Samui Wining & Dining
Master Class

Learning the secrets of cooking Thai vegetarian dishes at Amala Restaurant.

 

2I’ll make you a bet. I’ll wager that there’s a Thai cooking class on offer where you’re staying. A few years ago you really had to hunt around if you wanted to learn to cook Thai. But today Thai cuisine has swept around the globe to challenge the Japanese for the title of the ‘most popular food in the world’. And now just about every resort on Samui presents its own Thai cooking class.


But what you probably don’t realise is that they are all open to the public – to you – and you’ll be warmly welcomed as an outside guest. The other thing to know is that each class is different. Some cover lots of different dishes, some include a trip to the market, some are set in spectacular locations and some cost more than others. And a few are just non-stop fun from start to finish. But one stands out. There are very few vegetarian restaurants on Samui, one of them being at Prana Resorts & Spa, over in Bang Rak. And this month’s review features a vegetarian Thai cooking class at their signature Amala Restaurant.


This class is unusual in more respects than one. In 99% of cooking classes the resident Western executive chef hands over the reins to one of his Thai kitchen brigade. But not here. Here the man in charge is Englishman Jonny Goodall. And his résumé reads not unlike that of a Victorian explorer. If there was such a thing as a ‘Galloping Gourmet’ back in the golden days of the Empire, then Jonny would have been it. He’s explored and studied the shades of difference between Persian, Pakistani and Punjabi cuisines, followed the Spice Trail, travelled extensively throughout Asia and the Middle East, run a Persian restaurant in London, has made TV shows and is writing a book. And he’s also a trained and qualified teacher as well as a fanatical foodie. And so wrapping-up his encyclopaedic technical knowledge with his ability to put it all across means that this class is different – to say the least.


As with all classes, you’ll need to have been in contact and made a booking beforehand – in this case at least two days in advance; Johnny and his team prepare each class thoroughly and in minute detail. But, even at this stage, you might notice another variation from the ‘norm’. The usual approach is to give the customer a wide choice of dishes to pick from. But here the stress is equally on just how to create Thai food on a vegetarian basis. As a result, there are fewer dishes offered but there’s an entire treasure trove of information on hand on how to ‘veggie it all up’. Taking notes is a must!


The session begins at 9:00 am in the laid-back scrubbed-concrete and natural-fabric surroundings of Amala. You’ll get to chat with the effusive Jonny and enjoy a light breakfast before he whisks you off to the market in Bo Phut. If you’ve never experienced a local Thai market before you’ll be impressed – in several senses of the word! But Jonny will not only advise you on the herbs and vegetables you’ll need but have fun showing you some bartering tips, too. Oh, and definitely bring a camera along!


And when you return you’ll be further impressed: the location for the class here is idyllic, with a sweeping view over the arc of the entire Bangrak Bay and with the landmark golden statue of Big Buddha reflecting across the water. The setting is pristine: white tables with white cloths, bedecked with colourful fruit carvings and with the cooking stations already prepared with the ingredients you’re going to need. By this time it’s around 10:30 am and the class launches off by examining the core of Thai cuisine, the curry paste(s) and how to make a veggie version.


I’d better point out at this stage that the philosophy at Amala is based on the lacto-ovo approach, allowing the use of eggs and dairy products. And Jonny will spend some time explaining his research on how to avoid using one of the main curry paste ingredients, kapi, the concentrated shrimp paste extract. (If you’re wondering, it involves adding a soy sauce, playing around with coriander and cumin and increasing the garlic and/or vinegar balance.) But he’s not done yet! Another staple of Thai cuisine is the ever-present fish sauce (nam pla). And he’ll present you with four different varieties of soy sauce, ranging from sugar-sweet to stingingly-salty, and invite you to blend and taste them until you find your personal preference. And then it’s straight into making the first dish, the vegetarian Thai green curry.


Jonny is a natural teacher. He’ll demonstrate what to do a step at a time, gently amending any difficulties on your part and coming out with a non-stop stream of hints and tips, such as: what the difference is between crushing or slicing the garlic; why different ingredients are chopped to certain sizes or grated instead; even how to put a napkin under your chopping board so it doesn’t shift about. And, by the time you’ve added the cauliflower, broccoli, mange-tout, asparagus, carrots, cherry tomatoes and beans, you’ll realise that there’s really no need at all for meat in a Thai curry!


The same informative approach applies to the other dishes, too and you’ll probably be making a spicy salad (yum woon set het) and a fried noodle dish (rad na), too, although if you’d prefer something different then it’s open to negotiation.


It all starts to wind up at around 1:00 pm, but there’s yet more to come. You’ll be presented with a professional certificate of achievement, a DVD of full-length videos of Jonny’s cooking classes, a booklet of Thai ingredients and recipes plus a CD of photos of you in action during the class. And for just 2,000 baht a head it’s not only a unique approach to creating Thai cuisine but also great value-for-money.


Jonny is also running two other classes which, in this context, might be of interest, but are more specialised and not for beginners. Contact him to discuss the ‘Asian Curry’ or the advanced ‘3-Chef’s Table Menu’ classes; the latter being an insight on how to make some of the signature dishes featured at Amala.


There are now a hundred-and-one Thai cookery classes on Samui but this one stands out. It’s one of the few that are vegetarian and, combined with the expertise of masterchef Jonny, is in a class all of its own and comes highly recommended!

 


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