cuisine.
After each dish is made, Poo and her team serve them up, and we enjoy the food together, chatting in between mouthfuls, taking more time to eat and socialise than we did to make the food. The social aspect – the opportunity to get to know Poo and meet people from very different walks of life – is, like any course I suppose, another part of the allure.
On Trip Advisor, one critic said that this wasn’t really a cooking school but was a charity. That’s not exactly true, but nor is it completely false. As I wrote in our post on the market walk yesterday, Poo was a former noodle vendor who, with the help of a generous foreign neighbour, was given a loan as well as support and guidance to start her cooking school.
Poo in turn has been using the profits to help and guide her neighbours, similarly helping other micro-business owners to change course and grow more logical and more lucrative businesses.
In the room adjacent to Poo’s kitchen, handicrafts and jewellery are sold, made by neighbours whom Poo has helped. The woman I bought a pretty necklace from was a former prostitute. Each of the course participants voluntarily purchased something after the class.
Poo is not a charity. Rather, she is a role model, a mentor, and a one-woman micro-financing body. She’s helping others in the same way she was helped, and maybe those people will go on in turn to help their neighbours, helping to bring their community out of poverty.
As for whether Helping Hands is a cooking school… well, it may not be the Mandarin Oriental Thai Cooking Class (which we also enjoyed incidentally; that review here), however, Poo’s Thai cooking class is considerable cheaper and is more hands-on.
The class won’t suit everyone, especially foodies familiar with cooking Thailand’s cuisine, however, if you’re a newcomer to Thai food and the experience of visiting the Klong Toey community and meeting Poo is equally as valuable as learning to cook green curry, then this is the experience for you.
If you’re in Australia, check out our story on Cooking with Poo in this month’s Get Lost travel magazine (issue #31). It includes a recipe from Poo’s book. You can also visit Poo’s website to buy her cookbook and book places in her popular cooking class: www.cookingwithpoo.com