Having enjoyed Demuth’s imaginative ways with veggies at the Bath restaurant, I was very excited to be invited to their vegetarian cookery school. As I’m partial to using my home-grown ingredients in a bit of culinary globe-trotting, courses such as Flavours of the Middle East, Flavours of Italy, Moroccan and A Taste of Spring in Pakistan immediately appealed. A very tricky decision, but I opted for the Taste of Thailand course.
I love Thai food, all those fragrant herbs and addictive blend of salty, sour, sweet and bitter flavours. And living in a rural area, without good takeaways within delivery range, the easiest option is often to cook my own.
Walking up the steps of the lovely Georgian building that houses the cookery school, the fragrant aroma of thai ingredients was enticing. After being greeted with coffee and delicious home-made biscuits, we were introduced to the ingredients by Rachel Demuth.
“One of the most important parts of cooking is tasting, ” Rachel explained. Music to me ears! Especially as the tasting included Tom Yam Soup, Thai Spring Rolls, Pad Thai, a deliciously refreshing yet spicy Green Papaya Salad and a black Rice pudding, sweetened with palm sugar and eaten with Mango slices which were caramelised with palm sugar, lime juice and chilli. All dishes we learnt to cook, along with wonderfully tasty Peanut and Nam Prik Phao dipping sauces and Thai Red Curry.
But the tasting started off very simply. Rachel and Helen Lawrence (previously chef at Demuths for 5 years) talked us through a selection of Thai ingredients, from galangal to tamarind and palm sugar. Just the look of the ingredients, spread across the table, was wonderful. Many of them were familiar but I’d never seen turmeric (a rhizome that is then normally dried and crushed and used in food) in its fresh form. We learnt that in addition to flavouring dishes such as pad thai, turmeric has healing qualities and can be rubbed fresh onto a wound.
Taking the time to pass around these ingredients, smelling them and nibbling little pieces was fascinating. As I grow lots of coriander, I often used the stalks as well as the leaves, but I hadn’t realised that the roots have a citrus flavour. Or that galangal smells and tastes quite so different from ginger: it has a subtle perfumed smell and more fragrant flavour.
It made me think of my shoddy tendency to often substitute ingredients in an exotic recipe for whatever I have to hand; using lemon balm instead of lemongrass in my butternut squash noodles and replacing galangal with ginger or palm sugar with caster sugar, are all recipe deviations I’m guilty of.
Tasting and noticing the difference in flavour that using the right ingredients gives to Thai dishes had me heading after the course to Banthon Oriental, a great thai grocers in Weston, Bath, to stock up cheaply on ingredients.
As a country bumpkin with a dearth of good oriental shops nearby, I was really excited about stocking up, especially after learning about the keeping qualities of the following ingredients:
– Palm sugar. Different variations from light, to a dark version that adds a mollasses flavour to dishes. Keeps for ages in the cupboard, you can just grate it when needed.
– Galangal. Quite different in flavour from ginger and freezes well.
– Lemongrass. Worth buying just for the wonderful fragrant smell, and freezes well.
– Lime leaves. Very pungent and freeze well but just make sure they’re in an airtight container otherwise everything else in the freezer will smell of lime!
– Spring roll pastry wrappers. You can buy from a Thai grocers and freeze.
The course was a really enjoyable mix of learning new skills, watching demonstrations and relaxing with incredibly tasty food. A clumsy, rustic sort of cook, I would never have attempted making Thai spring rolls without following Helen’s easy face to face instructions. And although I love experimenting with many types of cooking, I normally follow recipes for precise quantities of lime juice, chilli etc with Thai food. Yet being encouraged to keep tasting before deciding if we needed more sweet (palm sugar) hot (chilli) salty (soya sauce) sour (tamarind or lime juice) in our Pad Thai noodles or Nam Prik Phao dipping sauce has made me feel a bit more confident about creating my own variations of thai dishes.
Nam Prik, by the way, is chilli water and Phao means roasted. Chillies, galic, shallots and tomato sauce are roasted until softened (shrimps would be added if this wasn’t a vegetarian version) and then pounded in a pestle and mortar with tamarind water, lime juice, shoyu and palm sugar to taste. We used ours in Tom Yam soup and also as a wonderful dipping sauce for spring rolls.
Sipping prosecco with a taste of black rice pudding and sitting down at the end to relax and savour the Thai Red Curry and Green Papaya Salad we’d made with organic wines and juices, made the day feel like a lovely, decadent treat. As did enjoying the views of Bath Abbey and the light flooding in through the huge Georgian windows of the cookery school with its location in the centre of Bath.
It’s definitely concentrated my mind on the importance of the right ingredients. I’m now keen to try out the recipes I’ve learnt for spring rolls, red thai curry and pad thai, adding different mixes of home-grown veggies, but using authentic thai ingredients for that distinctive flavour.
My planting for the year has been influenced by the course too. I’m keen to grow lots of thai basil; it grows easily in our climate and has a wonderful flavour and smell. Plenty of coriander planted little and often – it goes to seed easily so I’ll try to stick to my usual pattern of planting it in a sunny spot early in the year then adding lots of successive sowings in partial shade for the heat (I’m optimistic!) of summer. More Joy Larkcom influenced oriental veggies would be good too.
And I was very excited to hear that Green Papaya salad can be used with unripe squash. Being realistic about an English summer, I often end up with squash that haven’t had enough sun to ripen them before the frosts start; this will be a great use for them.
Having learnt that Thai cuisine is an amalgamation of many influences, Chinese Malay and Indian, it’s great to see that it’s still possible to add a Cotswold influence. And although I’m going to try to keep a stock of lemongrass, galangal and lime leaves in the freezer, I’m delighted to see that there’s still scope for some improvisation with home-grown/local ingredients in my kitchen. After all, the cookery school explained that Thai (which means free) are never rigid in their approach to cooking but will use the best freshest available ingredients.
With many thanks for a lovely day to Demuths vegetarian cookery school.
To learn how to cook Rachel Demuth’s version of the wonderful streetfood dish, Pad Thai, which we cooked for brunch at the cookery school, click here.