I spent an evening last month working in a restaurant kitchen in Chiang Mai with my two new cheffing chums (let’s call them Si and Dave; they deserve their own TV show – more than The Hairy Bikers anyhow). Si wore a wolf hat, for some reason, while we cooked. It was a novelty take on the traditional chef’s hat, and I didn’t ask why he was wearing it. I can only guess it might have had something to do with the Changs we’d been drinking.
But, as I was a guest in his kitchen, it was none of my business, and quite frankly it would have been rude of me to ask. It was his kitchen, and if he’d decided to don a Pope mask, then it was absolutely his right to do so. One thing you learn in cheffing is never to question a chef’s judgement – or even his fashion sense – if you’re on his turf. It’s just not done.
Anyway, it was a simple exchange – I showed them how to cook a couple of European dishes and they taught me some Thai cooking in return. Like many restaurants in tourist areas in Thailand, the place had a British food section for people who like to eat sausage, egg and chips wherever they are in the world.
Their restaurant, in the old walled city, already had steak and ale pie on the menu, so I showed them how to make a decent steak and red onion pudding (get me) and one of my favourites, Irish stew.
When I taught them how to make pizza – and how ridiculously profitable it is – they were delighted. There are mugs in Chiang Mai who happily shell out £6 for a distinctly average pizza, when they can get a bowl of brilliant khao soi or massaman curry for less than £1.
But don’t get me started on that. I wanted to show you the two meals they cooked for me at the end of the evening – fried enoki mushrooms and prawns in oyster sauce, and the goddamned hottest tom yam soup I have ever tasted in my life. They said it was how they ate it, but they were grinning away when I tucked in. Thais have a great sense of humour, and find it extremely amusing tricking chubby farangs into eating ludicrously potent dishes. And as chefs very much share the same level of schadenfreude, Thai chefs really should not be trusted.
I was pretty drunk by that time in the evening, and I’m not going to detail the exact ingredients because the last thing you need is another recipe for tom yam soup. But it was interesting seeing how they cook in restaurants in Thailand. I once did a short stint at the Dorchester Hotel in London, and used to watch the chefs in the Oriental Kitchen, and it reminded me of that – blindingly fast. Faster than any chefs I’ve seen.
If you wonder how your tom yam soup arrives five minutes after you order it in Thailand, then this is how they do it. The Chang beers didn’t seem to slow them in the slightest, or the wolf hat. So, two wonderful dishes in a few minutes. Eat your heart out, Jamie Oliver – but then these were real chefs.
They lit up the stove and got a wok and a metal soup pan on the go. They put about a tablespoon of vegetable oil in the wok and a pint of water in the pan. Soon the oil was smoking and the water bubbling. In the meantime, Si finely chopped about eight fiercely hot red and green bird eye chillies. Dave prepped the ingredients for the oyster sauce dish – chopped spring onions, sliced red chillies, enoki mushrooms, raw prawns, roughly chopped shallots and oyster sauce – and put them in a bowl.
Si moved on to other soup ingredients, putting lime leaves, lemon grass, basil leaves, galangal, sliced button mushrooms, spring onions and the chopped chilli into a bowl. He chucked the contents into the soup and let it bubble away for a minute. He then chopped up big chunks of a white fish, which had a very similar texture and flavour to haddock, and sliced a large red chilli. While he did this, Dave put a generous spoonful of tom yam paste into the soup. There was no stirring; he just let the heat of the water do the mixing.
He then poured in about a tablespoon of condensed milk (this is common in Thailand; some chefs put in coconut cream, but it is far better without coconut, which to my mind turns it into a completely different soup). The condensed milk amalgamates the flavours, lends sweetness and thickens the soup slightly. He then put in a small ladleful of lemon juice.
Si, meanwhile, chopped a large unskinned tomato into eight pieces, and roughly chopped a couple of shallots and put them in yet another metal bowl (I felt sorry for the potwash). They then went into the soup. He let this bubble away and then put in the fish, which in that heat needed less than a minute to cook.
There was then an explosion of flames as Dave threw the enoki bowl into the smoking oil, and tossed the wok a few times, before stirring it all round with a ladle.
And that was it – the meal was pretty much done in the time it had taken me to gulp down a big bottle of ice cold Chang (which isn’t long). Si then chopped up some coriander and spring onion tops and chucked them into the soup and served it. I was glad I ate the enoki dish first – it really was wonderful and melted in my mouth – and I wouldn’t have been able to taste it otherwise.
Needless to say, the tom yam was extremely hot, and reminded me of the time a notorious curryhead had talked me into eating a phall, and soon I was weeping away as Dave and Si smirked.
Just breathing air into my mouth afterwards was painful, let alone smoke. But although I can’t pretend I didn’t suffer the consequences, it was fantastic. Next time, though, I’ll remember to leave a toilet roll in the fridge.
Lennie Nash is a journalist, writing about his failure to make it as a professional chef.