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 a cooking class at the Mandarin Oriental Cooking School in Bangkok was high on my agenda.
I learnt the art of macaron making in Paris and how to cook traditional Mexican in San Miguel de Allende. In Cape Town I learnt how to make Cape Malay cuisine and 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.
While we’ve always signed up for cooking classes when we’ve travelled, other travellers increasingly seem to be agreeing with us that they’re great things to do. 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.
One of the most popular activities in Bangkok at the moment is a cooking class at the Helping Hands Cooking School, which I’ll tell you about in another post. On the same trip, I also did the class at the Mandarin Oriental cooking school so let me report on that first…
Thai Cooking Class at Mandarin Oriental Cooking School
From the dock of the hotel, it’s just a short boat ride across Bangkok’s bustling Chao Phraya River to the Mandarin Oriental Cooking 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.