5th November 2000

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Funny Business

What's cooking?

By Royston Ellis

"No back packers, no shorts, no sleeveless tops, no slippers, no sandals!" are the words in five languages on a notice at the main entrance to the venerable Oriental Hotel in Bangkok. The notice might also have included the words "No philistines" for the Oriental is among the most honoured, and cultured, hotels in the world.

I ventured cautiously (and wearing shoes) through its august portals to attend a class at the hotel's renowned Thai Cookery School. I had already been seduced by the superb food and exceptional service of the hotel's Normandie Restaurant, which offers "an epicurean celebration of French cuisine."

That restaurant's attention to the tiniest details (like putting a clean, starched napkin in place of a guest's old one if the guest has to leave the table during the meal) intrigued me. If the hotel featured foreign cuisine that good, I expected the preparation and presentation of Thailand's national cuisine to be the best.

For more than 15 years the Oriental Thai Cooking School has been teaching thousands of people from all over the world the art of preparing fine Thai cuisine. The school is open to everybody, whether guests at the hotel or not. That's how I managed to gate crash the class.

The approach to the school by ferry across the broad sweep of the Chao Priya river to the hotel's riverside Sala Rim Naam Restaurant on the opposite bank, sets the mood for culinary contemplation.

I was ushered graciously into the classroom, a converted wooden cottage behind the restaurant, and shown to a desk. It was the first time I had been a pupil in a classroom for more than 40 years. I wanted to be excused.

There were ten of us, all foreigners, some from the United States and some from Japan. One American was planning to open his second Asian restaurant in the USA and hoped to learn some background to Thai Cooking. The rest of us were just curious with no pretensions about being able to cook well or, in my case, at all.

Our instructor bounced into the classroom and introduced himself as Sarnsern Gajaseni, a master at Thai cooking who has practised the art of Thai cuisine around the world. He began by telling us that to eat Thai food in a restaurant, we would have to learn how to order.

Confusingly, Thai food is not served in courses so that you know which to eat first. It comes all at once. The secret is not to jump into the spicy food at the beginning as this numbs the palate. One has to build up harmony and balance. One also needs to know that the exotic names of Nueng, Paad, Thod and Yaang are not a firm of Thai solicitors but those old friends from Chinese cooking: Steam, Stir-Fry, Fry and Grill.

Before the cooking began, we were told to open the drawers of our desks. Inside were linen sachets containing a dozen different spices, and small bottles of chilli jam, fish sauce and chilli sauce.

Sarnsern had the enthusiasm of a missionary as he told us delightedly about the powers of various spices, the intricate details of different types of noodles and rice, and all about fish sauce and black eggs. We were told never to use olive or sesame oil as it is too strong for the delicate flavours of Thai cooking.

We learned the difference in a city curry and a country one (the city one has thick coconut milk, the country version does not). Chef Sarnsern confirmed what experienced Sri Lankan cook knows, that curry must be aged for flavour and not served immediately it is cooked. We were given recipes for some elaborate dishes to practise at home. However, the only dish I have been able to cook properly is the simple Thai omelette. Sarnsern warned us never to ask for this dish in a restaurant in Thailand as it is considered common. "But if you do," he said, "everyone will like it."

The recipe is simple, and fun when it works. Into a frying pan of very hot oil on a high flame, pour a mixture of two eggs beaten with a teaspoon of fish sauce. It should swell up quickly and then it's ready to serve, perhaps with boiled rice and chilli jam. If it stays resolutely flat, as it often does for me, then the dog has a great breakfast.

After the day's course, I was given a certificate .It testifies that I am no longer a philistine and know something about Thai food. If only I could cook it!

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