If anyone else has experienced this dilemma, I highly recommend a cooking course at SITCA (Samui Institute of Culinary Arts). A day at SITCA will stimulate all the senses. The moment you walk through the door, you experience a ‘sensory overload’. From the exotic aromas wafting from the kitchen, and the smell of sautéing curry paste tingling your nose, to the vibrant colours of an array of chillies, used to prepare the Thai curry pastes, and all inhibitions about cooking with professionals fade away, as you are in awe of your surroundings. Cooking at SITCA is not quiet affair. The sounds of pounding and grinding of ingredients for pastes and marinades, sizzling, chopping and laughter and chatter fill the air. Finally your sense of taste is satisfied, as you enjoy the feast that you have prepared. Students may ask a friend to join them at the end of the course to savour this meal.
SITCA offers two cooking classes a day, Monday to Saturday - one starting at 11:00am, and the other at 4:00pm. Each day the menu is different but you can make your choice from the website, choosing the menu that suits your palette best. The fact that the menu is not the same every day, means that should you enjoy the experience, (which I guarantee you will) you can come back another day, to further your skills in the art of Thai cooking. Besides the daily introductory classes, SITCA offers intensive programmes for professional chefs or experienced cooks. There is the option of a one week or two week course, which takes a hands-on approach, covering all aspects of cuisine, as well as instruction in the techniques involved in Thai cooking.
During my visit to SITCA, I was lucky enough to spend part of my day with a group of professional chefs attending the intensive programme. They hailed from three continents, including Australia, Canada and Chile. These chefs had only the highest praise for owner, Khun Roong, who is the main instructor for this programme. Jimmy Shu, a master chef from Australia who has travelled extensively and has a passion for Asian food, enthusiastically insists that ‘this is the best cooking course he has ever attended’, a powerful statement from someone so respected in the culinary world. Jimmy has a passion for ingredients, as well as a mission to find authentic ingredients back home. He has been known to smuggle fresh produce back into Australia, occasionally being caught at customs – so powerful is his quest, that he is not deterred by this risk. Jimmy took me around the kitchen, showing me ingredients that Khun Roong had purchased for the day. ‘Is this not the best ginger you have ever seen?’ he proclaimed with delight, as he stuck a large fat root of this fragrant spice under my nose. As I was preparing my own curry paste, the professionals kept calling me to ‘taste this’ or ‘smell that’. Their delight was contagious, as they included me in their devotion to all things gastronomic.
Khun Tim was my instructor for the day. She has decades of experience in the hotel industry, before joining SITCA. Khun Tim does not view her role at the cookery school as just another job, but enjoys informing her students about Thai food, imparting valuable information about the ingredients, as well as preparation methods and ways to maximise flavour. So often cookery schools only see their students as numbers, taking their money and pushing them through the system. This is not the case with Khun Roong and Khun Tim. They want their student to understand the methods and why one ingredient is used and not another, why we use one spice for this curry paste, and a different one for another. Khun Tim knows the medicinal advantages of all the herbs and spices she uses in preparation, and shares this knowledge as she demos how to chop, grind and prepare the food.
Each menu includes making a Thai curry paste from scratch. This process in intensely satisfying, as you mix the ingredients, and pound them together into a paste, the heady aromas of spices, herbs and garlic being released into the air as you do so. In Thailand, we are lucky to be able to buy curry pastes at the market, each stall having their own family recipe, and each differing in strength. In saying this, it is great to be able to make your own paste, and the process is surprisingly simple and not at all time consuming. Mix more than you require, and it can be kept for up to a month. Knowing what ingredients go into the paste, makes the enjoyment so much more, and helps you differentiate between the Thai curries available. A newcomer to Thailand seldom knows the difference between a green, red, yellow, Panang, or Massaman curry. Attending a course at SITCA makes one understand what goes into which curry, as well as which curries originate from which region.
My menu for the day included Homemade Yellow Curry Paste, Yellow Curry with Chicken and Potatoes, Glass Noodle Soup with Tofu, and Deep Fried Fish with Turmeric. Students are provided with a booklet of the recipes - theirs to keep and make notes in. They also receive a DVD to take home, with the recipes and photos, demonstrating the steps in the preparation and cooking process.
My day at SITCA was a truly memorable experience, one that I will be reminded of every time I prepare a meal from the recipes learnt. I will definitely be back to expand my skills in Thai cooking, and I recommend it to anyone living or visiting Samui.
Cooking is like love. It should be entered into with abandon or not at all. ~Harriet van Horne, American journalist.
© Rosanne Turner
tel: +66(0)77 – 413172
Classes are twice a day – 11:00am and 4:00pm and the cost is 1950 Baht per person.
For information on the intensive cooking courses, or fruit carving, visit the website.