I have eating Thai food in St. Catharines down to a science.
If it’s Pad Thai I’m in the mood for, Itt’s Thai it is. Drunken noodles? Spicy Thai. Thai Green Curry is usually brought to me by The Noodle House. And Chang Noi knocks it out of the park with their broccoli greens, which are best buds with the oodles of garlic and chili pepper that it shares a plate with.
But it turns out all this time I thought I was eating Thai food when chowing down at my usual haunts, I was really eating grub vaguely resembling Thai food. How would I know the difference, never having travelled to the far off land to dine on the real deal? When it says Thai on a menu, I’ve just taken the restaurant at its word.
Last week, though, chef Adam Hynam-Smith showed me and three friends the proverbial light when it comes to real Thai food.
I rounded up three of my buds for a Friday night cooking class with the Aussie, who can cook a curry unlike any other I’ve tasted. Hynam-Smith and his partner Tamara Jensen are the masterminds behind Peapod Cuisine and their mobile offshoot, El Gastronomo Vagabundo, a food truck that served up the most un-Mexican tacos at Flat Rock Cellars last summer.
The culinary duo makes a point of using local produce whenever possible and it’s always astoundingly fresh. Those rules of thumb don’t change when they teach kitchen novices like me, Sonia, Monique and Sam how to use them properly ourselves for $60 a person.
We assembled for three hours in the modern kitchen of Hynam-Smith and Jensen’s Western Hill home a week ago to learn the tricks of whipping up green papaya salad with nuoc mam, Thai coconut red curry with jasmine rice and yeast donuts filled with mascarpone sabayon — all of which are like Greek to me when it comes to preparing. Thai cooking, with its sweet, salty, spicy flavours and exotic sounding ingredients, has always seemed kind of daunting to me. To have someone to demystify it, which Hynam-Smith did amazingly well (and with tremendous patience), makes me want to try at home in a form other than take-out.
In addition to deconstructing the construction of the best Thai meal I’ve ever eaten, Hynam-Smith, who has trained in Thailand and is drawn to that country’s cuisine for its “beautiful, fresh flavours,” offers up some important life skills in the kitchen.
He taught us to julienne, with the cucumbers and papaya for our salad being the slicing subjects. A mandolin isn’t just some snazzy, albeit scary, kitchen gadget with all its sharp edges. We learned how to use it safely — fingers up for the brave soul who doesn’t want to use the guard — and found out the super duper slicer is actually a kitchen essential.
There were also chances to get out of our comfort zone. The vegetarian in the group — ahem — boned a chicken thigh. Hynam-Smith even showed us ways to sharpen our knife skills with an impressive collection of blades, which included a stiff upturned boner that set us off and set the easy tone for the rest of the class.
The best part, though, was the meal. As one of our culinary quartet, Sam, put it while eating her curry, you could taste every ingredient the the mix. The lemongrass, the ginger, the chilies, the coriander and shrimp paste in the curry. The licorice of the Thai basil, the pungence of the mint and perfume of the cilantro in the papaya salad. None of those were the indistinguishable white noise on our tastebuds that I’ve realized the dressings and sauces I’ve grown used to eating at local Thai joints are.
Problem is, I haven’t been able to get that meal out of my mind since eating it. It’s been nine days and I want seconds.
Good thing we were supplied with the recipes. Now I can try it at home because lord knows, going out for Thai around these parts — unless Hynam-Smith is cooking — ain’t gonna cut it anymore.