Aroma therapy

Huw J. Williams finds out how to blend exotic fragrances and flavours in Thailand

Mom Tri’s Boathouse sits at the end of a large moon-shaped beach on the island of Phuket. It is a small, comfortable hotel of subtle Thai style emerging between trees that were growing before it was built. All of its 36 rooms have views of the bay and the small, uninhabited island that lies just offshore. The Boathouse is a restaurant where diners can retire to their own rooms at the end of the evening rather than a hotel that also serves food.

The owner and designer, Mom Tri, has created one of the few interiors that manages to pull off a nautical theme without it looking ludicrous. Rich, ruddy wood panelling, brass and dark terracotta floor tiles are subtly combined. Above wicker and white calico chairs, wood-bladed ceiling fans are surrounded with colourful signal pendants. They blossom out from their spinning hubs, rippling gently like the petals of large flowers in the breeze.

The hotel was built only 14 years ago yet there is a quiet sophistication that echoes the late 50s; a youthful Dean Martin sitting at the bar would fit the scene perfectly. The staff add to the serenity; they are warm and welcoming, but, unlike in many hotels, the smiles lack a corporate gloss; they are genuine, disarming and comforting, yet highly professional.

This refinement is the creation of Louis Bronner, the general manager who has run The Boathouse since its inception. Louis’ elegant French style has fused with affable Thai attitudes to make a stay at The Boathouse feel like your first visit to the family home of good friends.

We gather in the restaurant at 10am, after the breakfast array has been cleared. Although tempting, having breakfast is a bad idea; the cookery course is laced with tasting and samples of finished dishes. Eating is an essential part of the learning. There are six of us, though in the high season, classes can be as large as 20. But even in big groups the course is tailored so that everyone still gets their hands buried in food and faces blushed with the steam from hot woks.

The cooking classes run over two days each weekend and are structured so that attending both is an advantage, although not essential. Each session is led by the executive chef, Tamanoon Punchun. He has a warm smile and hypnotic Thai accent. A gentle, friendly man, he combines instruction, demonstration and hands-on practice in a well-balanced way and at an unhurried pace.

The first day begins with an introduction to ingredients; some are familiar, others are not. Each of us has a chopping board on which sit the fragrant and elegant materials of Thai cooking. We are encouraged to examine them in turn. Rubbing the waxy kaffir lime leaves between thumb and fingers, ripping through the tough cuticle to release its citrus perfume. Squeezing the hard, pale-green stalks of lemon grass, thinly slicing it into moist shreds, heavily laden with the mixed scent of oranges, lemon and ginger. Chewing small, subtly spicy chunks of galangal, which looks similar to ginger but has a more subtle aromatic flavour.

We each have a glass of water, which is regularly refilled, to sip and ready our mouth for the next flavour infusion. Sweet basil, fresh green peppercorns, chillies, hot basil, coriander – touching smelling and tasting the herbs, vegetables and spices grounds you in the moment. Taste and smell rise above the other senses. The soft, lilting sound of the chef’s voice blends in, focusing minds on cooking.

He tells us what to look out for: lemon grass should have a pink or light purple hue if it is fresh. Young galangal is pale and can be used as a vegetable, older and darker, its flavour becomes stronger and is then better used sparingly to add flavour. He gives tips on how ingredients can be used: kaffir lime leaves packed into the belly of a whole fish reduces the smell while retaining its taste. Lemon grass is good for relieving stomach ache, large pieces should be used to flavour soups and curries, finely sliced it can be eaten in salads.

The first part of the course focuses on appetisers and soups, the second on main courses and desserts. The teaching format is the same for each. Tamanoon talks us through the recipe, giving us pointers on preparation, a step by step preview of the cooking process and telling us how key ingredi ents will affect the final taste.

He explains that Thai cooking is essentially about working with a handful of basic ingredients and manipulating their flavours: kaffir lime leaves, galangal, lemon grass, chillies and coconut milk are blended in varying amounts to create very different dishes.

Tamanoon believes that food needs to be flexible and that unlike some cuisines, Thai food is well suited to being tailored to individual taste and encourages us not to stick rigidly to recipes, but rather to be aware of each ingredient and what it will do to the overall flavour. As we cook, we are told to test the food at each stage to understand what each new ingredient does.

Creating a dish, tasting it change as different ingredients are added, realising and learning through your own tongue what each brings; all this is invaluable. As we taste the finished dishes, there is genuine passion and delight among us. We are flattered by how good it tastes and thrilled by our new-found potential. Even so, there is a nagging doubt that away from Thailand and ingredients fresh from Thai soil, we will be unable to make it this good again. Tamanoon encourages away from this way of thinking. He is well aware of western food culture and how to translate between western and Thai; he is trained in Thai and international cuisine and spends time each year in Europe teaching Thai cookery to other chefs. He reminds us about the flexibility of Thai ingredients and he provides some reassurance. He knows what ingredients are easily available for visitors to buy when they get home and what can be used as substitutes; kaffir lime leaves are now quite easy to get hold of in most supermarkets, but the fruit of the same tree is much harder to find. Its rind and juice is used in some recipes and normal lime is not really an alternative, the flavours being subtly different. Adding kaffir lime leaves would work better. All the exotic ingredients won’t be so cheap and readily available when we get home so it’s useful to learn that ginger and galangal can be frozen, as can lemon grass and kaffir lime leaves.

We gather for lunch and sit on the wicker chairs at the white-calico-clothed tables. The menu is the same one we have learned, but as we’d eaten all ours as we made them, these dishes were prepared by the kitchen staff. Their food is better presented and delightful to eat, but we are encouraged to realise that it is very similar to what we had just made. We eat leisurely, the food is irresistible and the slow pace ensures we can consume as much as possible. We chat extensively, absorbed by the lesson. It is virtually the first time we have spoken, but the class has become its own dinner party. Swedes, British, Australians and Israelis; a lamb farmer, a television producer, a pastor, IT specialists, an aid worker, teachers and an apprentice chef, who loved the course and thought it very well taught. The amateurs agree.

The food is served with a list of suggested wines, all from the 6,000-bottle cellar, one of the most comprehensive selections in the Far East. The hotel’s food and beverage manager, a butler to the former French prime minister Eduard Balladur, is an enthusiastic wine expert. He makes the selection in consultation with Tamanoon.

Beyond the wine cellar and through the lobby, the tourist town of Kata bustles with mopeds that drive past bars, internet cafes, shops and restaurants. Inside Mom Tri’s Boathouse, all is calm. There is nothing between the tables and the sea view, allowing the restaurant to wash out on to the patio and the sea air to spill in.

Tom Kha Kai

80g thin slices of chicken, seafood or tofu.

1 cups coconut milk.

1 cups stock.

1-2 tsp lemon grass, 1-2 tsp galangal, 1-2 tsp kaffir lime leaves, 2-3 hot chillies, all finely sliced.

4-6 straw mushrooms.

6 teaspoons light fish sauce.

3 teaspoons lime juice.

Mix the coconut milk and the stock over a medium heat. Reduce to a simmer and add the lemon grass, kaffir lime leaves, galangal, and chilli. Add chicken (or seafood or tofu) and mushrooms. Cook until the soup begins to boil. Remove from the heat and add the lime juice and fish sauce. Season and serve.

Way to go

Getting there: Thai Airways (0870 6060911) flies London to Phuket via Bangkok from £699 return plus tax.

Courses: Gourmet On Tour (020-7396 5550, Gourmet on tour) offers a two-day course at the Boathouse with three nights’ half-board from £210pp, including airport transfer, an apron, certificate and a traditional Thai massage. Many other hotels in Thailand now offer cooking courses. Pum’s Kitchen at Long Beach on Phi Phi Don has fun cooking classes for 850 baht.

Further information: The Tourism Authority of Thailand, (0870 9002007, The Tourism Authority of Thailand).

Country code: 00 66.

Flight time London-Bangkok: 12hrs.

TIme difference + 7hrs.

£1 = 61.77 baht.

The Guardian, Saturday 26 October 2002 [read it here]

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