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After my first Thai cooking class at the Silom Thai Cooking School I was craving for more. There was no way I could leave Thailand with only one cooking class under my belt.
For a change of scenery I figured why not combine a few cooking classes with beach time on a Thai island? Not a bad way to reward myself for a few hours of cooking – right?
So off to Koh Lanta we sailed (literally via boat from Phuket).
I signed up for four cooking classes at the Time for Lime cooking school by the Klong Dao beach on the island.
The menu changes daily so with a few classes I would have a good grasp of quite a handful of dishes. The classes are offered every night so as to allow for some daily beach time but when night classes fill up there is a supplemental afternoon class as well. I got a perfect mix of two afternoon and two night classes.
When I arrived at the cooking school ready for my first class, I was greeted by the most tranquil and serene setting. A small walkway winds around to the cooking school and as you climb the steps, the full scene unfolds. White over-hangings from the ceiling, a cooking area with individual burners, wooden cutting boards and killer knives, and directly ahead, the dining area, which was filled with a mix of greens and earthy browns. The place screams charming.
And past that – direct access to the beach. Not a badly located cooking school.
My first class was an afternoon class with Junie the founder. Not only does she run the cooking school, she also rents out bungalows on the beach, has a night restaurant and bar, and runs an animal shelter. This is an amazing woman. How she has enough time in the day to ensure everything is running smoothly, I have no idea.
Her real baby is the animal shelter, which is funded solely through the profits of the bungalows, restaurant and cooking school. If you’ve ever been to South East Asia you’ll notice there are tons of stray dogs (and sometimes cats) roaming the streets (and beaches) at all times and Junie is trying to help all the animals on Koh Lanta get necessary medical treatment and even get adopted by locals and tourists alike. It’s a wonderful cause and Dave and I got to take a tour and see the animals firsthand.
Back to the cooking school.
The classes begin with an introduction to Thai cooking and the essential ingredients. The instructor of the day (Junie, or her assistant Mai) begins to demonstrate how the ingredients are prepped which further dictates if they are added into a dish simply for flavoring or also for eating. This is a great way to start the class, as with Thai cooking lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, and chilis are ingredients that can be unfamiliar to foreigners and it can be confusing trying to figure out if these ingredients can be eaten or not. With this small lesson, you won’t be confused any longer.
Onto the sauces. As Mai and Junie explain, Thai cuisine is a balance between sour, sweet, salty and spicy and this is achieved through the help of sauces as well as with the main ingredients. The instructor explains which sauces (soy, oyster, fish, roasted chili paste) are used in Thai cooking and specifically which brands Time for Lime prefers (you can even buy a mix pack of mini sauces there)
The best part of this little intro? The appetizer – called “Thailand in one bite.” This is a dish you put together yourself with all the ingredients on the table – the leaf as the base, then some lime, ginger, red onion, chili, dried shrimp, dried coconut flakes, peanuts, and honey. Then you roll the whole thing up, close your eyes, open your mouth (this is a must) and take a bite. The mix of flavors is phenomenal and will have all your taste buds stimulated and working to put your finger on what this tastes like.
At any point in time, if you’re feeling thirsty there is a full bar downstairs to cater to the students as well. If you like lemongrass be sure to give the lemongrass margarita a try – you won’t be disappointed. There’s even an afternoon happy hour, so place you drink orders at the beginning of class!
After a short break (you do need time to absorb all the info thrown at you during the intro) the cooking begins.
Everyone has their own station, with burner, cutting board, knife, tasting spoon, cloth, and apron (which can be taken home at the end).
The first part is making the curry paste. Junie or Mai explain the ingredients that go into the curry paste and demonstrate how the ingredients need to be cut. The spices are roasted and the chilis soaked and pounded already. Everyone makes the curry paste together so each person has a small helping of lemongrass, kaffir lime leaves, kaffir lime rind, corinader root, garlic, and galangal to work with and then all the ingredients are added into the mortar for pounding.
Both Mai and Junie give a great knife lesson. Certain ingredients need to be “killed” meaning, smashed with the side of the knife and then chopped up. With how heavy the knives are this is easy to do, and frankly quite fun. So after “killing” the garlic you take the knife handle very loosely in your right hand and lightly holding the tip of the knife with your left hand mince the garlic into tiny pieces. As Junie says, the feeling is that the knife is dancing in your hands. I had never been shown this technique before but it is amazing for quickly and finely dicing ingredients. The key is to have a loose grip on the knife and let it move.
Since we make the curry paste together everyone has a chance to pound the ingredients, and luckily when our arms get too tired, the staff finishes it off for us.
Then comes the smelling test. This is where we compare homemade curry paste to store bought. As far as your nose knows there is nothing in common between the two. The store bought paste is completely dead and lifeless compared to the aromatic and vibrant curry pastes made from scratch. Vegetarians need not worry, though traditional Thai curry paste adds shrimp paste (which Junie sarcastically refers to as Channel #5), at Time for Lime they add salt instead.
As Junie said, she will buy 5 mojitos for anyone who can find a restaurant on Koh Lanta that makes their own cooking paste from scratch. So far no one has found one.
The class is set up so that three dishes are prepared first, eaten and then the remaining two dishes are prepared. As I mentioned before the dishes change every day and with the menu available online you can choose which day to sign up depending on your taste preferences. I was luckily enough to prepare around 20 dishes during my 4 day class, and all of them were amazing.
When preparing the dishes Mai or Junie first give a demonstration of how the ingredients need to be prepped and then everyone has their shot at them. A cooking demonstration follows and then it is your turn.
Be careful not to burn the garlic though. If you burn the garlic, you owe Junie a glass of wine, though on the other hand if she burns the garlic she owes everyone a glass of wine. In my 4 days there nobody had burned any garlic.
The ingredients are always beautifully presented in baskets placed on the tables, with the students picking out the necessary ingredients for each dish. A little bit of prep work is involved as well as some mixing of the sauces before the cooking is started.
Mai and Junie always make sure to talk about the recipes beforehand, describing the recipes and ingredients as well as adding personal anecdotes. During the cooking class you are supplied with a print out of all the recipes for the class, as well as with a pencil, for personal note taking, which is a nice touch.
The classes at Time for Lime can get to be quite large (18 people max) so when the cooking starts it can get a bit hectic, but there are helpers walking around at all times guiding you through the cooking process and helping to clean up.
Since most classes are held in the late afternoon/evening the atmosphere is very relaxed and jovial, with people ordering drinks and sipping on them as they cook – just like home. The aromas going through the cooking area are magical and once that homemade curry paste hits the pan, everyone can’t help but let out a “mmmmm”
Once a few dishes have been completed the food styling begins. As Junie says, ‘you eat with your eyes, not your mouth’ and food needs to be presented in an appealing manner in order to look appetizing. There is a large assortment of plates and bowls to choose from and everyone has the chance to let their creativity shine and design their meals the way they choose. With extra herbs and chilis to throw some color onto the dish, and banana leaves to line the plate, the possibilities are endless.
Afterwards you head to the dining area for a quick bite before returning to the kitchen for the last two dishes. A great feature is that you can invite a lazy partner, which is essentially a friend who comes along just to eat and not to cook. At first I assumed that this meant the portions were halved, but actually they are doubled, so everyone gets a full meal. You can probably guess who my lazy partner was.
One thing I fully enjoyed at Time for Lime which can be lacking in some cooking schools is the introduction and history into the dishes and the cuisine. At Time for Lime both Junie and Mai set aside time to talk to you about the Thai cooking process and cuisine and this is exactly what makes a good cooking school great.
I would highly recommend signing up for a cooking class at Time for Lime if you’ll be on Koh Lanta. You’ll be among great company and with drinks, delicious food and intricate instruction you will not leave disappointed. At the end of the day the money from the cooking school goes to fund the animal shelter just a few kilometers down the road, so you’ll be making a charitable contribution by signing up as well.
One afternoon we stopped by to check out the animal shelter and were pleasantly surprised to find it a warm and friendly place. The volunteers working there are genuinely interested in the animal welfare and luckily there are tourists who stop by the shelter to take the dogs for walks in the area. We received a quick tour of the facility and were even introduced to a few of the pups. I highly recommend stopping by, especially if you’re missing your pets from back home. And if you’re looking for a new member to the family they handle adoptions there as well!
Disclaimer: In exchange for this review I received a complimentary cooking class. As always all opinions expressed here are my own.