With love and lemongrass

Louise Southerden flavours her stay in Bangkok at a cooking school with a focus on family and tradition.

Veering off the Chao Phraya River in a small, open-sided boat, we find ourselves on Bangkok's watery backstreets. We putter past rickety canal-front houses with washing hanging out on poles, past Buddhas and small temples; children too young for school wave hello. But this is just the entree to an equally authentic main course: a culinary half-day at Amita Thai Cooking Class.

It's no ordinary cooking school. Not only does our lesson start with a boat ride but Amita's owner and head teacher, Tam (her full name is Piyawadi Jantrupon), is waiting at the jetty when we arrive. She's a picture of serenity in her long, patterned skirt, white short-sleeved shirt and white apron. She's an artist, musician and former lawyer as well as a chef - as we learn while sipping chilled lemongrass tea and snacking on tempura flowers with her on a cool patio shaded by mango, star fruit and rose apple trees. It's easy to forget this is a cooking school at all and that's just the way she likes it.

"I want people to come here feeling they've come to a friend's home for fun, for cooking, for sharing," she says of these introductory refreshments. "Not to a serious class."

Amita means "eternity" in Sanskrit and it suits this collection of weathered wooden houses that have been in Tam's family for more than 200 years. It's an oasis of calm in busy Bangkok, the quiet disturbed only by an occasional long-tail speedboat, an ice-cream boat ringing its bell or another trailing roast chicken-scented smoke. "A floating supermarket goes by every day," Tam says.

As we stroll through the small but abundant herb garden - a living pantry of Thai cooking ingredients including lemongrass, banana flowers, mint, ginger, chilli, butterfly peas, cloves and kaffir lime leaves - she points to a tiled seat where she used to wait for a boat to take her to school. After school, she learnt to cook at the elbow of her grandmother and an aunt who was the first teacher at Thailand's first cooking school, in the 1960s, and who died earlier this year at the age of 105.

But the road to culinary freedom was a winding one. "I always loved art," she says, "but my mother said 'show me you have a brain'," so Tam got a law degree and worked for the Thai Tourism Authority, where her husband also worked, for several years.

Even then, she was always cooking and when the family moved to Los Angeles in the 1980s, she became a kind of Thai Julia Child, teaching American friends how to prepare Thai food. Art also found its way back to her. She studied fashion design in LA and worked with Beverly Hills boutiques and American department stores, even after she moved back to Bangkok. When she set up Amita three years ago, it was a way to combine her two loves: art and cooking. Working from home also allowed her to take care of her mother, now 96 years old.

After picking a few herbs, we wander over to the open-air kitchen. It's hot and humid without airconditioning but more authentic for that, and Tam says the heat heightens one's sense of smell. A couple of her assistants are hand-grating coconut. "People call me the Renaissance lady," she says. "Of course you can grate coconut the new way, using a blender, but this is the way we did it in the old times." It fits with Amita's earthy sensibilities.

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There's no stainless steel in Tam's kitchen; its 10 purpose-built workstations (for up to 10 students) are made of stone, wood and antiques - old clocks, Singer sewing-machine tables, cabinets with hand-painted doors. We mix lime juice and coconut milk with a whisk made from a rolled-up banana leaf with its end frayed; grind spices in ceramic mortars and pestles; and unwrap little banana-leaf parcels of ingredients such as coriander, tied up with strings of pandanus "the old way", as Tam says.

She's a Renaissance lady in the other sense, too. An accomplished Thai mask dancer, she paints, plays traditional instruments (she shows us a saw sam sai, played with a horsehair bow), collects art and loves making things. Our aprons have bright-pink button loops on the front to attach hand towels, we use clear plastic food covers with coloured pompoms on top and the student "lockers" (drawers in an old wooden chest) have teddy bear key rings sporting aprons and chefs' hats - all made by the cook. She puts sprigs of dried flowers in the bathroom, the same flowers she used to place among her grandmother's clothes to make them smell "like Christian Dior perfume," she says.

It's all so delightfully homely, I almost forget I'm here to cook, until Tam takes her place behind a long marble counter to demonstrate how to make the four dishes on today's menu: coconut rice and papaya salad, pork satay with spicy peanut sauce, green curry chicken in coconut milk, and mango sticky rice for dessert. "I try to choose food that's familiar to people - they want to learn how to make what they've had in a restaurant," she says.

As she cooks, she talks, explaining the ingredients and techniques she's using. Thai food is spicy to make you sweat, she says, which cools you down; spices also stimulate the appetite, which can fade in a hot climate. I ask her what makes Thai food so popular all over the world. "I think it's popular because it's light and refreshing, and combines beautiful presentation with unique flavours and a harmonious blend of fresh herbs and aromatic spices," she says.

When it's our turn to cook, Tam becomes my assistant, helping me create dishes that resembles, as if by magic, the pictures on the recipe cards. Ordinarily, I love food but I don't love cooking; the MasterChef spotlight will never shine on me.

But here, in Bangkok, standing in an open-air kitchen in a compound of 200-year-old houses, with Tam at my side, I believe her when she says: "You're supposed to have fun and relax when you cook; we're sharing love and happiness."

Louise Southerden travelled courtesy of Amita Thai Cooking Class, Thai Airways and the Mandarin Oriental Bangkok.

FAST FACTS

Getting there

Thai Airways has a fare to Bangkok from Sydney and Melbourne (about 9hr) for about $1030 low-season return including tax.

Staying there

The Mandarin Oriental Bangkok has 358 rooms, most with river views, and 35 suites. Bed and breakfast packages cost from $US319 ($308) a night for a standard room. See mandarinoriental.com/Bangkok.

Cooking there

Amita Thai Cooking Class runs morning cooking classes every day except Wednesday. Classes cost 3000 baht ($95) a person and include a welcome drink, a three-hour cooking lesson, a four-course lunch, recipes and return hotel transfers by car and boat.

Participants are picked up from hotels at 8-8.30am and transferred to Maharaj Pier (behind the Grand Palace) for a short boat ride along the Chao Phraya River and Bangkok Yai canal to the cooking school. Food allergies and preferences are catered to, and all the recipes are on the website, see amitathaicooking.com.

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