By Candice Marcus
If you’re a self-confessed foodie like me and derive immense pleasure from wrapping your taste buds around a delicious meal, you’ll easily appreciate how local cuisine plays an integral part in experiencing new cultures.
Food is a big part of Thai culture, where eating is a social experience largely designed to be shared among big groups of people.
When I was in Thailand recently I signed up for a Thai cooking class, and it instantly became one of the highlights of my holiday. Ok so seeing lady boys proposition my friends on our nights on the town, snorkelling in beautiful clear blue waters and zip-lining through the jungle were also memorable experiences, but this was something I’d take with me back to Australia.
As part of our package at the Siam Cuisine Thai Cookery School in Krabi, we made several mouth-watering courses over four hours under the watchful eye of our friendly instructors. Interestingly, we also learnt about each ingredient as we cooked with it. I would never have dreamt of attempting some of the culinary feats we achieved in this class; the depth of flavour in my hot and sour tom yum soup was incredible and there was a certain satisfaction that came from grinding my own curry paste for my delicious green chicken curry. But despite the great flavours bursting out of every dish, the meals were surprisingly simple to prepare and each centred around just a few key ingredients, namely coconut milk, sugar and, of course, chilli.
The sticky rice with mango was a crowd favourite and even though our stomachs were nearing bursting point we all wanted more. This is a popular Thai dessert which is available on the street as well as in restaurants. The best part was that we all got to choose what meals we wanted to cook for each course so I also made pad thai and stir-fry chicken with ginger. There was something magical about donning your apron and listening to the synchronised sound of sizzling woks all lined up along impressive-looking cooking stations in our big open-plan kitchen (think a rustic version of MasterChef). Everyone in my group of 10 loved the experience and found it was a fun way to inject a bit of culture into our holiday (and to pick up some tips that would be sure to impress our friends back home!).
Outside class, one of my favourite refreshing treats were the fresh fruit shakes/blends (amazing fruit smoothies blended with ice) which you choose to your liking from fruit stalls on the Thailand streets for as little as 30BHT ($1 AUS). They’re especially appealing when you’re feeling a bit low on energy during the heat of the day and need a revitalising lift. On the streets you can also get freshly cooked kebabs, crepes, corn on the cob and pretty much anything your heart desires, just let your nostrils guide you through the maze of roadside hot plates.
Dining out in Thailand is also easy and delicious. There are menus outside to take a look at before you sit down and eager staff jostling for your attention – they’re very friendly and chefs are usually willing to make any changes you want to fit your dietary needs. Pretty much every restaurant in major tourist areas will have alternate choices for Western palates included in their menus (usually burgers, pasta and pizza), but the Thai cuisine is always cheaper and often much better.
You can expect to pick up a main course for between 200 and 400BHT. Fresh seafood is also on offer along the beach and in some restaurants along main streets, you simply point to what you want in the ice display out the front of the restaurant and they’ll cook it to your liking. Entrees are also a good way to sample more aspects of the menu, but as I discovered all too many times you need to specifically tell your waiters you want your starter to come out first (who would’ve thought?) otherwise you’ll likely find your table suddenly swamped with all your courses all at once and you might faint from the anticipated food coma (exciting as this may be).
Hygiene in some restaurants can be quite off putting, especially along the dirty bustling streets of Phuket, but Thailand isn’t exactly known for stringent occupational health and safety regulations (or any regulations at all for that matter!) and really once your food is cooked it’s usually fine. My biggest tip would be to try something different. I like a good pad thai as much as the next person but you never know what culinary pleasures might await you if you’re willing to be a little adventurous.