IT might sound unsavoury and even downright unhygienic but I cooked with Poo in Bangkok and I liked it!
I can't think of a more extraordinary introduction to Thai cooking.
One steamy morning, 10 food tourists, including me and my partner Sean, assembled at the high-end Emporium shopping mall in downtown Bangkok.
There, we took refuge from the city's pressure-cooker humidity and window shopped in sleek, air-conditioned comfort at the likes of Versace and Tag Heuer.
I had just downed a Starbucks frappacino when Khun Poo and her assistant, Noi, arrived in a mini bus to escort us to Bangkok's largest slum, Klong Toey.
Our first stop - shopping.
I love the colour and action of Asian markets but nothing can prepare even the initiated for the visceral assault on the senses.
A Thai wet market is certainly not your typical Aussie Sunday farmer's market.
It has all sorts of completely foreign and fascinating items such as skinned frogs, live eels, catfish, pigs' heads and squawking caged chickens and ducks.
Our guides were in their element as they picked up items along the way, explaining their application in Thai cooking.
Did you know deep-fried insects - grasshoppers, silkworms, crickets, worms, ants and even cockroaches - are popular Thai street food?
To get to the cooking school, we had to walk through Klong Toey's jam-packed housing estate where everyday life spills into the narrow alleyways.
Slum life is communal but hardly utopian. Social problems such as poverty, drug addiction, gambling and alcoholism are endemic.
I found it hard to reconcile that the Emporium Mall, the playground of the privileged, was just kilometres away.
Long-time resident Khun Poo created the Thai cooking school four years ago with the assistance of an Australian community worker, Anji Barker, who lives in the slum.
Through a community program called Helping Hands, Khun Poo assists other slum residents to identify their skills and start their own micro businesses. Khun Poo takes just 10 students a class with five people cooking at a time.
Cooking with Poo is currently ranked number 10 on Trip Advisor for things to do in Bangkok.
In 2011, her cooking school instructed more than 2000 keen cooks and to date has sold 5000 Cooking with Poo cookbooks, which can be bought online.
We tried our hand at vegetarian fried rice, beef with cashew nuts, green curry chicken and banana in coconut milk.
Sean cooked first, which was my game plan because we had waged a serious cook-off.
For someone who fancies herself a bit of an aficionado when it comes to Asian cooking, I found the fried rice and stir fry a bit basic - albeit tasty.
Our family has a Chinese-style fried rice recipe handed down the generations from my Chinese Malay amah, or housemaid (I was a RAAF brat stationed in Butterworth, Malaysia, in the '70s).
But a great trick I learnt from Khun Poo was to crack a raw egg into the wok before adding the vegetables and rice - a technique I will definitely adopt because it integrates better.
The green chicken curry was our stand-out dish. Making the curry paste from scratch using fresh Thai ingredients such as kaffir limes (not the Tahitian limes we have in Australia) makes an enormous difference.
We subsequently tried many green curries during our two-week Thailand sojourn but none matched Khun Poo's for flavour.
Khun Poo, herself, is charismatic and her vitality fills the kitchen.
Though petite, she has well-developed forearms.
She pounded the fresh herbs for the green chicken curry in the granite mortar and pestle like a pro Thai kickboxer.
She made us laugh when she gently mocked one Englishman's insipid attempt to grind the herbs into a paste, but when Sean displayed great dexterity with the pestle, she gave him a huge nod of approval.
"You have good man," she beamed in my direction.
And to hammer home that compliment, Sean won the cook-off 3-1, due to the superior green of his curry sauce and tastier beef with cashew nuts.
GREEN CURRY CHICKEN
- 500ml coconut milk
- 4 kaffir lime leaves, torn not sliced
- 6 tbs fish sauce combined with 1 tbs salt
- 1 tsp sugar
- 300g chicken (sliced)
- 200g eggplant
- 250ml water
- 20 Thai basil leaves
- Curry sauce: 1 tbs kaffir lime rind
- 1 tbs galangal, diced
- 10 green chillies
- 1 tbs lemongrass
- 3 garlic cloves, diced
Use a mortal and pestle to crush the lime rind and galangal. Add the chilli, lemongrass, garlic and onion and grind until its a paste. Add 250ml coconut milk to a saucepan and bring to the boil. Add curry paste and stir for 2 minutes. Add torn kaffir lime leaves. Add fish sauce, sugar, and chicken and simmer until chicken is cooked. Add eggplant, 250ml coconut milk and water until eggplant is soft. Add Thai basil, and mix for one minute. Serve with steamed rice or fresh vermicelli noodles.
BEEF WITH CASHEW NUTS
- 300g beef (sliced)
- 2 tbs cornflour
- 2 tbs water
- 1 cup oil
- 1tbs soy bean oil or olive oil
- ½ brown onion, chopped
- 200g fresh mushrooms, quartered
- 2tbs oyster sauce
- 1 tbs soy sauce
- 1 tbs chilli oil
- 1 tbs sesame oil
- 2 spring onions
- 100g roasted cashew nuts
- 4 whole large dried chillies, roughly chopped
In a bowl mix beef, cornflour and water. Heat 1 cup of oil in a frypan. 3. Deep fry beef until the colour changes.Put beef aside. Heat 1 tbs soy bean oil in a frypan. Add onion and cook for 2 minutes. Add mushrooms, oyster sauce, soy sauce, chilli oil, and sesame oil. Cook for 2-3 minutes. Add beef, spring onions and cashew nuts and cook for 1 minute. Mix dried chillies into stir fry. Serve with steamed rice.
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