I would never have thought to join a Thai cooking class if not for the rare opportunity for a posh break with my ever-abroad sister Nagwa and her two closest friends, Manar and Faten. It was Nagwa who, in the Hollywood phrase by now current among us, "got mail" from the Four Seasons Hotel, where for LE140, one could join a Thai cooking class and enjoy a meal at the end of it. Nagwa wanted to entertain her two weary friends, Manar with her children's activities and Faten with her work and social responsibilities. I joined the friendship caravan as well. The company was the target more than the place. But the beauty of the destination added to the outing.
My only concern was diet, but Eman El-Yasaky, the PR coordinator at the Four Seasons, assured me that it would be a zero-calorie experience. Whether it actually was is besides the point: Thai food is not only deliciously spicy but very light. Led by Nagwa again, we entered into the spirit of Audrey Hepburn heading for cooking school in Sabrina. Aprons at the ready, excitement barely under control, we arrived at the hotel some half hour before the class was due to begin. And half an hour later, to the frustration of our expectations, we were duly ushered, along with some 27 others -- almost all non-Egyptian -- into a large lecture hall-like space with a small kitchen in the corner and a screen. It felt cool to be in the company of businessman Amr Nazif, the only male among us, who was accompanied by his Cairo-based Belgian friend Marie-Claire Tubaert, well known for her civil activities in Egypt and, as it turned out, the very reason we were all here. "I thought it would be nice to gather around a famous cook and concentrate on the way he worked," Tubaert was to explain, in time. "It's a cook's tips we're always looking for, anyway. And if we were to get involved in the cooking itself, we wouldn't have a chance to register all the details. Afterwards, we'll sit around together enjoying the recipes and each other's company." While watching intently I would sneak glimpses at the trio I came with and though absorbed in what was going on, they were grasping uncontrollably at their aprons.
A quick chat introduced me to Andrea Stang and Claudia Ernst, German friends brought to Egypt by their husbands' work. Both were delighted to be here, dissatisfied with the range of restaurants on offer and eager to present husbands with a home-made instance of the cuisine they adore. But it was Chef Rewat Srilachai, a high-ranking employee of the Four Seasons Resort in Chiang Mai, Thailand, who proved instantly engaging: "the essence of Thai cuisine is contrast as well as harmony. Sweet, sour, spicy and salty tastes do a balancing act in which each flavour strives to but never manages to surpass the next." Thai climate is diverse enough, he explained, to make for a variety of menus: "Coconut milk, seafood and fruit all play an important role." He described the process as fast and butter-less -- all, as he put it, about herbs. Elucidating the form and content of the four dishes he would present, Srilachai got down to business. It was mostly lost on a weak, weak cook like myself, but occasionally I would hmm my recognition of something. We each got a file with ingredients and method and an ethnic Thai bag, Krapao, as a gift, anyway. I thought that should be reward enough. As the procedure progressed, Ekrem Tercanoglu, from the hotel's own Lai Thai restaurant, would pass by, offering us a close-up of a herb or a dish.
"We will have four dishes to learn. We have deep fried prawns with noodles, grill beef salad North Eastern style, spicy sea bass soup, and green curry prawns," Srilachai said in his Eastern accent, as if all cooks and chefs add spices to the universal language.
Srilachai began with the following delicious appetiser: peel the six pieces of prawns, leaving the tails intact. Gently pull out the dark vein from each prawn back, starting at the head end. Put the prawns with one tbsp of oyster sauce, white soy sauce, a teaspoon of chopped garlic, and white pepper powder for taste. Marinate them for 15 minutes. Boil egg noodles then wrap the prawns with the egg noodles and deep fry with hot sesame oil. Serve the dish with sweet chili sauce of 20gm of white vinegar, 25gm of white sugar, 8gm salt and 15gm red chili. He then went on the three other dishes in course.
In the meantime Srilachai showered us with advice: chili peppers served in a dish were not meant for biting into; fish sauce can be replaced with salt and vice versa; the key is to maintain the balance between liquids and solids during cooking. He also demonstrated the almost miraculous Thai gift for satisfying the eye as well as the stomach, creating pepper flowers in no time and then soaking them in water, where they swelled into many times their original size. Succumbing to audience demands, he gave quick recipes for a vegetarian dish and the ubiquitous Pad Thai.
An hour after we arrived, we were filing up to Lai Thai for our meal -- a time when everyone felt, preposterously, that they were about to taste the fruit of their own labour. Lai Thai is a themed space with red and golden decorations, Buddha statues and Thai aromas; it seems to transport you to the far-away country in question. Nothing was out of place. The table was decorated with herb plants, and the day's dishes beautifully complemented each other. The variety of nationalities sitting around together inspired feelings of human solidarity. Culture aside, we all had similar needs and aspirations, and our smiles echoed each other's. All of us liked the food except for two high school Jordanians who would much rather have been munching on pizza slices. Still, I liked the class for what it was -- the company, the chatting, the spice. But the real problem will lie in finding the different kinds of Thai herbs in Cairo.
I would without reservation recommend this memorable experience to anyone in the least bit interested in crossing cultural gaps -- not a daunting process, as it turns out, but one that requires focus.