Last week, I knocked off work early and spent a few hours with my dear friend Stacey chopping and stirring in a cooking class at Thai Fresh. It’s one of those only-in-Austin places that’s an authentic Thai restaurant attached to Thrice, a super cozy coffee-and-wine bar with wireless and live music (because every coffee and/or wine bar in Austin is pretty much required to have live music). In addition to serving generous portions of lovingly made Thai food, courtesy of the chef/instructor Jam, the space also offers cooking classes three days a week and includes a neat little shopping area stocked with essential Thai ingredients.
First, feast your eyes on the photos of our happy, curry-and-pad-thai-making adventures, then I’ll share the things I learned while smelling galangal and lemongrass at Thai Fresh. (Apologies in advance to Jam and to you for the photos. My pro photog Dave wasn’t there with his mad skills and sexy camera to capture beautiful photographs. It was just me, with my iPhone, so… yeah. I did my best.)
This is Thai Fresh. There are wonderful smells and scrumptious meals inside those doors.
This is Stacey and me. She was my favorite partner in crime at the Corporate Overlords, and every time I see her, I want to squeeze her ’til her guts come out. We played “You Know How You Could Do That?” many times while eating lunch together in the break room at work, and along with my mom and dad, she is my most trusted recipe tester. It was badass to be reunited with her over a hot plate and skillet; we might have been whispering to each other while the teacher was talking. Maybe.
That’s Jam on the right, along with a few other students. She was funny, smart, and showed us some insider tips on making Thai food that you just don’t find when you read most recipe blogs and cookbooks. Her technique instructions have inspired me to share more of the how of my recipes, in addition to the what. Jam has a blog packed with Thai recipes that I recommend you visit for tasty ideas.
The first dish we made was coconut chicken soup. This Thai menu classic is flavored with Thai chiles, fish sauce, lime juice, lemongrass, and galangal. As it turns out, galangal is a member of the ginger family, but there’s a substantial difference between galangal and ginger. On-the-fly cooking usually means the substitution of ginger in home kitchens, but that’s why the soup in a Thai restaurant tastes ever so much better than the home version. From now on, it’s galangal for me, or no soup. Jam also showed us how to cut and bruise galangal and lemongrass so they release their exotic flavors and aromas into the pot.
For the record, this wine was perfect for eating Thai food on a summery day: light, just a little sweet, but still crisp. Also: pink.
Next up was red curry, and Jam gave us the low-down on the best ingredients. She’s committed to using fresh, high-quality ingredients with a minimum of preservatives and added junk. She recommends Aroy-D coconut milk because it contains no preservatives, and Maesri Red Curry Paste. (Both of these products are available from Amazon, so if you can’t find them locally, there’s always internet magic. Just follow those links.)
When the red curry was done, there was a flurry of additional cooking before we ate again. We stirred up some pad thai, and my theory about the allure of that noodle dish was confirmed. You know why the pad thai in a restaurant tastes so freakin’ good? It includes three versions of sugar: palm sugar, white sugar, and tamarind. Oh, sweet, sweet poison! I
love hate accept you.
Jam also showed us how she steams glutinous rice to make the heavenliest dessert in the world: sticky rice with coconut cream and mango.
Then we loaded up our plates with the food we made and set about congratulating ourselves on its deliciousness. The photo of my plate in no way does justice to how good the food tasted. (The reason it looks all soupy is that I didn’t take too much steamed rice from the buffet, but I wanted that luscious red curry sauce — of which I managed to slurp every drop.)
What I Learned At My Thai Cooking Class
1. A hands-on class is really fun.
This was my first hands-on cooking class (except for all the times I cooked at the side of my dad and mom), and I’m looking forward to more. The stories and insider tips, along with seeing how a seasoned pro does something, was really beneficial, and I feel like it lit up parts of my brain that were sitting stagnant. It’s also a wonderful way to spend time with friends and enjoy a pretty cool shared experience.
2. I only think I miss authentic pad thai.
The pad thai we made was delicious, no doubt about it. But my tastes have changed in the three years that I’ve been eating paleo. The coconut soup and red curry were definitely more to my liking because they were silky and succulent, but not too sweet. My Paleo Pad Thai recipe isn’t authentic, but it’s close enough for me — and when I want authentic Thai food, I’ll stick to the paleo-friendly options like curries and soups, without the added sugar.
3. Wine + pad thai is not conducive to quality sleep.
I woke up at 2:30 a.m., wide awake and feeling kind of amped. Oh, paleo! You have ruined me for indulging in too many treats. Lesson learned: wine or sugary food once in a while, but not both. For real. (On the up side, I took advantage of being awake and practiced my LovingKindness meditation, then I went back to sleep.)
4. The right ingredients make all the difference.
This is not a new idea, of course, but it’s worth repeating. We used galangal (not ginger), fish sauce (not soy sauce… although I did take a fresh bottle of coconut aminos in my purse, just in case), garlic chives (not onion chives), and the coconut milk and curry paste that Jam deems the best. The resulting dishes tasted rich and layered, honoring the Thai tradition of representing the five flavors: spicy, salty, sweet, sour, and bitter. I’m all for shortcuts when it’s necessary — like, when it’s 7:03 p.m. and I’m hungry like the wolf. And I clearly have no problem paleoizing versions of traditional recipes in an attempt to get them back onto my plate. But when an a dish complies with paleo guidelines, and there’s time to get it right, it always makes sense to use the authentic, freshest, highest-quality version of an ingredient.
5. Sharing good food with friends is the best thing ever.
That needs no explanation.
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