Kanchanaburi #1 – Culinary Delights

Aspiring_thai_cook

We left Bangkok on a clickety clack old time train for a scenic ride to Kanchanaburi, about a 3 1/2 hour trip in a “hard sitter,” as we call the old trains with wooden bench seating. Always enjoy a train ride and the route through farmer’s fields and tiny towns was a dramatic contrast to sprawling Bangkok. We found Apple’s Retreat, our charming but simple guesthouse on the banks of the River Kwai with no difficulty. They are known for their great food and their cooking classes, one of the main reasons we chose them. The price at $20 for a sparkling clean, new room with A/C and hot water was another.

Apple and Noi the two proprietresses were helpful hosts when they were around, but were the only English speakers in the place. They met in Bangkok nearly 20 years ago and came to Kanchanaburi, Noi’s home town, to set up their first guesthouse. They were there for 12 years, but had to leave it when the landowners took it back. They have bought the land directly on the river where they are now, and rebuilt, hence the new buildings. Apple, a small round person, a bit like a little brown owl, sits hunched over the computer all day, fretting over accounts and bookings, and Noi who is extremely thin and angular, and tremendously hyperactive, roars around talking a mile a minute and supervising the food. That is when she hasn’t taken to her bed due to her intestinal difficulties which she attributes to her stressful life. Noi taught our cooking class and was a very good teacher — extremely strict, very traditional in her views on cooking and food preparation, and really started from the basics by taking us to the market and making us smell or taste all the different kinds of ingredients we would be using in our class as well as some interesting street food. The 10 of us in the class voted on what we would like to cook as a group off her extensive menu. We decided on my personal favourite salad so far, a pomelo one (salads are generally cooked here), a classic padthai, a coconut based chicken soup, and masaman curry. All excellent dishes requiring much more concentration to prepare than one would think as everything has to be ready to go in, quick quick, with no time to remember to get something or chop it or whatever. I think a minimum of two people are required for this sort of cooking! Noi demonstrated each dish, then we made it, and then we ate them, two at a time.

Noi was a hard taskmistress, yelling at us to “turn down those woks now, stop that stirring, I said GENTLY, not so much water, more water, just a little at a time, now the coconut milk, too quick too quick” etc etc She says Thai food is all about the balance between spicy, sour, salty and sweet, and her aim was to teach us this balance, so we all would take our spoons and taste and supposedly adjust our seasonings — more lime, more salt, more chili, more tamarind, more fish sauce, depending on the recipe, and if one seasoning is too strong, its countering flavour is used to achieve the balance we were all to aspire to. It all tasted pretty good to us, but Noi and her chief cook would come along with their spoons, taste and add a bit of one thing or another, taste again, and nod imperiously.

All the while she was teaching us, she entertained us vociferously with the saga of her hard life, mainly due to her old school mother constantly badgering her to marry so she could give her the family sapphires. Noi couldn’t see any advantage to marrying, as she has no wish to look after a man, including in her words, “cutting his disgusting nose hairs, cleaning out his ears, and massaging his feet.” All the men in our group glanced at their partners, wondering how they had managed to miss out on these prerogatives of husbands. Apparently Noi’s family do not like her independent life style, or so she explained it. Since she and Apple were clearly a couple and had been for 20 years, we found her insistence that this was a huge issue in her life puzzling. She even said that since Apple’s mother had died two years ago, she was “free” now! One thing Noi’s poor mother is apparently good for is as the source of all Noi’s traditional recipes, which she uses and adapts to her own liking. She is completely against the modern Thai habit of purchasing “fast food” which she showed us in the market — ingredients already cut up and packaged, though she admitted that food preparation had basically been a full time job for her mother’s generation. We have now been spoiled for other restaurants I fear by our culinary experiences, first in Hemlock in Bangkok and then at Apple and Noi’s. We are compiling a list of favourites, including a very cool appetizer whereby you take a leaf and fold it around a series of condiments such as finely chopped limes, chopped peanuts, dried shrimps, chopped garlic, chopped shallots, toasted coconut, and of course the ubiquitous chilis which we leave out when we do this one. Then you dip it in a delicious sweet but spicy sauce and pop it in your mouth. Not sure what kind of leaves we could use at home, we have had 3 different ones here, but will have to experiment when the garden comes out.

Since our other major experiences in Kanchanaburi were quite harrowing, I will send a Part 2 later.

Hope all are well, your geriatric correspondents C&D

Sent from my iPad

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