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All Thai-ed up at the Vegetarian Cookery School in Bath

I'm on a bit of a cooking class tip at the moment - after posting about Atsuko's Kitchen a couple of post ago, this time I'm blogging about the Vegetarian Cookery School in Bath.

I'd been meaning to go the VCS in Bath for a while, but never quite made it. Once I got to Paddington station and found a day return from London to Bath was over £150, I realised why. Handily, the train half an hour after the one I'd planned to take was £100 cheaper. It might get me to the VCS late, but it would get me there without sending me into penury.

The course I'd signed up for was Thai and Vietnamese, which promised:

Thai and Vietnamese food gets your taste buds tingling. The distinctive flavour comes from coriander, including the roots, lemon grass, kaffir lime leaves, galangal, garlic, tamarind and chillies. Thai cuisine is an amalgamation of many influences, Chinese, Malay and Indian. It is lightly cooked so it's crisp, colourful and highly flavoured. Vietnamese cuisine has been influenced by China in the North and Thailand in the South.

The Vietnamese use little oil, and like clean flavours with simple grilled food along with clear soups. They always serve a plate of green leaves, herbs and sour fruit to complement the dishes and clear the palate. We show you how to identify unusual ingredients, such as green papaya and where to source them, how to make vegetarian alternatives to the ubiquitous fish sauce and how to adapt dishes which are traditionally made with meat and fish.

My problem with Thai food is this: I like eating it, oh yes, I like eating it, but try cooking it at home? It just ends up a poor facsimile of good Asian food.

Turns out the answer to such a problem is a simple one: it's the ingredients, stupid.

The class began with a walkthrough of all the ingredients we'd be using - palm sugar, galangal, lime leaves, fresh turmeric and tamarind were all laid out in front of us. I had a passing acquaintance with them previously; by the end of the day course we'd had a drink, swapped numbers and said we'd do this again soon.

The course was a mixture between demonstration and hands-on cookery. If there was one criticism I had of the course, it was that there wasn't enough of the latter, although I do understand that with 12 cooks and four cooking stations, that's not always going to be possible.

Our first crack at Thai food came in the form of a demonstration of how to make a Thai red curry paste - mostly a question of dry frying spices and then adding them to fresh ingredients to a food processor. The end result was lovely - a bright, zingy paste that I could quite happily have eaten raw off a spoon.

The paste then featured in a pad thai - a dish we cooked ourselves in teams of three - with fresh veggies and rice noodles and also later in a subsequent Thai curry. The pad thai was pleasant, the curry was a thing of wonder. The carroty, earthy taste of the turmeric and the sharp-salt-chilli of the paste made a curry that was nowhere near the bland, crap-takeaway tastes I'd normally managed to cook up.

Other Thai and Vietnamese snacks that got our going over were spring rolls and hue rolls and the dips to go with them. That the rolls were tasty was no surprise - deep fried pasty/fresh veggies and tofu are always going to play to the crowd - but the dips we made to go with them were a revelation. The chilli-tomato one was nice, the fish-sauce replacement was deceptively simple for something so tastebud pleasing and the satay sauce was the sort of thing that should be eaten in vast quantities, whether you have anything to dip or not. No spring rolls to hand? Spread it on toast. Or just get a spoon and shovel it down. Or sod the spoon and just dig your fingers in. Yes, it was that good.

Another dish that got its own little dance of impressedness was the black rice with coconut milk and mango slices in chilli syrup. Wow. To quote the philosopher Shaggy, like, wow, man. If I make one thing from this day course, it will be this. Despite its dairy-free-ness, the pudding had an amazing rich creaminess, with hints of rum and molasses from the palm sugar. Lovely.

The day ended with a meal (technically our third of the day, I think) of the spring rolls, curry with rice and a kick-ass green papaya salad followed by the black rice pudding with a glass of a delicious wine that you could close your eyes and swear was sake.

Of course, you wouldn't want to close your eyes - outside the Vegetarian Cookery School are chocolate box views of Bath. Sure, a rainy Bath might not be a patch on a Thai palm-fringed beach but until I can scrape together enough for a plane ticket to Phuket, I won't feel hard done by when it comes to Thai food.

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  1. Thank you for such a lovely write-up of the cookery course! Helen was raving about what a fantastic job you all did with the spring rolls. Thanks also for your feedback on the level of hands-on-ness of the course. We do try to give everyone plenty of opps to get their hands dirty, but like you say, it can be a challenge in a full kitchen! But we'll keep it in mind in future courses. So glad you enjoyed the course and your photos are fantastic! Let us know if and when you cook up some of our dishes in your own kitchen.


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