Cooking with Poo
Before my recent trip to Thailand, lots of people recommended that I take part in a Thai cooking class. Since I was staying with a friend that lives in Bangkok, she enrolled us in Cooking with Poo. First, let me clarify that Poo, is the name of the chef, not the ingredients you cook with. In Thai, her name is actually shortened from the Thai word for the rose apple (Khun Poo). When she began her business, she spoke little to no english, so she did not know how “creative” this was.
Poo lives in the Klong Tuey Slum Community in Bangkok. The Klong Tuey Slum Community has 100,000 people living in approximately 2 square km. Years ago, she would cook and sell, up to 100 meals a day to barely support her family. In 2007, when the cost of rice doubled overnight, she found that she could no longer make a living that way. With the help of a community outreach program, they came up with the idea of starting a Thai cooking school. I’ll get back to what she has done to help her community later. But her class has grown from teaching 2-3 students on a table in the alley, to a large room that can accommodate 10-12 people at a time. Our class consisted of 10 students.
The class began at the largest market close to her home at about 9am. They split the market tour into two groups to be more manageable. As she (or her employees) gave us a tour of the markets, they purchased the ingredients for our class. The large bustling market had been open since 3am that morning. A lot of restaurants in Bangkok purchase their ingredients daily from the same place. It was intiguing to wander the stalls while someone explained everything we were seeing. Although, it might be a little difficult for you if you have a sensitive nose. After we wandered the market and made the purchases for class, we were picked up in a van and taken to her cooking school.
Five months earlier, her cooking school burned due to a fire in the house behind it. She still lives right next door. But Poo saw it as an opportunity to update the space. It was modern, clean and inviting. And even had air conditioning. We cooked 4 dishes over a few hours. The dishes are modified for the western palate. Thai people do not necessarily cook with the leanest meats due to cost. They also tend to add a lot of sugar to each dish. But all of the meat was very lean and we only added sugar to take out a little of the bite if a dish was too spicy. She would explain how to cook each dish, and we would take turns in groups of 5 to cook. We would eat the dish we just prepared and then start on the next one. There was one vegetarian in our group that she made modifications for, so it was nice to eat only what was in your own skillet.
The dishes vary according to the day of the week you visit. We made Chicken with Broccoli, Beef with Cashew Nuts, Green Curry, and Mango Sticky Rice. Poo’s stories and explanation of each dish were fun and engaging. She is such a happy person, it is infectious and makes the class go by so fast. All of the ingredients were portioned out for each person. If only someone would do that for me at home! All of the recipes from the class are written in english and given to you in a fabric pouch that was made by other ladies that live in the slums.
After we finished dessert there was another fun surprise. They laid out a selection of fruit and everyone got to try each one. I had never seen or heard of many of the fruits on the table. Some of them would make great decorations for Halloween, since they were fuzzy or looked a little like eyeballs. I tried every single one, I promise!! The fruits we tried were: Snake fruit, Dragon fruit, Rose Apple, Guava, Jujube, Tamarind, Rambutan, Sapodilla, and Longan. The jujube and rose apple were my favorites.
After class, Poo offers t-shirts, aprons, large fabric pouches, and her very own cookbook. Twenty percent of the proceeds from her sales goes directly towards helping the Klong Tuey Slum community that she still calls home. That is in addition to the jobs she has created at the cooking school and her own catering company. She has also worked with the community to help open a coffee shop/cafe that will be used to train and inspire young people about business ownership.
Cooking with Poo was an eye opening experience. While it was great fun, I felt like I had helped Poo make a difference in her community. When all was said and done, I left with a full tummy and an open heart.