Learning to Cook Thai Dishes in Phuket

Once upon a time, I was the type of girl who would take the chance to experiment with recipes and host friends with a home-cooked meal. Somehow, after becoming a full-fledged adult with very real adult responsibilities, it seems like when it comes to cooking I’ve had a 180 degree change in attitude towards it. “Ain’t nobody got time for that!”

As life would have it, as long as I reject something, it will throw something my way, with extreme force. I was provided an itinerary for Phuket and one of the activities was attending a half-day Thai Cooking Class at Phuket Thai Cookery School, said to be the original and best cooking school in Phuket. Very well then. It looked like it was time to release the dragon my inner Domestic Goddess.

We would be taught how to prepare three iconic Thai dishes: Khao Niew Mamuang (Mango Sticky Rice), Tom Yum Goong (Thai Hot and Sour Prawn Soup) and Phad Thai (Thai Fried Noodles with Prawns). It just so happens, all three are dishes I love. Then again, what do I not love when it comes to Thai cuisine?

Talat Kaset

Visiting the Morning Market

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Walking to Talat Kaset to pick up fresh ingredients for a Thai meal

Our journey to becoming certified Thai Domestic Goddesses (at least in the cooking department) began with a trip to a nearby morning market in Phuket Town, Talat Kaset, to source for the ingredients required for the three dishes.

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Sala (or Snakefruit), a fruit named for its exterior

Thailand is known for its numerous fresh and tropical fruits.

At Talat Kaset, we spotted exotic ones like Noi Na (Custard Apples), Kaew Mung Korn (Dragon Fruit), Mang Kut (Mangosteen) and Salat (Snakefruit).

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Fresh mangosteens (Queen of Fruits) and limes

Did you know that as lemons are expensive in Thailand as they do not grow in tropical climates and are imported or grown only in the cooler Northern regions. Limes are an alternative and are readily available. As such they are used in many Thai dishes to add a tangy burst of flavour.

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Checking out the custard apples and deep red rambutans from the street side market stall

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Oooh, rambutans (or Ngor as they are called in Thai)

We also came across a variety of dried goods, preserved food, spices, herbs and fresh vegetables.

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Stall owner at the street facing stall selling sprouts, chillies and fresh vegetables

As we explored the market, one of the instructors, Kru Sue, explained each ingredient to us. She spoke in measured tones – deliberately and with clarity.

Occasionally, she would turn to the stall owners and converse with them and thank them for allowing us to stop by. Often, the stall owners were amused and happily allowed us to take photos of them at work. Some even stopped, once they heard the shutter of cameras, and gamely posed for them.

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Dried Fish

While the school could have just skipped the visit to the wet market, the experience of walking through Talat Kaset was something I appreciated. I wouldn’t give it up even if it means a bit more breathing time for us in our packed itineraries.

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Exploring Talat Kaset with our guide

Being able to have a glimpse of a day in the lives of the locals as they tended to their stalls and interacted with their customers, inviting us to snap a photo without inhibition – all that made me feel at ease. Coming from a country that is constantly rushing and connecting less and less, warmth, friendliness and Thai hospitality is something incredibly priceless and refreshing.

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A playful stall vendor plays along and hams it up for the camera

That short fifteen minutes at Talat Kaset left me with a renewed desire to treat everyone with the same kind of warmth and respect. Perhaps, beyond the superficiality of what is normally perceived as “touristy activities”, the inclusion of such a visit was meant to do just that; It was meant to remind us of simpler and beautiful times.

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The view from the open air sheltered kitchen

We were transported back to Phuket Thai Cookery School located by the pristine Siray Beach and dived into our lessons. We had three instructors guide us – one for each dish – each with their own unique personalities. But one thing was for sure, they taught with extreme clarity and at a pace which made absorbing all the various steps and facts easy.

We would attempt to cook both the Tom Yum Goong and Phad Thai in the kitchens behind our classroom. If successful, we would walk away with a little certificate marking our transition from kitchen zeros to kitchen heroes.

Tom Yum Goong

Thai Hot and Sour Prawn Soup

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Tom Yum Goong: Thai Hot and Sour Prawn Soup

Kru Sue taught us to make a delicious, spicy bowl of Tom Yum Goong. Tom Yum is synonymous with Thailand and is known the world over.

Tom means ‘soup’. Yum means ‘mix’ and Goong means ‘spicy salad’. Tom Yum Goong is a Mixed Spicy Salad soup.

She explained that it wasn’t really a “salad” in the way we understood it, but that the soup was a mixture of herbs and ingredients with the fragrance and taste of a fresh spicy salad.

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Kru Sue teaches us how to make a delicious bowl of Tom Yum Goong

She taught us how to prep groups of ingredients together, each step was shared with great care and detail.

The tips went right down to how best to maximise the juice squeezed from lime slices with the blunt edge of a kitchen knife.

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Simple and clear step-by-step demonstrations

You’ll know when to put the prawns in – when you can smell the fragrance of the herbs.

I remember the fragrance of the herbs permeate the classroom and the sizzle of the chicken stock, mushrooms and herb mixture as she brought them to boil in the wok she was using.

It was time. She placed the large prawns gingerly into the wok. As soon as a tinge of pink peeked through, she added in all of the prepared seasoning – the spicy “salad” was in the making.

The last into the wok were the sliced lemongrass stalks just for the flavour, diagonally cut kaffir lime and shallots for only five seconds. The soup was taken off heat and left to cool before she added in the evaporated milk (heat would curdle the milk) and garnished the bowl of Tom Yum Goong with fragrant coriander.

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Hard at wo(r)k

After each class, we were given the opportunity to try out what we had learnt at the open-air kitchen.

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My first and only attempt at cooking a non-instant noodle version of Tom Yum

Phad Thai

Thai Fried Noodles with Prawns

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Phad Thai: Thai Fried Noodles with Prawns

The Tom Yum Goong seemed simple enough, but then came the Phad Thai.

Images of high heat and exposed flames from my experiences with street stall vendors selling this noodle dish came to mind. I wondered how we would be able to control the fire without burning ours!

In came jolly Kru James with his glasses perched low on his nose bridge.

Extremely expressive and humorous, the class immediately took to James who explained he was named James because he came from James Bond island. He too was Bond, James Bond, but 008, not 007. The class broke into peals of laughter and the tone was set.

While Kru Sue was Martha Stewart-like, serious, sincere and detailed, James taught with the entertainment value of a regular cheeky Chef cum host of a prime time cooking show.

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The most expressive instructor at Phuket Thai Cookery School

Phad, he explained, meant ‘stir fry’ and Thai referred to ‘Thai-style’. Phad Thai was thus a Thai-style stir fried noodle. He too pointed out that Phad Thai was a challenging dish and for the uninitiated or careless, it would be easy to burn our ingredients.

Despite this being a tough dish to cook, he knew how to keep everyone on the edge of their seats and has us paying attention. Hardly a step went by without him cracking a joke and trust me, it was always a knee slapping, table banging kind of funny. Boy, was he animated!

You must dance! Sing as you cook! Happy! Smile! Then taste good!

James reminded us of the importance of wearing a smile while cooking, no matter how confused we might get as we attempted the dish.

Ah! The simple truth of life. Do everything with a smile, enjoyment and an open heart and the results will always be good.

Khob Khun Kaa, Kru James.

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Instructor James Bond (008) is jolly and creates a light-hearted experience for students

With great confidence, James wriggled and shook his body as he demonstrated how to cook Phad Thai. No one was more qualified to teach us how to have fun than this seasoned veteran.

He advised us to keep the fire at low to medium heat – a sweet spot in between. The high heat wasn’t necessary. The street stall owners only did so because they know by the smell of the noodles and ingredients moments before it gets burnt and they can pull it quickly away from heat to cool before continuing. As beginners, we would have no such experience and knowledge to avoid a catastrophic burnt plate of phad thai if we tried to emulate them. To get that smoky flavour (or in Singapore we say ‘wok hei’), just as the noodles are ready to be served, turn the heat right up and then switch the flame off.

Ending his class, James was sure to crack yet another endearing joke to emphasize on how much Thais loved Phad Thai. He did so with such comedic timing.

If no phad thai in Thailand, all population in Thailand… DEAD!

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Ingredients for cooking Phad Thai

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Forgot to take a photo of my own – this one is Jamie’s Phad Thai

For both the Tom Yum Goong and Phad Thai, I was guided by Tarn, my tour guide, who obviously cooks a lot more than me.

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Tarn, our Phuket tour guide

She was so patient and helpful as I looked at her quizzically whenever I got stressed about the steps! Thanks to her, I managed to whip up a pretty decent meal for myself!

Khao Niew Mamuang

Mango Sticky Rice

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Khao Niew Mamuang: Mango Sticky Rice

We didn’t have a hands-on cooking experience with the Khao Niew Mamuang or Mango Sticky Rice, a timeless Thai dessert. While not difficult, it required at least five hours or prep work. It requires the soaking and steaming of the sticky rice as well as a bit of stirring and mixing of the coconut cream, sugar and salt.

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Kru Get explaining how to make the best Khao Niew Mamuang (Mango Sticky Rice)

Kru Get taught us the difference between regular Jasmine Rice and sticky rice grains as well as the significance of Mango Sticky Rice to the local Thais.

Starchy sticky rice can be paired with any fruit if ripe sweet mangoes are not to your liking. Most Thais also pair it with fruits like pungent and delicious jackfruit and durian and drizzle it with chocolate sauce. Aside from spiciness, Thais absolutely love sweetness in their food – the sweeter the better.

You can have sticky rice with anything – mangoes, jackfruit, even durian.

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Kru James, Kru Sue and Kru Get

While we only learnt to cook three dishes and tried our hand at a hands-on session for two, the regular classes held six days a week (everyday except Wednesday) from 8:00am to 3:00pm includes:

  • Demonstrations and hands-on cooking for five dishes
  • Full colour recipe cards
  • Bottled water, tea and coffee
  • Lunch (come without breakfast)
  • Certificate of Achievement
  • A roundtrip transfer to your accommodation (excludes Nai Thon, Nai Yang and Mai Khao Beach)

The cost of the comprehensive cooking class is 2,900฿ and a rotation of dishes are taught on different days of the week.

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Recipe cards

Recipe cards are also available and sold at the Phuket Thai Cookery School if you’re keen to uncover more than just five recipes taught during class.

The cooking class was exceptional. While not something I’d typically do when I visit Phuket, I did have a different kind of fun from the whole usual beach activities and tourist destinations.

Phuket Thai Cookery School
39/4 Thepatan Road, Rassada, Muang,
Phuket 83000, Thailand

Open daily except on Wednesday. Reservations required.

About 84 Perspectives of Thailand

84 international journalists, bloggers and photographers were flown to Thailand to experience the best of Thai culture and learn more about the Royal Projects inspired by Her Majesty Queen Sirikit in Northern, Southern, Northeastern and Central regions.

Organised in the month of August when Her Majesty Queen Sirikit celebrates her 84th birthday, 84 Perspectives of Thailand is part of the Women’s Journey Thailand campaign by Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) to encourage women travellers to visit the Kingdom of Thailand.

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