Nowhere is 'cookery tourism' more popular than in Thailand. I was quite simply astonished by the number of cookery schools just in Chiang Mai offering courses varying from a half-day to a full week. Thai food is generally pretty simple to make if you have the right ingredients, and it's become very popular around the world. The sheer variety of schools made making a choice quite tricky... but I think I chose well!
Quite simply I picked the one with the nicest leaflet. It was also written in good English, and gave clear menu choices with great photos. I've since found out that it has a great website, and lots of 'likes' on its Facebook page, so it appears I'm not alone in being a fan.
I struck lucky in that it was quiet season, so I was the only student for the morning. 1-to-1 tuition! Boom, the ever-smiling teacher, picked me up from my guesthouse in the cookery-school van and we went straight to a local fresh market to pick up some ingredients for the morning.
I took the opportunity to quiz Boom over what the many and varied vegetables are. I often find myself standing gormlessly in front of the fresh produce in Bruneian supermarkets, wondering what on earth the various greenery. It's hard to tell when it's only labelled in Malay. I think there are a few new vegetables that I can try now.
I also saw some things that I had never seen fresh before. These are bamboo shoots. I buy mine in tins!
After our shopping trip it was back to Basil to start cooking. The school has been open since 2009, and Boom has clearly learnt well from her years teaching at the famous Baan Thai cookery school. Basil is well laid-out and seems to run incredibly smoothly.
Inside was a kitchen with a large central 'island' for food preparation, plus a row of 6 gas-rings for cooking. Class-sizes are set to a maximum of 6 so that even when full, everyone can have attention from the teacher. There is also an adjoining dining room where you can take your dishes to eat fresh as soon as you have cooked them.
Straight onto the cooking for us: Dish 1 - Drunken Noodles.
I felt that Rob and I were a little short on nice noodle dishes in our cooking repertoire, so it was great to learn this easy dish. No alcohol involved though!
Dish 2 -Tom Yum hot and sour soup. This was made with prawns and oyster mushrooms.
When we've made this at home we sometimes add a splash of coconut milk too, to make it slightly less astringent, but this was great as it was. You end up with a lot of detritus in the bowl at the end though - kaffir lime leaves, chillis, lemongrass and galangal.
Dish 3 - Laab. An old favourite. I guess I shouldn't really have chosen it as I make it pretty well at home, I just didn't think. Never mind, it was still delicious, and good to see that I've been doing it 'right'!
Before we started on dish 4, Boom showed me how to make fresh coconut milk. At the market she had bought a bag full of fresh grated coconut. She put 100g into a muslim bag, then we poured on a cup of boiling water, let it cool and then kneaded the bag in the water.
A few minutes later the bowl was filled with coconut milk, and my hands were beautifully soft thanks to the coconut oil! This coconut milk was used in the curry I was about to make, and the dessert.
Dish 4 - Red Curry with Bamboo Shoots.
This began with making the red curry paste from scratch. Red and green curry pastes are made in exactly the same way, the only difference being the colour of the chillies used. There was a lot of chopping before we got onto the grinding...
And then an awful lot of grinding! "Just another 5 minutes" said Boom chirpily as I showed her what I thought looked like a very respectable mortar-full of curry paste...
Still, the aching biceps were worth it when I tasted the finished curry. Excellent, though I say it myself!
Dish 5 - Chicken with Cashew Nuts.
This is a favourite of mine at our local Thai restaurant, but we've never quite managed to recreate it perfectly at home. I realised that one of the main things we were neglecting to do was fry the dried chillies in order to get that lovely 'toasted' flavour.
This is definitely one I'll be trying again at home.
Dish 6 - Black Sticky Rice Pudding with Coconut Milk.
I'm a big rice pudding fan, but this was probably my least favourite dish of the day. However, this may have been because it was the 6th and last dish I had cooked and eaten during the morning; I'm not sure I could even have squeezed in a wafer-thin-mint at this point!
At the end of the course I received a certificate and - most usefully - a recipe book containing all of the recipes I had cooked, plus many more.
I'll type up some of the recipes at some point, perhaps as I try recreating them here in Brunei. I'm looking forward to trying!