It's a Sunday afternoon and I'm wandering around City Heights' Minh Huong Market—a pretty cool, easy-to-navigate Thai grocery store with a staff that's more than willing to help me find concentrated tamarind and make sure that I really want to buy a bag of sweet, not regular, rice. In my shopping cart are items that, just three days ago, I'd never have recognized, let alone had any experience cooking with: a bulbous herb called galangal, orange knobby things that I hoped were fresh turmeric (ends up they weren't) and a jar of shrimp paste—fermented, ground shrimp, the purchase of which required $1.49 and a suspension of disbelief.
On the menu that night: Thai spring rolls, coconut-rice balls topped with shrimp, pad Thai noodles and red curry with chicken.
My pitch for this issue was to take a cooking class and see if I could turn what I learned into something edible. I opted for Thai cuisine—it's one of my favorites to eat, but as far as cooking Thai food goes, my experience prior to last week was limited to twisting the lid off a jar of peanut sauce to make a chicken satay.
To learn to make these dishes, I took the three-hour “Thai One On” class at Hipcooks, a cute storefront cooking school that opened last fall a couple of doors down from Toronado in North Park (4048 30th St.). For $55, the three-hour class covered eight dishes: the four I planned to make for dinner, plus a green curry with vegetables, papaya salad, chicken satay and “forbidden rice” with coconut cream. The course description promised “a busy class with total Thai immersion.” Students would get to prepare the food and then eat it paired with Singha beer.
The class was capped at 14, which is pretty much the number of people that fit comfortably around the island in the middle of the room. Helming the class was Tristan Faw, a pretty, petite blonde who was once a junior-high-school teacher. That fact came out midway through the class and made perfect sense: She was patient but assertive, full of charm but direct when she needed to make a point. No note-taking allowed, Faw said at the beginning of the class. She'd send us an email with recipes the next day, but the point was to learn to cook by taste and recognize the interplay between what she referred to as “B and the four S's”: Bitter, salty, sweet, spicy and sour. So, for instance, for the veggie spring rolls, to chopped carrots and bell pepper (sweet), we added lime (sour), cilantro and mint (bitter), chilies (spicy) and some fish sauce (salty). That these tastes are the foundation for successful dishes is obvious when you think about it but, prior to Thursday, not to me. Suddenly my experimental failures in the kitchen made a lot more sense.
The spring-roll filling mixed, Faw passed the bowl around for everyone to taste (hand-washing is mandatory). The consensus was that the mix was fine. Faw challenged us: The point was to make spring rolls that stood on their own. How about cranking things up a notch? In went another lime, some splashes of fish sauce and a couple more chopped chilies. She passed the bowl around again and a light went on. We got it: Don't be afraid to be bold.
Not everything we ate was prepared by the class—Faw made the coconut rice ahead of time, as well as the chicken that went with the peanut sauce. But, she hit on what we needed to experience: adding ingredients, taking a taste and giving some thought to how the flavors balanced. We stirred the sauces to get a sense of consistency, molded the coconut rice balls and learned how to master the art of the spring roll. Throughout the class, Faw offered some universal tips: Buy spices in seed form if you can, lightly toast them in a pan and then use a coffee grinder, food processor or mortar-and-pestle to chop them up. Grapeseed oil has a higher smoking point than olive oil, making it better to cook with. Use a spoon to peel fresh ginger—with a knife, you end up slicing off usable bits. And shrimp paste, though nasty on its own, is one of Thai food's secret ingredients.
So, did I pull off my four-part Thai dinner? Aside from a two-hour power outage (thanks, SDG&E!), the meal turned out pretty well. The finicky spring roll wrappers mostly behaved; the sticky coconut rice ended up better than I could have hoped; I was so worried about overcooking the noodles in my pad Thai that I undercooked them; and, like every woman on the planet who spends any time in a kitchen, I kinda want my own mortar and pestle. My most successful dish, the red curry with chicken, was the also the most complex. I even got creative and added some coconut milk, which wasn't part of the recipe. Gold star.
Does Hillcrest's Amarin Thai need to worry about losing my patronage? No. But I'm eyeing the “Thai 2 On” class that Faw will be teaching in May.