Saturday, June 8, 2013

Travel Essay Contest -- Entry 5

I Must Be Off! is having its first annual Travel Essay Contest. Each entry will appear at first without byline or bio. These will be added at the end of the contest. As you enjoy these travel essays from around the world, please feel free to comment; but if you offer criticism, remember to be positive. These writers are my guests.


What’s Cooking?
by Alyson Hilbourne

            “Is this your first visit to Thailand?” one of the other students asks.
            “Er, no, we live here,” I reply, a little sheepishly.
            “And you are learning to cook?” Her voice rises alarmingly.
            I shrug. It is hard to explain that even though we live in Bangkok, we work, shop, do the laundry just like anyone else, and a cooking course comes low down on priorities until we are about to leave the country.
            “Will we find Thai food in Japan?” My husband asks, so we enrol for a morning cooking class on the island of Koh Lanta where we are staying for the holiday.
Our teacher, Khun Chien asks the group to vote on four of ten recipe choices. I root for chicken and cashew nuts to be one of the options selected but it is not to be.
As we all stand around a long table Khun Chien introduces us to some of the ingredients. He holds up a lime.
“Used for shampoo,” he smiles. “Lemon grass. Used for soups, stews, getting rid of mosquitoes and to make tea. Tea very good for stomach ache if you don’t cook so good.” His smile is even boarder.
I must remember that one.
We start by chopping all the ingredients we need for the dishes.  Hefty chunks of wood serve as boards and we are armed with large choppers.
Each ingredient has to be used in a certain way. Kaffir lime leaves need tearing not cutting. We learn that bean sprouts need the root picking off. The way to tell a good restaurant is to check whether the end has been removed. My kitchen will not be in any Michelin Guide – I gave up the tedious removal of roots half way through my handful of sprouts.
“Why you no cut like I show you?” Khun Chien is standing at my shoulder as I try to steady an awkward little red chilli, which keeps rolling away from me. “Leave the stalk and cut down the middle.” He has obviously taught incompetents before. My husband and twenty-year old son give me withering looks. I am embarrassing them.
We each pile up four baskets with the selected chopped ingredients. Then we are allowed to cook. First up is Tom Yam Talay, a spicy clear seafood soup. Khun Chien rushes from one to the next of us checking we are adding the ingredients in correct order. He hovers near me. He has me pegged. The soup takes just a few minutes and is absolutely delicious. I am overwhelmed with my success.
We work in groups to make green curry paste. Our ingredients are tossed in a large rock mortar and we take turns to grind it with the pestle. I am not the only one muttering about the benefits of electric blenders. I quickly leave the job to the teenagers. I notice as we cook the next dish the cookery school staff rush about giving our green pastes an extra working.
Next is Phad Thai, a perennial favourite. Heat the oil, add an egg and then the noodles.
“Lower down the heat,” Khun Chien gallops round the gas rings turning down the flames to a moderate heat. We add soy sauce, fish sauce, sugar and vegetables. Is it my imagination or is he checking my every move?
The Phad Thai tastes just like it would in a restaurant. I click my chopsticks together on the plate in satisfaction.
            Our final dish, Gaeng Kiew Wahn Gai, green chicken curry is ridiculously simple to cook. I’m left wondering why I haven’t made it before.   The course was fun. The food was excellent. Have I made any of the dishes since moving to Japan? Not yet. Eating out in Thailand is the best excuse for a holiday. I see no reason to spoil it.


Alyson Hilbourne has been published in several short story anthologies and has had expat pieces published by The Oldie magazine in the UK. A British citizen she currently lives in Japan but visits Thailand regularly, especially to enjoy the food. She is a member of Writers Abroad writing group.