Do Thai food like the locals
GLOSS THE RECORD - Marbbie C. Tagabucba (The Philippine Star) - March 9, 2017 - 12:00am

There are no pad Thais in “Thailand on My Plate,” the two-part launch of the return of The Peninsula Academy’s cooking classes.

Now, don’t get me wrong: I love my pad Thai, but to profess to loving Thai food without a grasp of anything else is just as sweeping as claiming to love Filipino food, for all its regional diversity, while not looking beyond adobo.

But what most denounce about Thai food is correct: it is spicy, but it’s more than just heat. I learned in Phuket that the variation is that the farther south you go, the more acidic the spiciness gets. Thai food isn’t simply spicy.

“Sour, sweet, salty, too,” affirms The Peninsula Manila Spices’ Thai specialty chef Phaithoon Atthasarn, who hails from the north, from Chiang Mai. “Balance. It is all four.”

Atthasarn will helm the class on March 17.

This year there will be four classes, with Filipino cuisine coming up next followed by French, progressing by each cuisine’s degree of technicality.

Atthasarn appears meek, and this is where first impressions fail us. During the class, he is full of life, yet even while eliciting giggles, he remains serious. His English isn’t perfect but he is able to answer every question thoughtfully while cooking.

 We start with the som tam marako (spicy green papaya salad), Northern Thailand’s flagship dish, which is a salad of grated strips of green papaya that gets its distinction from being a tam — a dish where ingredients are pounded to release and combine the extracts of its ingredients. He uses a wooden mortar and pestle so the ingredients stay crisp.

“You can toss it with your hands in a salad bowl,” he offers, and then debunks the recipe order and begins, not with the dressing of lime juice, fish sauce, and palm sugar, but with garlic and chili. “This is how we do it.”

He explains, “Technique is what comes from the person. I can give to my partner the recipe, but how he will do it will be different because it is his technique. It’s not wrong. Today, I am showing you the standard.”

“Medium-spicy is usually five chilies,” he shares, and so, instead of the recommended three in the ingredients list, I put in five. It can have as much as 10 or 15. But it’s nothing compared to what they have in cooler, rustic Chiang Mai, where that ratio is simply “satisfying.” On a trip there years ago, crunchy red peppers were offered as nibbles. I’ve learned that chewing slowly allows you to get past the heat and into the three key flavors. It is a special case of where the labor translates into the joy of eating because you do not wolf it all down when it’s a som tam. There are textures to chew on, each herb and spice revealing itself.

“We don’t eat to get full but to get alive,” Atthasarn tells me.

The main dish is Penang goong (dried Penang curry with prawn and kaffir lime leaves), which brings us back to Atthasarn’s kitchen as a child where he learned how to cook by his mother’s side. It wasn’t long until he jumped into the heat of a restaurant kitchen when he turned 16, without any relatives, friends, or knowledge of the workings of the industry whatsoever, only a curiosity.

Atthasarn’s mother hails from Bangkok, where the take on Thai food is the most familiar. If you go to a Thai restaurant elsewhere in the world, its offerings are usually approximations of Bangkok’s rich curries (“red is the least spicy, green is the spiciest,” he says) influenced by Muslim immigrants as well as Bangkok’s royal court and Chinese-influenced stir fries like the abovementioned crowd favorite, pad Thai, ubiquitous even in the streets.

“What I am teaching you all came from my mother and my own experiences,” he says. He admits to having cheated on his curry, going for a shortcut whenever he makes it for himself by using a readymade blend from the market or tossing all ingredients into a food processor. In the recipe you receive during the class, you’re supposed to already have a tablespoon of dried Penang curry. But that won’t fly with his mother.

He takes out a stone mortar and pestle and adds sliced red chilies soaked overnight. “If you are in a hurry, soak them in freshly boiled water,” he recommends. He bruises them in the mortar and adds chopped coriander, onion, and curry, pounding them all together until the mixture turns into a paste. In this phase, you can only smell the pungency of coriander and onion. But when he scoops it out and into a heated saucepan, adds coconut milk, brings it to a simmer, adds prawns, you can then smell the curry, its full-bodied aroma enveloping the entire room as he seasons it with fish sauce, palm sugar, more chilies, sweet basil, peanuts, and kaffir lime leaves. We all agree we’re ready for the family-style dinner al fresco in Spices’ garden where we can savor the curry with rice.

For dessert, he shows us how he steams the sticky rice in khao niew ma-muong (ripened mango topped on sticky rice) with pandan leaves.

“It’s mostly for the smell,” he says, “but smell is part of why it’s delicious.” He continues customizing accordingly, using a coconut milk with the consistency of a cream and cooking the pandan leaves in it. This is Atthasarn’s technique.

Knowing the work that goes into each dish only increases my appreciation. And when I find myself craving for a som tam marako in a few days, I will have to test out my technique based on my inspiration. Or I’ll drop by Spices.

* * *

The Peninsula Academy Thai cooking class “Thailand on my Plate” is on March 17, 3 p.m. to 5 p.m., followed by a traditional Thai-style family dinner in Spices, The Peninsula Academy apron, and a special gift for P2,017 net per person, or skip to dinner “Under the Stars” every Friday and Saturday from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. and enjoy a selection of satay and a live som tam station in Spices Garden. Call, 887-2888 extension 6694 (Restaurant Reservations), email, or visit for inquiries.

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