Ko Samui is perhaps an unlikely spot to learn the art of Thai cooking. Given the choice between lapping up rays on a patch of sand, palms and waterfalls in the Gulf of Thailand or arming yourself with a sharp cleaver to take on a mound of raw pork and fiery chilies, most people will surely opt for the former – especially when the best plate of food you’re likely to have in your life costs about a buck at the local market.
Yet the packed schedule at the Samui Institute of Thai Culinary Arts suggests otherwise. The school focuses on central Thai food, considered the classic style among the country’s four regional cuisines, with its coconut-milk curries and flavoursome balance of hot, sour, salty and sweet.
The classes begin with a discussion of the ingredients (and how to substitute for those hard to find outside Southeast Asia), work up to wok skills and end with a feast of your own making, an array of tempting and delicious stir fries, curries and soups.
Walk into the school’s unassuming shophouse just off Samui’s Chaweng Beach and you may wonder whether you’ve been shanghaied into a tropical Iron Chef gone awry. A sea of tiny bowls bursting with cumin seeds, tamarind, coriander root, galangal and shrimp paste lie scattered across the prep tables, and you’ve got a little more than two hours to whip up three dishes. But before panic sets in, the lead chef calmly explains how to chiffonade a kaffir lime leaf, and soon enough, you’re grinding out a proper chili paste in a mortar and pestle with the steady hand of a market lady who’s been at it for fifty years.