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16/01/ 2011 Cooking up a Thai-phoon at Saba

It was 9.55a.m. one cool, crisp Sunday morning in January, and I found myself standing shiftily outside Saba.  I wasn’t alone though…….  There were actually eleven other people hanging around as well, mostly on their own like me, shuffling and looking at their feet, although a few were chatting quietly.  It felt like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when at 10am the doors were opened and we were all invited to enter.
 We were all at Saba that cold morning for a Thai cookery course, organised through Fabulous Food Trails (www.fabulousfoodtrails.ie).  I had been booked onto the course by my lovely man as a birthday present, and as it turned out most people were there as a result of thoughtful pressie from a loved one.
Once into Saba we were all warmly met by Eveleen (who runs Fabulous Food Trails with her niece) who did an amazing job of remembering everyone’s names and making us all feel welcome.  It wasn’t long before we were settled around a table getting to know each other over cappuccinos and cups of green tea.  Of the twelve people on the course, only a couple of people had come together which was great for me as it meant I was far from the only loner there.

Chef Tao, Master Chef at Saba and our cooking guru for the day, soon came out to meet everyone and give us a bit of a heads up on the order of events.  Breakfast, introduction to Thai ingredients, demonstrations, shopping and lunch.  Sounded good to me.
Breakfast was an eye opener for me.  Traditional Thai breakfast – Conchi.  It was basically a rice soup, with pork balls and ginger and galangal.  It was beautiful, although the portion was huuuge and I have to confess I wished I hadn’t stocked up on the more traditional Irish breakfast of toast before I’d come in to town! 
After breakfast everyone was nice and relaxed, and had started to get to know each other which set the atmosphere for the day.  Chef Tao was soon back with us, and for the next hour (maybe hour and a half) we ran through the whole spectrum of Thai cookery ingredients.  Chef Tao was so enthusiastic, and passionate, it truly was pleasure to sit and try and absorb as much of his knowledge as I could.  We tasted everything from Soy Sauce to Soy Bean Paste, chilli paste in oil to authentic coconut milk.  While I was already familiar with many of the ingredients, having Chef Tao recommend brands and highlight the difference in taste between the authentic brands and the western equivalents had changed the way I’ll shop in the future.  I can’t even begin to tell you how much I learnt from this session, and rather than try and put everything in to here I’ve summarised some of the top tips that I learnt at the end of this article.
After the tasting and info session it was into the Saba kitchen for our first demo, yay.  Phad Thai was first on the agenda, following a request that had been made prior to the course from a member of the Group.  Luckily, I was extremely happy with Phad Thai, and it was great to see how the course had been adapted to what had been requested.  What really surprised me with this demo was actually the size of the Saba kitchen – tiny!  I have no idea how they get so many covers out from there, it really is credit to Chef Tao and his fabulous team I think. 
During this demo, and throughout the day Chef Tao gave us some great stats on the ingredients used by Saba.  Here are a few (hope I got them exactly right!):
- 100 litres of Phad Thai sauce used each week
- Coconut milk is ordered twice a year directly from Thailand
- 200 kilos of vegetables are ordered each week
- 40 kilos of fresh baby corn ordered per week
- 20 kilos of prawns used every day
Once we devoured the Phad Thai, we moved back into the restaurant and a demo table had been set up.  We all stood around the table and for each of the following dishes, one lucky team member got to help out:
- Tom Yum soup (prawn)
- Glass noodle Salad
- Stir fried chicken and lemongrass
- Fried beef with chilli paste in oil
- Green monkfish curry
I loved every dish.  Chef Tao experimented with different chilli levels for us which was brilliant, although after the particularly spicy glass noodle salad, I was grateful to see Eveleen wandering towards me with glasses of milk! ;o)  I also enjoyed the variety of dishes that we made, I would never have ordered a glass noodle salad before, but I can tell you I will be now.
What I particularly enjoyed about the course was the fact that Chef Tao really tried to educate us with the basics – giving us basic formulas to take away and apply to whatever we wanted, rather than having us become slaves to his specific recipes. 
After the demos were over we all trooped over to the Asian Supermarket on Drury Street, and followed Chef Tao around like a flock of sheep as he picked up unusual (to us!) fruit and vegetables and explained how we would use them, and also pointed out all of the best brands of curry paste (Mae Ploy), coconut milk (Chaokoh) etc that we should be using when we start cooking in our own houses.
Finally, it was back to Saba, and to our utter disbelief, time for a full two course lunch! It was 3pm and after out Conchi and the six demonstrations earlier I wasn’t sure I could do it.  However with a bit of break while we waited, a glass of wine and some friendly chatter, there was no holding me back once the food arrived. Chef Tao chose our menu for us, again trying to make sure we had a really broad experience – highlights in the starters for me were bettel leaves stuffed with smoked trout and also the peppered squid – something I fell in love with years ago while living in Sydney and hadn’t managed to find anyone who’d managed to compete with it since.  For mains we had hake in banana leaf and red curry sauce, chicken massaman curry (a fave of mine!) and stir fried prawns.  Seriously, what a feast.
I rolled out of Saba at 4pm – completely sated.  What a lovely, lovely day, I felt like I had learnt so much, and needless to say, eaten so much. Heaven.
I’ve had a cheeky look on the Fabulous Food Trails website, and the cost of the course is €175.  I think that does seem quite a lot, but on the other hand it really is a fabulous day, you get fed for the entire day (I challenge you to try and eat anything else that day), and receive an introduction to Thai Cooking from the Master Chef at Saba.  I think based on all of this that it’s probably reasonable.  My man also booked me on the Dublin Walking Tour organised by Fabulous Food Trails, we’re due to go in a couple of weeks.  Having met Eveleen and enjoyed the Thai day so much, I can’t wait.  Bring it on.
Some of Chef Tao’s top tips
- Basic wok dish sauces:
Meat: 2 x Soy sauce, ½ x black (dark) soy, 1 x oyster sauce (all measures are dessert spoons)
Add 300g meat, 150g veg
Seafood: Swap soy for fish sauce.  Alternatively do 1 x soy sauce, 1 x fish sauce
- Noodles
Glass/vermicelli noodles: Soak for 25-30 mins in cold water before use
Rice/egg noodles: Soak for 15 mins in cold water before use
Once soaked – either straight to wok for wok dish, or only v briefly (5 mins) in boiling water so don’t overcook.  Will prevent noodles from being sticky.
- When using packaged curry paste, be sure to cook off in oil for a minute or two before adding other ingredients
- If making yellow curry – add ¼ tsp turmeric and 1 tsp curry powder if you want to make it bright yellow
- Basic Thai curry:
2 x tins coconut milk, 1 heaped dessert sp. Curry paste (note seriously massively heaped, probably equivalent to 3 or 4 non-heaped dessert spoons), 1 dessert spoon fish sauce, ¾ dessert spoon palm sugar, meat 300g, vege – up to you!  Note: Green curry great for seafood, red great for meat.
- If you par boil baby corn with small amount of turmeric before you wok cook it enhances colour
- Thursday is the best day to shop in the Asian markets as they will have received fresh produce
- Kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, galangal and birds eye chillies – you can freeze for up to a year – much better than dried.