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Blue Elephant Cooking School, Bangkok, Thailand, tasted on December 5, 2005  A semi-regular feature of any tourist adventure in Thailand (especially when visiting Bangkok or Chiang Mai) is a cooking class. I was both excited to learn some basic Thai cooking skills, and leery of a tourist trap. I told myself that I would find some small hip cooking school that was off the beaten track in terms of tourists. Unsurprisingly, I failed. After the 27th time when I tried to get someone to recommend me the little known authentic Thai cooking class, and the response was "Blue Elephant Cooking School. It's the most famous." I gave in. Besides, they had a class that started off with a trip to the market. And that seemed like a nice way to start.

The Blue Elephant Cooking School is located in a cool colonial style building (note: not sure if this is an appropriate characterization as Thailand is the only country in the immediate vicinity that was never colonized) on this small parcel of land surrounded by the tumult and height of Bangkok. The first hour or so of our class was spent heading to a local market. I thought we would buy the ingredients we were going to cook. But in retrospect that was silly. The Blue Elephant had their act together and already had all the ingredients we needed. Our trip to the market was most informational though not functional and that was ok. Then it was back to the school for some instruction and hopefully cooking.

It turns out, that despite being the "most famous" cooking school, the class was pretty enjoyable. Even though we were on rails (the ingredients had mostly been prepped for us) my dishes came out as good or better than most Thai food I've had in the U.S. The chef kept repeating this as well showing his disdain for the quality of many Thai restaurants.

I was worried at the beginning when we entered a standard classroom setting that we'd only be watching him cook, but after each demo we went to a kitchen across the room where we got to cook ourselves. It was cool. One weird moment was when he warned us about the unripe papaya juice saying it would hurt our eyes and stain our clothes but it was ok to eat. I guess unripe papaya juice is essentially edible bleach.

We learned and cooked several dishes including: Green Chicken Curry (Keang Keaw Wan Kai), Sour and  Spicy Prawn Soup (Tom Yam Koong), Stir Fried Rice Noodles (Phad Thai), and Green Papaya Salad (Som Tam). The chef really took the time to try to articulate what the flavor of each dish should be. He'd learned Thai cooking at his mother's side and had many years as a professional chef. I remember him going on at length about how the sweet flavor should never come first on your tongue. For me this was huge. Thai food is one of those cuisines (like Mexican) where the uninitiated joke about how it's the same seven ingredients and flavors recombined in hundreds of slightly different combinations. But this is missing the point. There is not only wide variety in Thai food but strict discipline in terms of flavor profile and balance. And while I wasn't happy that I made my green curry three hours before I ate it at the sit down "luncheon" (not sure what the alternative was) it turns out that our food came out pretty good anyway. In fact, I think the food that I made  that day was better than almost every Thai restaurant in Seattle. Unfortunately that's not saying a whole lot, but still I was impressed. Whether I can duplicate it in my kitchen is another matter entirely, but I will have fun trying.

 

     

 

 

 

 

 

   

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  Garlic has long been credited with providing and prolonging physical strength and was fed to Egyptian slaves building the giant pyramids. Throughout the centuries, its medicinal claims have included cures for toothaches, consumption, open wounds and evil demons. A member of the lily family, garlic is a cousin to leeks, chives, onions and shallots. The edible bulb or "head" grows beneath the ground. This bulb is made up of sections called cloves, each encased in its own parchmentlike membrane. Today's major garlic suppliers include the United States (mainly California, Texas and Louisiana), France, Spain, Italy and Mexico. There are three major types of garlic available in the United States: the white-skinned, strongly flavored American garlic; the Mexican and Italian garlic, both of which have mauve-colored skins and a somewhat milder flavor; and the Paul Bunyanesque, white-skinned elephant garlic (which is not a true garlic, but a relative of the leek), the most mildly flavored of the three. Depending on the variety, cloves of American, Mexican and Italian garlic can range from 1/2 to 1 1/2 inches in length. Elephant garlic (grown mainly in California) has bulbs the size of a small grapefruit, with huge cloves averaging 1 ounce each. It can be purchased through mail order and in some gourmet markets. Green garlic, available occasionally in specialty produce markets, is young garlic before it begins to form cloves. It resembles a baby leek, with a long green top and white bulb, sometimes tinged with pink. The flavor of a baby plant is much softer than that of mature garlic. Fresh garlic is available year-round. Purchase firm, plump bulbs with dry skins. Avoid heads with soft or shriveled cloves, and those stored in the refrigerated section of the produce department. Store fresh garlic in an open container (away from other foods) in a cool, dark place. Properly stored, unbroken bulbs can be kept up to 8 weeks, though they will begin to dry out toward the end of that time. Once broken from the bulb, individual cloves will keep from 3 to 10 days. Garlic is usually peeled before use in recipes. Among the exceptions are roasted garlic bulbs and the famous dish, "chicken with 40 cloves of garlic," in which unpeeled garlic cloves are baked with chicken in a broth until they become sweet and butter-soft. Crushing, chopping, pressing or pureeing garlic releases more of its essential oils and provides a sharper, more assertive flavor than slicing or leaving it whole. Garlic is readily available in forms other than fresh. Dehydrated garlic flakes (sometimes referred to as instant garlic) are slices or bits of garlic that must be reconstituted before using (unless added to a liquid-based dish, such as soup or stew). When dehydrated garlic flakes are ground, the result is garlic powder. Garlic salt is garlic powder blended with salt and a moisture-absorbing agent. Garlic extract and garlic juice are derived from pressed garlic cloves. Though all of these products are convenient, they're a poor flavor substitute for the less expensive, readily available and easy-to-store fresh garlic. One unfortunate side effect of garlic is that, because its essential oils permeate the lung tissue, it remains with the body long after it's been consumed, affecting breath and even skin odor. Chewing chlorophyll tablets or fresh parsley is helpful but, unfortunately, modern-day science has yet to find the perfect antidote for residual garlic odor.  

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