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This cooking school is the perfect opportunity for beginners to get their hands dirty, writes Kate Gibbs.

It's a wet, monsoon-like morning in the Adelaide Hills and at 9.30am, I have shrimp paste pushed under my nose to smell. It's followed by coconut milk, coriander and fish sauce, each scent more powerful than the one before. It's a lesson on how to cook a Thai feast and a lesson in the virtues of spices to shock you out of a morning blur.

Guest chef Kelly Lord, head chef at Noosa's Spirit House, is leading the Thai Feasts for Friends class at the Sticky Rice Cooking School.

He explains the five elements of Thai cooking: hot, sweet, salty, sour and bitter. Above him, a wall is scrawled with the autographs of chefs who have gone before and in front is an impressive array of gnarly roots and fragrant herbs, 18 sharp knives, 18 plastic boards, 18 aprons and 18 eager students.

The class soon plunges into the hurly-burly of chopping, zesting limes, slicing kaffir lime leaves and picking herbs. Students are divided into two groups and the work is shared, making sure everyone gets a decent chance to wrap a chicken, ginger and water chestnut wonton, mince a garlic clove and peel a golden shallot.

When vegetable chopping is finished and the wonton wrapped and steaming for a mid-morning snack, the class moves on to following a recipe for a chu chee curry paste, a 12-ingredient fragrant mix with fresh galangal (related to ginger and turmeric but tasting like neither), shrimp paste, coriander seeds and coriander.

One student, Dave, from Adelaide, sizes up a prawn. He turns it upside down, lops off the head and deveins it in one swift move. Clearly pleased, he holds up the gooey head, vein still attached, then moves on to smashing a piece of lemongrass with a pestle before chopping it finely. The first job makes the second so much easier, we learn.

For the ambitious amateur, or the hopeless duffer who has little grounding in the basics, the Sticky Rice has developed a swift-moving class style whereby technique is learnt and demonstrated but not harped on about.


Students can learn as little or as much as they like. There is no exam, no diploma or certificate and no pressure. Home cooks who can already pull together a larb salad may be either frustrated or smug as kaffir lime leaves are passed around to discover. But the constant onslaught of culinary tips, product analysis - smoked oyster sauce makes all the difference - and cooking tip-offs means there is something for everyone.

The easygoing style suits the students in my class, who are in their late 20s and 30s, with a scattering of 40s and who, in many cases, are taking their first tentative steps away from steak-and-potatoes and whose Thai, until now, has been takeaways.

People can be scared of cooking, they're scared of kitchens, says Claire Fuller, who owns Sticky Rice Cooking School. ''In these classes they see how it is done and they have a go where they would never have before,'' she says.

The furore of MasterChef has inspired a new breed of home cooks, she says, and cooking schools have reaped the rewards. ''There has certainly been an increase in a level of interest,'' she says. ''Even if they go out and buy some beef and fresh herbs and spices next time, instead of a frozen meal, we've done a good thing.''

The Thai Feasts for Friends class covers a fair amount of ground for four hours, set forth in a binder filled with recipes. Lord regales the class with stories of his food travels in Thailand - traipsing through street markets with Australian chef and Thai-food expert David Thompson and negotiating with two Australian travellers who refused to pay a stall owner $1 for their made-to-order jungle curry because it was too hot.

Fuller was inspired to open Sticky Rice Cooking School after falling in love with Thai food on her first trip to Ko Samui 13 years ago. Having grown up in Scotland on steak-and-kidney puddings, she says, the introduction to Thai food was ''an awakening''.

''I just couldn't go back to eating chips and pies but I was frustrated that I couldn't find places in Australia where I could learn more about what I had eaten in Thailand and how to re-create it,'' Fuller says.

The school now pulls in Australia's top Thai, Vietnamese, Japanese, Indian and Moroccan-food expert chefs to teach.

As well as Thompson, those who have taught at Sticky Rice include the owner of Universal restaurant in Sydney and author of Fire: a World of Flavour among other cookbooks, Christine Manfield ; Katrina Ryan from Spirit House; and chef and the author of Little Vietnam, Nhut Huynh.

All the standing, concentrating and chopping brings hunger pangs as four hours come to an end. Students drift over to a long banquet table to eat the day's experiments and lessons, paired with a glass or two of local wine. Someone says: ''Ahh. We came, we cooked, we feasted.''

South Australia cooking schools

Kangaroo Island Source cooking school

Twenty students make Mediterranean feasts while enjoying some of the best views on Kangaroo Island. Classes, teachers and food styles alternate monthly. Classes are from $125 and include lunch, an apron and wine.

Phone (08) 8553 1275, email kangarooislandsource

Producers of McLaren Vale

Producers of McLaren Vale offers roll-up-your-sleeve experiences, with wine, apple cider, olive oil and cheese produced on site. At Sunday workshops, students make fresh mozzarella, haloumi and ricotta for $90 a person, including a light lunch.

Phone (08) 8323 0060, see

Maggie Beer's verjuice demonstrations

The doyenne of the Barossa, Maggie Beer (pictured), has always supported verjuice and sells her own brand. The Maggie Beer Farm Shop offers a daily, free, 25-minute cooking demonstration (2pm) on using the product made from pressed, unfermented grapes, to deglaze a pan of vegetables, prepare chicken and whisk together a vinaigrette.


The writer was a guest of the South Australian Tourism Commission.