Cooking up a Thai feast with my fellow foodies at the International Center for Culinary Arts

Whoever coined the phrase “too many cooks spoil the broth” had evidently never been to a group cooking class. He had probably never experienced what it’s like to share all the tedious chopping and mincing chores needed to prep your mis-en-place, or experiment with a bunch of different variations of the same dish as each person gives it their own twist, or toss around frivolous banter as you’re waiting for the milk to simmer, or sit down to a table with fellow chefs who’ve sliced and singed fingers together as they toiled over a three course dinner.

Plus, a boring bowl of brown broth isn’t most people’s idea of a fun group activity anyway – so the fellow was clearly biased in his life approach to group cooking. I bet he’d have all those hermit-like ideas hammered out of his head had he tested his theory on Indian or Italian.

Or Thai, as a group of local fellow foodies and bloggers tried our hands at last Thursday. Our little mushrooming group is still deciding on a name – Coriander Crew (courtesy Sally!) or Gulf Gourmets (go Anja!) something cute and silly of sorts. But despite the fact that we’re a nameless bunch of individuals, many of whom had never met each other except through the virtual world of blog posts and comment feeds, we all just sunk donned our aprons and (unsexy) shower cap chef hats and just melted into the rhythm of cooking up rice noodles and sticky beef like we’d been bum chums for life. Yep, that’s what cooking can do for you.

Rather than give you a step-by-step account of our 3-hour cooking event, I’m going to fast forward the magical results we achieved through sheer teamwork and culinary bonding. That, and a substantial amount of remedial input from our patient instructors, chef Ashwini, a lean, mean crème-torching machine and chef Manju, a skilled shaper of sloppy shrimp paste lollies).

The menu was a four course, seven dish extravaganza with zinger Thai dishes, some requiring intense amounts of deep frying heat and sheer willpower to withstand three hours of hunger without savagely grabbing at the spicy cashews for our papaya salad.

So let the visual fast forwarding begin…(this version leaves out all the minutiae of the measurements, the comprehensive laundry list of ingredients and the subtleties of Thai technique…if you want the full play version, get in touch with the chef!)

~ Starters ~

Green Papaya Salad (“Som Tam”)

Piles of raw papaya (arduously sliced up by our famed editor of and scallion; cherry tomatoes, crunchy bean sprouts, basil; tossed around in a sweet-salty dressing of fish sauce, lime juice, honey and oil. Artistically assembled by trusty Chef Ashwini with fresh coriander and spicy glazed cashews on top. This one’s featuring on the menu for my next dinner party, whenever I get around to doing it.

Shrimp on Lemongrass Sticks

Offset the healthy salad greens with some deep-fried shrimp skewered on lemongrass stalks. Sloppy paste of shrimp, fish sauce (the Thai replacement for salt as I learned during class), chopped lemongrass, coriander, red chillies, ginger, spring onions, red peppers and wonderfully aromatic kaffir leaves (if cigarettes were made of these, I’d be a chain smoker by now). We had differing rates of success trying to shape the shrimp sludge into lollies that looked edible, squishing them onto the lemongrass stalks and rolling them about in the eggwash even as they dribbled their shrimp gloop all over the table. Not a pretty sight.

Chef Manju eventually took pity on us and massaged our lollies into less obnoxious shapes, deep-fried them and served them up hot with a creamy peanut dip (which I loved so much that I practically drowned everything else on my plate in it too)

~ Main Course ~

Thai Red Curry Fish

Thai red curry paste sizzled up in oil, spiked with some high-powered Thai flavour busters: kaffir lime leaves, galangal (Thai ginger), lemon grass, these teeny grape-sized aubergines or pea eggplants tossed in, a dash of fish sauce, and onion quarters.  It just took a quick hefty cupful of coconut milk (or as Chef Ashwini advocated, coconut milk powder that can be paste-ified to the optimal consistency without diluting your curry), some chunky fish cubes, a slow simmering flame and a few discerning tastes to eventually yield true-to-life Thai red curry on the table. Who knew Thai curry could be that easy!

Crispy Beef in Honey (Neuua Phat Phrik)

Tender cut of beef, cut up into thin strips, julienned celery, spring onions and red chillies, and a drizzle of honey and soy sauce to make everything sticky and sweet and juicy. To make the dish live up to its name, it gets smothered with rice flour and white sesame seeds that will eventually toast up as the beef sizzles up in the saucepan to a hot stir fried crisp. Needless to say, this dish was a total hit. Perfect for a Rachel Ray segment, and so dangerously irresistible that we had a suspiciously tiny amount of beef left to transfer from the wok onto the actual serving plate by the time our final few minutes of plating swung around.

Stir-Fried Rice Noodles with Vegetables (Phat Thai Phak)

X-ray white rice noodles soaked up in warm water…

…tossed into a smoking saucepan with garlic, galangal, and julienned peppers, and then drizzled with a potent mixture of soy sauce, fish sauce, lime juice, water, brown sugar and red chillies. 
Love noodle dishes that require minimal mess, minimal work, minimal time – so that the 6 year old in me can get right down to the real art of slurping.

Thai Jasmine Rice (Khao)

I may have been distracted here, but I have a feeling that we ended up making just plain white rice. Never ended up sensing the jasmine aroma or coconut milk essence that should have been infused in this dish…but then again, I was singularly focused on tucking in every last morsel of crispy sticky beef.

~ Dessert ~

Pandana and Coconut Custard

Interestingly, we actually started off the class by boiling up sugar into stringy caramel for our custards, so that we could put away our ramekins to bake for an hour or so, and then chill for another two to three hours, while we were cooking up the rest of our Thai storm.

The technique was the same as that of any regular crème caramel or flan, with the main difference being that this one was infused with the earthy juices of boiled and strained pandan leaves and coconut cream powder. A brisk shake and delicate ‘plop’ later, there was a smooth, silky custard with flecks of pandan visible from under the sugary caramel layer on top.

Looking back, all this seems like a truckload of food, and an even bigger truckload of work required in prepping it. But those three hours just sped on by, with light-hearted chatter and laughs and everything else that makes group cooking so much fun.

To everyone who joined: Sally, Anja, Salman, Elaine and her super fun hubby, Ruth, Sidiqa and boozyChef; and our patient, ever-smiling and fun-to-cook-with chefs, Ashwini and Manju, thanks for making it out there, our group of too many cooks totally ROCKED!

International Centre for Culinary Arts Dubai
19 Al Hana Centre
Mankhool Road
Phone: +971 (4) 3989-745

Author: InaFryingPan

With a family legacy of ingenious cooks, a nutritionist and chef-extraordinaire mother, and a father who introduced me to steak and caviar when I could barely reach the table, I had no choice but to acquire a keen awareness of food during my childhood years in Dubai. But it was only after I found myself on a college campus in Philadelphia – far away from home, too cheap as a student to spend on anything other than pizza, and with dorm rooms that had little rat-holes of kitchens if they even had them at all – when I developed a heightened appreciation of food. An appreciation of food that I once ate every night at the dinner table in Dubai, but that was now an entire ocean away. I lusted for the culinary treasures that lay outside the stale walls of my college dining hall, hijacked friends’ kitchens to try my hand at something, anything , remotely edible, and greedily raided different websites in search of highly-rated restaurants. With my move to New York to work for a consulting firm that secretly harbored self-professed foodies, my appreciation transformed into a passion, an addicition. I felt like everyone around me in New York was talking about food: where to get the best cupcakes, pizza slices, banh mi, kati rolls, pho, fried chicken, and every other food item out there that is just a plain old dish in some part of the world, but that’s become hyped to unforeseen proportions in New York. What fuelled my addiction over time was travel to different cities, both for work and play, which gave me unfettered access to the culinary havens of not only New York, but also of DC, Virginia, Chicago, Houston, Vegas, Austin, Seattle and even a little city called Bentonville (Arkansas!). After 9 years away from home, I’ve finally taken the leap to come back to Dubai – with not just an awareness, but genuine appreciation and passionate addiction for what I’d taken for granted as a child. Mom, I’m back to reclaim my seat at your dinner table, and to rediscover this city with its ever-expanding menu of international flavors.

7 thoughts on “Cooking up a Thai feast with my fellow foodies at the International Center for Culinary Arts

  1. Saleem says:

    Nice -wish you had posted a group photo and hope we get to eat Thai food soon at home.

  2. elainegan says:

    Crisp pics! And you’ve captured my hand photos.. Lol.

    I’m thinking to try out the fish curry again next week, or maybe the beef… Oh fickle-minded me!

  3. Farheen says:

    love the way u captured those beautiful colors of veggies! awesome work!
    wouldn’t mind being invited to dinner, when u eventually get around cooking that Green Papaya Salad – looks heavenly! ;-)

  4. Swati says:

    Now I am hooked – u mentioned two of my favourite people ! I am all set to call Chef Ashwini and ask him how he allowed someone to cook with red painted nails and a ring – he normally insists on short nails and no jewellery


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