If you cook quite a lot, it's easy to get stuck in a bit of a rut, and to think that you know more than you do. For example, until last weekend, I was confident in the knowledge of at least two things: that I could make a really, really good Thai curry from scratch, and that spring rolls could never, ever be worth the effort of making yourself, and should only ever be purchased from your local takeaway (preferably wearing a hastily-donned coat over the top of your pyjamas).
A few hours at a Chaophraya cooking class last Sunday proved me erroneous in both regards. First things first though: in case you've not been, Chaophraya is an excellent Thai restaurant nestled behind and above Sam's Chop House on Chapel Walks, a stalwart in an area of Manchester where there are frequent restaurant casualties. I've had a couple of really good meals here in the past, so was excited to be let loose in one of their cooking classes, which promised an introduction to Thai ingredients, as well as a demonstration and hands on session and - that magic word - tasting.
There are nine of us on the course, and we are given a welcome glass of fruit punch before being equipped with Chaophraya aprons and chef's hats (as usual, mine is too small, and I have to have help) and sent upstairs where our work stations await. This is a very well-organised (and subsequently calm) affair; some of the restaurant tables have been pushed together and set with boards and other equipment, with a stove set up at one end, and we are split into a five and a four with the luxury of one instructor each.
Our menu for the day is chicken spring rolls followed by Thai green chicken curry, with kluay buad chee - bananas in coconut milk - for pudding. They are happy to cater for dietary needs but we appear to be a bunch of omnivores, although one of our party requests not to have things too spicy. The spring rolls turn out to be brilliant fun to make - we finely chop and stir-fry a selection of vegetables and then are each given a pile of wrappers and shown how to construct the perfect spring roll (with infinite patience, it has to be said). They look mighty impressive and we are all pretty pleased with ourselves when our efforts are whisked away, deep-fried, and returned to us with a pleasingly spicy dipping sauce. We have made around 5,000 of these items and they are delicious; I manage four and watch with some satisfaction as a good half dozen more are packed for each of us to take home. Whilst I can't ever imagine knocking a batch of these up on a Friday night after a week at work, I would definitely make these again for a special occasion, and our smugness at our own cleverness is palpable.
On to the main, and I am, in truth, a little disappointed that it's something I make so frequently at home and already consider myself to be quite good at. HOWEVER. Whilst we have been eating our starter, the workstations have magically cleaned themselves and set themselves with an array of beautifully fresh, healthy ingredients, and the curry we make is, without question, in a different league from any I have ever made before. Maybe it's the freshness of the ingredients; maybe it's the addition of one or two things I tend to leave out because I can't be bothered to go out and find them (fresh lime leaves come to mind); maybe it's because we make the curry paste properly, in a pestle and mortar, rather than lazily throwing all the ingredients into a food processor like I normally do at home. Either way, the curry is amazing, and I feel I have genuinely learned something from making both these courses - about technique for the starter, and about flavours for the main. Our chefs couldn't be more helpful, talking to us about the ingredients and bringing me a little dish of bird's eye chillies and fish sauce with which to augment my curry when I mention I like things slightly spicier.
The dessert is the least exciting of the dishes but is delicious all the same - we chop bananas and simmer them in coconut milk with sugar, salt and sesame seeds. It is simple but effective, although we are all pretty stuffed by now and not everyone can finish the generous helping we are given. At the end of a most enjoyable 2.5 hours, we leave with full stomachs, garlicky fingers, and a bag containing the food that we've made, the recipes, and a bottle of beer to wash it all down with, as well as our authentically be-smeared aprons. Accusations that I then go to meet a friend for a pint at Sam's and he excitedly consumes all the spring rolls in a furtive manner under the table are almost entirely unfounded.
- I was invited to the cookery class free of charge but - genuinely - this is one of the best-value cookery classes I've tried, and I would honestly pay the £60 to go again. Full details can be found on the Chaophraya website here.