A cookery demonstration of select Thai dishes at Le Meridien, by Thai chef Kroongtana Nimnu, had an enraptured audience and many converts

The stage is set, the audience is ready and in walks Chef Chang armed with a partly-peeled papaya. The audience comprising exclusively of women (special invitees) has gathered at hotel Le Meridien for a demonstration (more of a capsule) of Thai cooking.

Chef Chang is, almost, his pseudonym because his given name Kroongtana Nimnu ‘is tough to say'. And he jokes that ‘Chang means Haathi (elephant in Hindi)' referring to his girth, he wins over his ‘students' with that, although some were looking for the joke. The Chef is a Starwood chef, and a very experienced one that. In fact, he is considered a specialist in Thai cuisine. He is in town for the Thai food festival on at Le Meridien.

He starts with Som Tamp or Tam which is spicy papaya salad. A handout enumerated the ingredients that need to go in to the salad and the other dishes about be cooked. And then he brings forth a mortar and pestle and a story. Apparently in Thailand when folks look for a daughter-in-law, one who pounds lazily and slowly will not do. Being something of a devotee of Thai raw mango salad with no clue about how it is made, it came as something of a shock to see all the ingredients of the papaya salad – raw grated papaya, beans, tomato, fresh red chilli, peanut etc - going into the mortar. And being pounded, not ground just crushed to get the juices and flavours out. The payoff is, of course getting to taste what the chef has made.

Salad time

The pounding done out comes Som Tamp – beautiful and delicate looking despite the treatment. The salad is ‘pounded' to get the flavours out. It is also, colloquially, referred to as ‘pok pok' since the pestle goes ‘pok pok'. It is as good as the mango version, only better. There is the crunch of peanuts, the tanginess of lemon, sweetness of palm sugar…each sharp flavour captured. The next is Gang Som Koong (mixed vegetables and prawns with sour curry) which Chef likens to ‘sambar'. There are vegetables, there is turmeric (in a paste) and there is tamarind juice, no wonder then that the chef likened it to our ‘sambar'. But then there is also galangal, lemon grass and prawns so it is very different. A deep shade of yellow, it IS spicy and sharp. Not so much ‘sambar' as ‘rasam'. All those herbs are very good for the tummy says the chef. If we think we (Indians) like our food spicy we have another think coming…Thais like their spice really spicy. “In India, you use green chillies which are not as spicy as the riper red chillies we use.”

As the chef takes the audience on a crash course of sorts through Thai cuisine, a discussion ensues about the availability of galangal locally. It is available informs Chef Soman (executive chef Le Meridien). It is ‘manga inchi' somebody figures and relieved the session moves on. So far into the proceedings and no ‘Thai curry' yet (the coconut variety)…the fear was unfounded. The last item was ‘Gang Kai' (chicken red curry). What is Thai cuisine sans red curry? It all looks so easy, before we can say tom yum the demonstration is over and the chef embarks on an impromptu demo of vegetable carving. A turnip thus becomes a rose at the chef Chang's hands.

Two kinds of food

There are broadly two categories of food, the chef says in a chat after the session, for the royals and for the commoners (in a manner of speaking). The former is obviously ‘rich' (‘complex and mild'; nuanced) and the latter is sharp, simple and fast (‘the flavours are all out there'). “The Europeans like the richer variety because it tends to be less spicy and in India the common kind is popular,” he says. Also, as in India, there is regional distinction in Thai cuisine. Royal or common, the cookery demonstration was educating and the food cooked was good.

Since there was no dessert on demo, and we all like some sweet after our food we are curious. The chef says, as Gulab Jamun (a favourite of his) is to India, sticky rice and mango is to the Thais. Actually, when the chef describes the dish it sounds quite delectable. “There is a Thai version of Gulab Jamun made with eggs,” he says. Don't know about that though.

The Thai food festival (dinner) is on till February13.

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