I spy some Thai delights
Think Thai food is all about green curry and noodles? Nooror Somany Steppe will change your mind. The chef and co-founder of the Blue Elephant restaurant chain is a legend in her native Thailand. She’s famous for her cooking schools in Bangkok and Phuket, and is opening one in Britain.
I’ve come to meet Steppe in Thailand, determined to get to grips with this complex cuisine. ‘We want to show you authentic Thai,’ she says. ‘Thai food can be luxurious – it’s not just the French who do fine dining – and it is regional. People need to know more about it.’
She takes me for afternoon tea at the Mandarin Oriental to reveal just how luxurious Thai food can be. We sample pandan leaf and coconut scones, lemongrass and Thai tuna sandwiches, and prawn and passionfruit steamed brioche. Its outré eastern flavours leave me ravenous for more.
Steppe, who was born in a village in Chachoengsao in central Thailand, explains the regional differences. Northern Thai is more starchy – high carbs suitable for long days of farming. Noodles are northern and central. And the hot south, with its Muslim Malay influences, means spicy seafood, curries and cooking with fruit.
We visit Bang Rak market in Bangkok, where pandan leaves, sticky tamarind and lumps of shiny palm sugar all glint enticingly. Steppe points to some purple-looking rice. ‘This is black rice,’ she says. ‘The best rice is from Surin.’ It’s a heritage rice in Thailand rarely seen in British restaurants.
She picks up tiny garlic cloves – essential for a decent curry. ‘Thai garlic is stronger than normal garlic and lowers cholesterol,’ she says. ‘Turmeric is as important in southern Thai food as it is in Indian. And good for digestion.’
We escape the heat and head for her Blue Elephant cookery school and restaurant. First on the list is how to make proper chilli paste for curries, stir-fries and fishcakes. She puts red chilli in a mortar and pestle, and I grind it daintily. ‘You would not make a good wife,’ she says, before taking over and pounding the chilli with gusto. So what’s next? Kaffir lime zest, galangal, lemon grass, garlic, shallots, cumin and coriander seeds, white pepper powder and shrimp paste.
In an hour’s tuition, we also learn how to make prawn and mangosteen salad, and massaman curry. For the curry, Steppe stir-fries garlic, shallots, ginger and coriander, then adds massaman paste (red dried chillies, garlic, cumin, cinnamon and cardamom) with red curry paste and coconut milk. This is followed by chicken, potato, cinnamon, bay leaves and cardamom and roasted peanuts. The seasoning is vital – Steppe uses palm sugar, salt, tamarind juice and fish sauce.
In the evening, in the restaurant, her signature dishes confirm this is serious gastronomy, rather than the Friday night curry washed down with a Singha beer we Brits devour. For Mieng Kham, mango slivers, shallots, green chilli, ginger, tamarind, shrimp paste and galangal are put into a betel leaf cone vessel and eaten in one mouthful. It’s an explosion of sweet, sour, zesty heaven. ‘I gave this to the prime minister but it’s easy to make,’ she says.
Next comes Doi Kham salad, aubergine taken to new levels. Each wave of food brings more sensory overload. As we finish, she says: ‘You see, this is what I want the cookery school in London to be like, all about techniques and new flavours.’ She looks at me and adds: ‘And we will teach how to use a pestle and mortar, Thai-style.’
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