I’ve heard that there are things to do in Thailand other than eating or sitting on a beach, and it was our fervent hope that we might possibly do some of them.
High on our list was something of cultural significance. The Grand Palace seemed to fit the bill. It’s a huge complex of ornate, beautiful buildings that used to be the chief residence of the king of Thailand. I could just picture Yul Brynner padding about, although then I began to feel resentful that I never got to be in The King and I on Broadway, but then the hard feelings subsided and I decided that the Grand Palace would make a very nice historic and cultural excursion. Although I think that Trip Advisor ranks up there with bathroom walls as places to receive useful sightseeing information, the purveyor of green balls nevertheless ranks the Grand Palace near the top of things to do in Bangkok.(By the way, according to Trip Advisor, the top rated restaurant in New York is a sandwich shop in the West Village called Faicco’s Pork Store – it may be a perfectly lovely pork store, but New York’s best restaurant it ain’t.) Anyhoo, It was worth a shot.
With this winning endorsement in our back pockets, we set out for the Grand Palace. Getting around Bangkok isn’t too bad, but taking a cab requires a bit of technology, a bit of skill in mime and charades, and a bit of luck. Google Maps really is the revelation of the modern age, but even that has its imperfections. Anyway, I realized that the words “Grand Palace,” which the average Thai cab driver may or may not understand in English, is right next to a temple called Wat Pho, which I had a feeling would be easier for the cabbie to understand. Wat Pho is Wat Pho no matter how you slice it. And besides, who doesn’t love a Thai temple? So I told the nice man to please take us to Wat Pho and he nodded knowingly, and we were off.
Well, ladies and gentleman, Wat Pho is a fabulous place. I know this because as soon as we arrived, we saw prominently displayed photos of President Obama and Hillary Clinton shuffling around this very temple IN THEIR SOCKS. When you enter a Buddhist temple you have to take off your shoes, and apparently they don’t make exceptions, even for the Leader of the Free World. I would think that a place would have to be pretty nice for the President of the United States and the Secretary of State to walk around in their stocking feet. I wonder if the advance team prepared a memo for POTUS (and SOSOTUS) reminding him to be sure not to wear socks with holes in them when visiting Wat Pho. Can you imagine? Actually, what I imagine is some poor schmo site advance kid having to take off his nice socks and give them to the president. So seeing photos of President Obama and Secretary Clinton sealed the deal. We were in the right place.
Wat Pho is famous for its statue of the reclining Buddha – a really extraordinary piece of religious art –although if you ask me he’s not actually reclining, he’s kind of lying on his side. Anyway, he’s huge – he’s got to be more than fifty or sixty feet long, with massive toes that dominate one side of the room. I couldn’t stop taking pictures of the toes. The complex is also full of other, lesser temples that are nevertheless quite impressive in their own right. In all, it was a very good, happy accident. We had experienced Thai culture, and we were feeling good about ourselves.
Having gotten a nice cultural appetizer, we set out to take on the Grand Palace, only to realize that it was now closed. And so it goes. Things don’t always go according to plan. (A postscript. Upon further review, I learned that Wat Pho is the #1 attraction in Bangkok on Trip Advisor – take THAT Grand Palace!)
In addition to at least one attraction of cultural significance, I had promised myself that I would take a cooking class in Thailand. I had once thought that taking a cooking class in each country would be a smashing idea, but it never quite happened. For one thing, the cuisines of Argentina, South Africa, Egypt, New Zealand, and Australia (no offense, really), weren’t exactly the stuff you’d go to a cooking class to learn, although Sicily and Japan would have been interesting. I’ve attempted Thai food in the past and it has always been really, really mediocre. I yearned to learn the essential technique that I could use to amaze my friends. One cooking class caught my eye. It was called “Cooking with Poo.” Turns out that some woman named Chonpoo runs a cooking school in Bangkok and she has a sense of humor.
It is here that I must make a shameful confession. I didn’t care whether this was a good cooking school or not. I just wanted to have an excuse to call this post “Cooking with Poo.” Thus, I was deeply disturbed to learn that I wouldn’t be able to cook with Poo after all. Poo was sold out. As you can see, I have shamefully exploited Poo without actually taking her class. I don’t care. If you’re reading this, you clicked on the title. If you don’t feel you’ve gotten your money’s worth, I will happily issue a refund.
Having been prevented from cooking with Poo, I was forced to settle for the more prosaically named Silom Cooking School, which was a perfectly excellent trip into Thai cuisine. The thing I learned about Thai cooking, which should surprise almost nobody, is that if you assemble real Thai ingredients and throw them together in a pot or a pan, it’s going to taste good. Case in point – the first thing we made was Tom Yum Goong – spicy sour shrimp coconut soup. Basically, you prep a small pile of ingredients, including the Thai trinity – galangal (Thai ginger), kaffir lime leaves, and lemongrass – then you add birdseye chiles, which will sear your soul if used properly, and a few other things like fish sauce, shrimp, and some other stuff (I have already sent home the very helpful recipe book that they gave us so I’m working from memory), and you add a few shrimp, some water, and a bit of coconut milk and you throw it into a wok and cook it for four minutes. That’s it, kids! And let me tell you, this was the best damn Tom Yum Goong I’ve ever had. It was tangy, spicy, and it had all those great Thai flavors that you almost never get at Siam Palace, or King of Bangkok, or King of Palace of Siam, or whatever your serviceable non-Thai-owned neighborhood Thai restaurant is called.
Other mysteries were revealed. We made our own coconut milk and coconut cream, which was like finding out the trick of sawing a lady in half. Here’s how you do it – take a coconut, shred it, add warm water, and squeeze it into a fine mesh colander (the Thais use woven baskets, but who’s got one of those?). The product of this is coconut cream. Then you take the just-squeezed coconut shreds and add more warm water and squeeze it out again. That’s the coconut milk. Crazy, huh? The technique trick I learned about coconut curry is that you combine the coconut cream and the curry paste and reduce that for a while, then you add your protein and the coconut milk (and the obligatory mise en place of spices and condiments) and reduce that for a while, and you’re done. It’s not insipid and watery, like I always make. The whole thing takes ten minutes. We also made our own curry paste. This was really easy, even though we used an old fashioned mortar and pestle. Just throw thai basil, thai cilantro (there are several kinds of both), some big not-so-spicy chiles, some little really spicy chiles, and some other stuff in a bowl (or food processor), and you’re done. Who knew?
I will say that our instructor (who used to live, of all places, in Waco, Texas) may or may not have been the Rachel Ray of Thai cooking. He seemed perfectly fine with using canned coconut milk and prepared curry pastes. I’m sure he was right, but when I get home, I’m going full monty with all the homemade stuff.
We also made penang curry, pad thai, and sticky rice with mango. They were all shmabulously good, especially the sticky rice, which is now my favorite dessert. That one is ridiculously easy – steam (don’t boil) some glutinous rice, soak it in sugar and coconut milk, and top it with some sesame seeds. Your guests will think you’re god, and you’ll giggle and titter at how easy to please everyone is.
Thai cooking is a little like Thailand itself. It seems mysterious, but it’s actually really accessible. Bangkok is like that, too. It’s crazy and chaotic, but not so bad once you get the hang of it. People are friendly, the cabs take you where you want to go for about three bucks, and you can live quite well on a budget. There are higher end joints where you can spend a little bit extra, but in most cases, it will still work out to be a huge bargain when compared to the fancy shmancy joints in other big cities.
We had hoped to stare down at it all from atop the Skybar, the chic downtown cocktail lounge, but in the one moment of inhospitality, we were turned away because our friend John was wearing, gasp, sandals. That’s okay, we didn’t see the Grand Palace either.