Thai Things Of Great Joy Curry And Coconut, Garlic And Ginger, Prawns And Peppercorns . . . Chalie Amatyakul Mixes Lore With Lessons In His Bangkok Cooking School.

Posted: April 02, 1989

BANGKOK — The milkman was late - the coconut milkman, that is - and speculation was that he and his precious load were trapped in Bangkok's choking morning-rush- hour traffic.

Chalie Amatyakul, dressed all in white as usual, threw up his hands and leaned on a counter, where herbs and other ingredients - lemongrass, three kinds of fragrant basil, fresh peppercorns, little green chilies called prig khee nu and red chilies, among others - sat in small glass bowls. Behind him, in the demonstration kitchen of the Thai Cooking School of the Oriental Hotel, bronze woks were being shined and placed on burners. Brick-red clay soup pots were placed alongside them. A pile of freshly caught prawns was being rinsed in a straw strainer.

"We can't go on until the milkman comes," said Chalie, for whom, like other Thais, it is superfluous to use the word coconut when referring to milk. Thai cooking uses virtually no dairy products, but the milk of the coconut, maprow, is an essential ingredient in many of its curries, soups, desserts and other dishes.

So Chalie waited, fielding questions from the 10 or so foreigners seated on stools before him. For most, it was their second morning of classes, the second day they had been enthralled by Chalie's explanations of Thai cooking lore and demonstrations of its techniques with mortar and pestle, wok and carved ladles, banana leaves, rice and nam pla, or fish sauce.

"How do you get thick coconut cream when you must buy it in a can?" they asked.

"How do you extract tamarind water from its pulp?"

"Show us how to tie long green beans into decorative knots."

The students that week - hailing from the United States, Singapore, Australia and Canada - also wanted to know something about Chalie and a bit more history of the school, for which each was paying about $70 a day for three hours of instruction.

The school, which is in a teak-and-tropical-plant paradise of a classroom across the Chao Phraya River, reachable by ferry from the Oriental Hotel, held its first classes in June 1986. It is the only Thai cooking school in Thailand that conducts its classes in English.

As Chalie tells it, Kurt Wachtveitl, the hotel's general manager, asked him to develop a cooking school. Its goal was to draw people to the Oriental, already considered among the best hotels in the world.

"It was also conceived as a kind of promotion for the country. We thought that sightseeing and sex should not be enough," Chalie, 46, said, referring to Bangkok's elaborate temples called wats and to the well-known and available nightlife, among other attractions. "Another 's' was needed - something for the stomach."

Wachtveitl, through a spokeswoman, said he thought "a cooking school could bring cooking professionals and travelers who love all kinds of cooking to Thailand and show them that Thai cuisine is more than what they get in cheap restaurants around the world."

But the birth of the Thai cooking classes at the Oriental also recognized a trend, especially in the United States in the last decade, toward blending the ingredients and methods of Thai cooking with other cuisines, notably French. Philadelphia restaurant fans are familiar with that phenomenon.

The school's birth coincided with a proliferation of Thai restaurants in many American cities, producing Thai-food junkies who crave a dish of pad Thai (fried noodles) every few days.

Chalie estimates that every year about 500 people take at least one class at the school and, of those, 200 take the entire package of five three-hour classes. Some of those 200 take the course and spend the week at the Oriental as a package deal.

That plan offers a series of special meals at the hotel and around Bangkok, as well as several tours. It costs about $1,500. While many people come specifically to take Chalie's classes, others squeeze a class or two into business or tourist trips.

Joyce Jue of San Francisco, an Asian food consultant and organizer of food tours, brought Chalie one of his first groups of students, among them an 82- year-old man. "The school was good then, and it has gotten better," Jue said.

While many cooking courses around the world describe themselves as "hands- on" and are deemed more worthwhile by potential students, Chalie shuns the notion.

"I attended a class once at a famous cooking school, and all I did was peel carrots and potatoes. I paid them for that," he said. Besides, he believes that people want to learn how to do something rather than watch fellow students bumble around figuring out what they are doing wrong.

Those who are food professionals - about 80 percent of those enrolled - already know how to dice and peel and are more interested in having techniques demonstrated. For some others who come and concede that they don't cook much themselves, "it's in appreciation of a kind of art," he said.

The full five-day course is divided into categories. Monday offers an introduction to ingredients, herbs and spices as well as the preparation of several dishes that could be served as appetizers. The week proceeds with

sections on soups, curries, stir-fries and desserts.

Chalie speaks English impeccably and with wit. He begins each session at a blackboard, explaining food history, ingredients and theory. Then students move to a room where a slanted mirror hanging above a marble countertop allows students to view his chopping and mixing. He and Sarnsern Gajaseni, the school's manager who occasionally teaches, are generous with tips and tricks of Thai cooking.

One day, for example, as he explained how to extract coconut milk from fresh pulp (by kneading it in hot water), Chalie warned students not to throw away the mashed pulp. "Save it and dry it in the oven," he said. "Then

throw it on your next barbecue, right on the coals. It adds flavor."

Next, it's off to the kitchen, where the ingredients are put to the fire. Here a little participation is involved, with students - often clumsily and frequently giggling - helping to meld the curry paste with the boiling coconut cream in a wok, or making an egg nest by dipping their hands into a bowl of beaten egg, then waving them over a skillet.

At the end of each class, the food is set out, complete with Thai carved vegetables and fruit garnishes, in a nearby open-air parlor. The parlor is next to the hotel's Sala Rim Naam, a restaurant featuring Thai dancing, with its graceful movements and elaborate jeweled costumes, and food for 200 tourists every night.

The food does not survive long in its beautiful form or setting. Within 15 minutes, the students finish off the colorful yam polamai (fruit salad); tom klohng golong pow (spiced soup of grilled prawns), or gaeng kua golong (curried pineapple and prawns).

Every October, Chalie changes the roster of recipes he produces in class, making it possible for a Thai food fanatic to return every year for a new class. But Chalie's goal is to give students, especially those who know their way around a kitchen, the fundamentals of Thai ingredients and methods so that they can cook authentic Thai food at home.

The success of the school in just two years has brought Chalie in touch with famous chefs the world over. But even though Chalie can hobnob with them, he is new to their world. He has no formal training in cooking. Born and reared in Bangkok, Chalie learned how to cook from his mother and from years of puttering in the kitchen and entertaining friends.

He got his degree in political science in Bangkok and has worked for the Oriental Hotel on and off for about a dozen years. During one five-year period, he traveled through the United States, "selling the hotel."

He has lived in France and Austria, among other countries, and speaks Thai, English, French and German, in, he said, that order of proficiency.

Chalie considers both the cooking school and Sala Rim Naam his babies. He developed and directs both. He also directs the chefs of Terrace Rim Naam, the open-air restaurant on the same site. That a la carte restaurant offers foods

from the 73 provinces of Thailand.

The recipes used by the Thai Cooking School at the Oriental's two restaurants across the river are traditional ones, handed down over centuries. They are Chalie's in the sense that he has revised them for modern use. And even though he says that Thai cooking was "nouvelle" cooking before the phrase came into vogue, Chalie declines to call his cooking, or that of the restaurants he supervises, anything but traditional Thai cooking.

"Here, we like to call a spade a spade." Mentioning one popular restaurant in Bangkok, Chalie criticized its cooking because "they add sweetness when sweetness is not required, daintiness when daintiness is not required" and use fancy names for plain things.

Wachtveitl, who had the hunch that a cooking school would work in conjunction with the hotel, said Chalie's skills and personality were a key reason students leave feeling that it was worth the cost.

"Chalie made it famous. He is a very cultured person. Thai cooking is not just cooking. It is Thai culture, Thai way of life, Thai tradition. There is that thread running through Chalie's entire program."

*

Chalie would like to get a few basic things about Thai cooking through people's heads. The first and most important is that all Thai food is not spicy. Rather, there should always be harmony in a dish. It should be a subtle blending of five flavors: sweetness, sourness, spiciness, herbalness and saltiness.

Chalie said, for example, that in a curry dish that uses coconut cream, the sharpness of the chilies and the spices must be toned down by the sweetness of coconut cream, which also enhances the taste of the salty fish sauce.

There are three basic categories of Thai food: The first is city food, with more refined flavors, not too spicy, and with coconut milk added to some of its regional foods.

This regional cooking is the second category. It is strong and gutsy, its curries are not smoothed by coconut milk, and its curry pastes are vibrant.

The third category, popular Thai cooking, is what its name suggests: city and regional styles adjusted to suit the masses. "It is what you get in most Thai restaurants," Chalie said.

Thai food characteristically is never served in large pieces. Rarely does one see chunks of meat, "except lately . . . some people love to see what they pay for," he said. "But otherwise, our meats will always be chunked up small, minced, shredded . . . "

The reasons have to do with aesthetics, speed (larger pieces take longer to cook) and economics (there are many mouths to feed in Thai families).

Also, the proper way to eat Thai food is with a fork and soup spoon, using the fork to push the food onto the spoon. But those utensils came into the country only around the turn of the century.

Before that, and still throughout the country, the fingers were used to scoop rice and accompaniments into the mouth.

Chalie said Thai cooking has been influenced over the years by several groups: the natives of Thailand, who gave it aquatic animals, grains and vegetables; Indians, who gave it spices and large animals; the Chinese, who lent their methods of stir-fry cooking, deep-frying and farming; the French with their egg custards and baking methods; the Dutch with their pickling and smoking methods, and the Japanese with their hot soups.

It may come as a surprise to many that chilies, although a major ingredient in Thai cooking, were not brought to Thailand until in 1640s by the Portuguese.

As with all Asian cuisines, Thai cooking has flavor combinations that make it distinguishable from others.

Chalie said the key ingredients characteristic to Thai cooking are peppercorns, garlic, coriander, chilies, shallots, lemongrass and galangal (gingerlike root); fish sauce and shrimp paste; coconut milk; and basil, ginger and tamarind.

An elaborate Thai meal would consist of khow (cooked rice); gaeng jued (soup); gaeng ped (curry); krueang kiang (condiments or side dishes); a steamed, fried, stir-fried or grilled dish; yaam (an herbed or spiced salad); khong waan (desserts), and polamai (fruits).

Chalie suggests studying a Thai cookbook and experimenting with a few dishes to learn the proper ways to, say, incorporate a curry paste with coconut milk in a wok, and to get to know Thai ingredients.

This is one of Chalie's recipes. Any of these fruits can be eliminated, and other fruits may be substituted. But don't use juicy fruits or those that produce juice as they sit. Try to use crisp, crunchy fresh fruits instead. Also increase or reduce the amount of lime juice, depending upon the tartness of the fruits you choose.

YAAM POLAMAI

(HERBED SALAD OF FRESH FRUITS)

1 teaspoon sugar

1 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons lime juice

1/2 cup boiled, shredded shrimp (optional)

1/2 cup cooked shredded chicken-breast meat (optional)

2 tablespoons sliced, crisp-fried garlic

2 tablespoons sliced, crisp-fried shallots

2 tablespoons sliced, crisp-fried peanuts or almond slivers

2 tablespoons shredded red chilies, or to taste

1/2 cup grapes, green and red, halved or quartered, pitted if necessary

1/2 cup orange, lightly shredded, seeds removed

1/2 cup diced apple

1/2 cup diced water chestnuts or jicima

1/2 cup diced or halved strawberries

1/2 cup sliced litchis

Coriander leaves, for garnish

Dissolve sugar and salt in lime juice. Add shrimp and chicken, if desired, and stir well. Stir in one tablespoon each of the garlic, shallots, peanuts and red chilies, saving the remaining tablespoon of each for garnishing.

Add grapes, orange, apple, water chestnuts, strawberries and litchis; fold in gently, taking care not to damage the fruit. Sprinkle reserved garlic, shallots, peanuts and red chilies on top before serving. Garnish with coriander leaves. Serve in hollowed-out orange halves. Makes four servings, about one cup each.

The next two recipes are similar to those cooked by Chalie, but these versions are more readily prepared in an American home kitchen. They are adapted from The Complete Asian Cookbook by Charmaine Solomon (McGraw-Hill).

KUNG TOM YAM

(PRAWN SOUP)

2 pounds raw prawns or large shrimp

1 tablespoon oil

8 cups hot water

1 1/2 teaspoons salt

2 stalks lemongrass or 4 strips lemon rind, thinly peeled

4 lemon or other citrus leaves

2 or 3 fresh whole chilies

1 tablespoon fish sauce (nam pla)

2 tablespoons lemon juice, or to taste

1 fresh red chili, seeded and sliced

2 tablespoons chopped coriander leaves

4 scallions, with green tops, chopped

Shell and devein the prawns, and drain thoroughly. Heat oil in a saucepan, and fry shells until they turn pink. Add hot water, salt, lemongrass or lemon rind, citrus leaves and whole chilies. Bring to the boil, cover, and simmer for 20 minutes.

Strain stock, return to the boil, add prawns, and simmer three to four minutes, or until prawns are cooked. Add fish sauce and lemon juice. This soup should have a pronounced acidic flavor, so add sufficient lemon juice to achieve this.

Serve in a large tureen or in soup bowls, and sprinkle with sliced chili, chopped coriander leaves and scallions. Makes six servings.

MEE KROB

(CRISP-FRIED VERMICELLI)

12 dried Chinese mushrooms

1/2 cup dried cloud-ear fungus

1 pound pork filet

1 whole chicken breast

1 pound raw large shrimp

12 scallions

12 green beans

Vegetable oil, for frying

3 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 onion, finely chopped

1/4 cup soy sauce

1 tablespoon sugar

1/4 cup rice vinegar

3 tablespoons fish sauce

1 teaspoon ground chilies

8 ounces rice vermicelli

1/4 cup chopped fresh coriander leaves

Soak the dried mushrooms and fungus separately in hot water for 20 minutes. Squeeze out the excess water, remove, discard the mushrooms stems and slice the caps. Wash the fungus well, removing any grit, and cut into bite-size pieces.

Shred the pork finely. Bone, skin and shred the chicken breast. Shell and devein the shrimp, and cut them into large pieces. Cut the scallions into two- inch lengths. String the beans, and cut them into thin, diagonal slices.

Heat three tablespoons of oil in a wok, and fry the garlic and onion for three minutes; when they begin to color, add the pork and mushrooms, and fry for eight minutes, stirring constantly.

Add the chicken and shrimp, and continue to stir-fry until they change color and are cooked. Add the scallions, beans and fungus, and fry for one minute.

Mix the soy sauce, sugar, vinegar, fish sauce and chilies together, add to the pan, and stir for two minutes. Turn off heat.

In a separate wok, heat a large amount of oil, and fry the rice vermicelli in handfuls (do not soak; use the vermicelli straight from the packet). The oil should be very hot so the vermicelli puffs and swells immediately. If this does not happen, it will be tough and difficult to eat, so test the heat of the oil with a little vermicelli first. Turn the vermicelli and fry the other side. Lift out, and drain on absorbent paper.

Reserve some of the fried vermicelli to garnish the top of the dish. Add the rest to the pan containing the other ingredients, toss everything together and serve immediately, sprinkled with the chopped fresh coriander leaves. Makes six to eight servings.

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