Food is a huge part of experiencing the culture when you travel. And when you return home after a trip, there is nothing like having a dish from that region, full of flavor, texture, and smells to transport you right back to your travel experience. So in a way, food memories are a type of souvenir from your travels that you can experience again and again back at home! What better way to reminisce about your travels than to be able to cook authentic meals from the destinations you have visited! And we were lucky enough to stumble across (what we believe to be) the best cooking class on Koh Samui at SITCA!
When we were planning our visit to Thailand, I knew I wanted to take a Thai cooking class for sure! I always enjoy taking cooking classes while traveling…and who doesn’t like Thai food?!?! It’s so much fun chatting with other travelers, getting to know some locals, and gaining general insight into the culture and traditions through the food. Food really is a part of culture…besides, it’s yummy!
The SITCA Cooking School on Koh Samui is One of the BEST!
We were staying on Koh Samui for 1 month while getting our TEFL certification to teach English abroad. With that much time on our hands, we were really wanting to find a solid cooking school where we could learn to cook a variety of our favorite Thai dishes. And just down the road from our hotel was the Samui Institute of Thai Culinary Arts (SITCA). What better place to take a Thai cooking class!
It’s Kinda Famous…
SITCA has been featured on BBC World TV, as well as a number of travel books including the Lonely Planet and Frommers. But this school is not just a typical Thai cooking class for tourists, it is the real deal. This is where chefs come to train. It’s where people who are passionate about Thai cooking come to hone their craft. SITCA offers professional training courses, but you don’t have to be a professional to join in (obviously, since we are definitely not chefs!). These chef programs are intense, where you can master 60 – 100 Thai recipes!
But if you just have one day and want to learn a handful of recipes, then you can attend one of their daily classes, like we did.
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Samui Insititute of Thai Culinary Arts – Offers Thai Cooking Classes Daily to the Public
Each day at 11:00 am and 4:00 pm SITCA offers Thai cooking classes to the public. You should try to book your class in advance, because they are popular and can fill up! The menu changes a bit each day, but everyone will get the chance to learn how to cook 3-4 authentic Thai dishes.
The menu includes a good mix of curries, salads, soups, noodle dishes, and desserts. So you will get a nice variety! Everything is provided to the students, even the recipe books (which you get to keep).
You are also free to invite a friend (or two) to stop by after the class to eat, because there will be more than enough food!
Our Experience Learning Thai Cooking at SITCA on Koh Samui
As soon as walked in, we knew that this Thai cooking class at SITCA was going to be a lot of fun. We were greeted by our chef instructor, Ms. Natsuda Sawangwong, who was all smiles. She welcomed us warmly and showed us to our seats.
Our station was prepared for us with a cutting board, knife, and cloth. There was also a bound recipe book, which was ours to keep after the class, and a pencil so that we could take notes in the book in order to help us with re-creating these dishes back at home. They also gave us a lovely glass of juice, although you could purchase wine or beer if you wanted to.
There were 7 other people in the class with us. A married couple from Germany, an older married couple from Australia, and three young friends from Australia. Everyone was laughing and having a good time from the start of the class.
Our Thai Cooking Class Menu at SITCA
We were taking this cooking class on a Monday evening. And on this night, our menu included homemade massaman curry paste, massaman curry with chicken, spicy prawns (or chicken) salad with lemon grass, and deep fried spring rolls. We were really looking forward to this menu, especially the massaman curry…because we are huge fans!
The setting at SITCA was very comfortable and professional. We all sat around a large table where we could easily see each other and the instructor. This is where we would chat about ingredients, take notes, and do some cutting and preparing — but it is not where we did the cooking.
After we finished preparing our dishes and were ready to cook them, we would go into the next room where there was a multi-burner station kitchen. It was set up in a semi-circle with the instructor in the middle, so that we could easily see her. There were also a couple assistants running around and helping us with heat on the burners, etc. It was very efficient and convenient.
Dish 1: Deep Fried Spring Rolls
The first dish that we prepared was the spring rolls. First, we listened to our instructor while she explained the different types of oils for frying. Being a novice cook, I never realized that different kinds of oil were used for different temperatures. For example, we learned that you should not use olive oil to deep fry because it is too strong. Vegetable oil, sunflower oil, or corn oils are quite good. Rice oil works very good for deep frying as well and it’s better for you — but more expensive.
Once we got into preparing the spring rolls, we could really appreciate the organization here at SITCA. The assistants brought out plates with bowls of ingredients. We still were able to chop and measure items, but this made it easy for them to hand out to each student.
We noticed that as soon as we were finished combining the ingredients, our empty dishes were immediately taken away so not to clutter the table! Everything was kept so clean and the class seemed to run like clockwork. The organization was impressive, and it made it very easy on the students to just enjoy the experience!
Once we were finished mixing the ingredients for the spring rolls, we carefully wrapped them in the pastry. Then we took them into the kitchen room to fry them up! Once they were cooked, they were taken away and set aside for dinner after the class. Every plate had a number that corresponded with your student number, so you could be sure that you were eating what you actually made.
Dish 2: Spicy Prawns (or Chicken) Salad
The next dish that we prepared was the Spicy Prawns Salad (Yum Koong in Thai). Since I’m not a fan of prawns, we were able to substitute chicken (Gai in Thai) in this salad. We have really come to enjoy Thai salads. They are quite different than the typical salads that we think of in the States. They are a bit tangy, sweet, and spicy. Awesome combinations!
What we really loved about the Thai cooking class here at SITCA was the way that our instructor went over all the ingredients.
While we were making this salad, Ms. Natsuda carefully explained the unique ingredients that we may not be familiar with, such as Thai ginger (which is very different than our typical ginger) and kafir leaf. She explained where these items come from and how they are used in Thai cooking; for example, Thai ginger is often used to help cut out the fishy taste in some dishes.
She let us feel and smell them, and even cut off slivers and had us taste them. It was nice to be able to appreciate the different ingredients and it added a lot to our experience during the class. That way when we ate the finished dishes, we were able to appreciate the different flavors that we were tasting.
Dish 3: Homemade Massaman Curry Paste
One of the dishes that I was looking forward to learning about most was how to make massaman curry paste! We enjoy all kinds of curries, but massaman is a good hearty curry. Plus, I’ve always wanted to know what it’s like to make curry paste.
Of course, you can buy pre-made curry paste in the store (because it’s labor intensive to make it). But it is nice to have the experience of actually making it. Plus, I think it gives you more of an appreciation for the dish and all that goes into it!
First, Natsuda showed us the different kinds of peppers that are used and explained the differences. Here in the Thailand, the basic small green peppers are younger and less spicy. But they turn red over time and become much more spicy! She also told us that frying the chilies helps to take some of the spiciness out of them, but still retains the flavor of the chili pepper.
In Thailand, they love their spicy food! But foreigners aren’t usually able to handle that kind of spice. For example, Josh and I went with 3 chilies. It was much spicier than most people can handle. We liked it, but it was definitely hot! However, locals Thais often eat 5-6…or even 8 chilies in a dish. Now that might melt a westerner’s face off!
Some of the ingredients in the massaman curry paste included large dried red chilis (soaked in water until warm and soft), deep fried dried small red-hot chilies, fresh lemongrass, fresh galangal, shallots, garlic, cumin, cardamom, anise, cinnamon, cloves, pepper and salt. As you can see, lots of herbs and spices!
All of these items are put into a stone mortar and pestal, where you grind them together yourself. It takes a lot of elbow-grease to grind the all the spices into a paste.
The great thing about making this paste is that you can actually make a lot of it and store the leftovers in the freezer for future cooking. But for the class, we planned to use all of it!
Dish 4: Massaman Curry – The Main Course
Finally, we moved onto the main course of the evening, the massaman curry with chicken (in Thai, it’s called Gaeng Massaman Gai). Some of the ingredients included chicken breast, white onion, white potato, roasted unsalted peanuts or cashews, curry paste, anise, tamarind juice, palm sugar (or brown sugar is ok), fish sauce (soy sauce is ok), coconut cream, chicken stock and soy bean / vegetable oil.
One of the ingredients was tamarind fruit juice. We had never really seen this fruit before. So Natsuda passed it around for us to feel and even sample. The tamarind fruit has a very interesting texture, and it is a bit sour. She explained that you can mix the fruit with water and boil down into a juice and strain it out – which is what is used in this curry (and other Thai dishes).
With this particular fruit, you can boil it and not lose it’s flavor. But if you try to boil lime / lemons, they will actually turn quite bitter! That is why they use the tamarind fruit.
After everything was prepared, we headed into the cooking room one last time. The smells were incredible, and Josh and I were starving at this point. Everything looked so good that we just could not wait to eat it!
When we were finished, class assistants took our bowls of curry away for dinner, and we cleaned ourselves up and removed our aprons. Then we headed upstairs to the dining room for dinner.
Enjoying a Home Cooked Thai Meal – That I Made From Scratch!
After more than 3 hours of learning, cooking, and smelling all these amazing dishes, we were starving! The second floor of the SITCA building included a large dining room, which had been completely set up for us. On the tables were numbers that corresponded with our student numbers, and all of our dishes that we prepared were set out in front of us.
Looking at the table of homemade spring rolls, spicy chicken salad, massaman curry and rice, it was satisfying to know that I actually cooked it all myself. We dove right into the dishes, and began to “oooh” and “mmmmm” at the flavors. The food was awesome! And there was SO much of it!
Technically, only one of us took the class. So basically, Josh and I switched places to share the cooking experience. But mostly, I cooked while Josh documented and took photos. Then we both shared the meal afterwards, and there was more than enough for the 2 of us. We even had leftovers to bring back to the hotel!
Taking a Thai Cooking Class at SITCA in Koh Samui is More Than Worth It!
We would highly recommend to anyone who is planning to visit Koh Samui that they take a cooking class at SITCA. The experience took about 4 hours in total, and it was a lot of fun! Check out the SITCA website for menus and inquire about booking your place.
It’s definitely a great evening out with your friends, or even a couples outing. Not only did we learn to cook some awesome meals, but we learned a lot about Thai cooking and dining culture in general. Plus, the meal afterwards was better than what we had eaten at some restaurants around town. If anything, it’s definitely worth it for dinner!
But you also get to take home your recipe book with notes so that you can replicate the meal back at home. This is really what we love about attending a cooking class, because now we can relive our time in Thailand through the food back in the States. We have yet to find Thai food this good in the States.
Bring Souvenirs of Thai Food Home With You
If you are really interested in Thai food and cooking, then SITCA has additional recipe books and DVDs that you can purchase and bring home with you so that you can learn to make other dishes. They also sell pre-packaged ingredients for the dishes, which makes it super convenient to buy everything you need to make particular meals.
And when you return home, you may choose to purchase these items online through their website, so that you can easily get all the ingredients you need without having to hunt all over town to find them…especially the more unique ingredients.
So now, you can reminisce about our time in Thailand and enjoy some of the best Thai food right in our home anywhere in the world. Now that is the type of travel souvenir that we love the most!