A try at Thai cuisine
Ingredients, including shrimp flakes, bean sprouts, tofu , egg, chives and chilli. Picture: Niall McIlroy/The West Australian

No sooner have I downed a big breakfast at Amari Watergate Bangkok than I'm off to make my lunch.

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But I'm going to earn this meal, as I am going to a Thai cooking school to attempt some of the delicious dishes served up in the 50,000 eateries said to be in this massive city. And if it's an absolute mess, I still have to eat it.

Happily there's a break between meals in the form of a boat trip from Maharaj Pier and I'm enjoying a different view of the metropolis as we cruise along Chao Phraya - the River of Kings - and the Bangkok Yai Canal on the way to an Amita Thai Cooking Class.

The river is swollen and brown as the wet season beds in and even the golden spires of the Grand Palace appear dull.

We slide along the klongs, or canals, that still slice Thonburi, once the capital of old Siam for a time in the 1700s after King Taksin liberated the land from the Burmese.

Now it sits quieter on the western side of the Chao Phraya swallowed by its sprawling successor, Bangkok. To starboard, a mesh of flags flaps wildly in front of the porcelain-encrusted Wat Arun, Temple of Dawn. Behind it the tropical sky is gunmetal.

Gai Phat Met Ma Muang Himmaphan (stir-fired chicken with cashew nuts). Picture: Niall Mclroy/The West Australian

Ramshackle stilted houses line the klong, apparently identical save for the washing that dries in the wind and the waterline left by the river.

A large monitor lizard watches from an outlet pipe, while others the size of big dogs forage in the foliage-covered banks. Up river, an egret perches on a broken stilt, perhaps contemplating an attack on the seething pockets of striped catfish that dapple the green surface where villagers are throwing scraps.

Despite these intermittent frenzies, it's a tranquil scene at the heart of a city that races with life and it's a much more pleasant way to get around than running the gauntlet of Bangkok's traffic-choked streets.

Fried ixora leaves and blue butterfly pea flowers. Picture: Niall McIlroy/The West Australian

We alight at a small jetty where we are met by Piyawadi Jantrupon or Tam, as she's affectionately known.

She's a qualified lawyer who, along with her husband, worked for the Tourism Authority of Thailand, giving her the opportunity to cook at engagements around the world.

But four years ago, Tam returned here to her childhood home. In this compound, she watched her grandmother and aunts prepare meals for the family and she continues the tradition, passing on old methods and the importance of fresh ingredients in her cooking school.

She greets each of us humbly, palms together, eyes flashing, head bowed forward and then she's off. With lightning speed, we are each doled out a bright white apron and, after a refreshing lemongrass drink and an appetiser of fried Ixora leaves and blue butterfly pea flowers, Tam leads us to the garden on a scavenger hunt for ingredients.

There are echoes of the past among the leaves, herbs and bulbs. A verbose myna bird named Krapow (sweet basil) welcomes us in Thai, laughs, coughs, swears - "He made those words up himself," insists Tam - and even mimics her 97-year-old mother's sneeze. Nearby, a stone rice grinder is being put to work as it has been for 130 years, since the days of Tam's great-grandmother.

Tam is in her element teaching. Picture: Niall McIlroy/The West Australian

And Tam is still surrounded by family who help her run the cooking school. She's also followed through the garden by a pet rooster called Soy Sauce and a hen called White Sesame, and as we pick ingredients she describes the medicinal uses for hairy basil and bird's eye chilli and thick finger-length turmeric bulbs.

"Thai people take this for flu," she says of one small postage stamp of a leaf. "This one has cancer-fighting properties," she says pointing deep into the undergrowth, "and this one can make you beautiful but you have to turn it into a paste."

Perhaps there's something to be said for this naturopathy. Tam's great- grandmother died only last year at the age of 105. But as she picks each ingredient, adding ginger to galangal, cloves, holy basil and chilli, I realise that I've scrunched up each in turn in my left hand which now smells like a stir-fry and I make a mental note not to scratch myself. By the river bank she picks the vivid pink stamen of Malay rose apples and warns of the big monitor lizards that live on the far side and which floated through her house after the floods which swept through Bangkok last year. And then she leads us to her open-air kitchen where she mixes and crushes, blends and fries up three delicious courses from these herbs, to which she has added chicken, prawn and shrimp flakes.

Now, my aversion to seafood has often made these pages. Some say it's psychological. I call it "fishyological". But that's no problem in Tam's kitchen and she prepares me side dishes sans shrimp, prawn or fish.

Watching her put it all together is very hungry work. But then it's our turn and we each take up station at a worktop and gas ring. Helpers bring out sets of ingredients and carefully following their instructions and the occasional piece of advice from Tam we set about preparing our own lunch.

I resist the temptation to eat all the ingredients as I cook and am able to concoct two delicious dishes - Phat Thai - stir-fried soft rice noodles with chicken (usually prawn) and tamarind sauce and Gai Phat Met Ma Muang Himmaphan - stir-fried chicken with cashew nuts.

Together with chicken and coconut soup and a water chestnut dessert Tam has prepared for us, I wolf these down keeping a weather eye out for the lizard family monitoring from the river.


FACT FILE

• Half-day cooking classes run from 9.30am-1.30pm and cost B3000 ($93) including boat and car transfer, the preparation of four courses and then the chance to eat them. The school is open every day except Wednesday. amitathaicooking.com

• For more on Thailand, see thailand.net.au

• Amari Watergate Bangkok is situated within the busy shopping district of Pratunam and has deluxe rooms starting from $112 per night. amari.com

Niall McIlroy was a guest of Amari and the Tourism Authority of Thailand.

The West Australian

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