Learning to cook Thai food from the heart


Downstairs in the lobby of the Edgartown School, small witches, ghoulies, fairies, and legged pumpkins thronged in Halloween festivities that made one wonder how the rest of the Island could seem so dark and deserted.

In the cheerful upstairs maze of the school, all was quiet save for the occasional loud grind of the janitor’s cart. Then at 6:25 pm, Pissamai Silarak, whom everyone calls Mai at her own insistence, showed up looking slim and elegant in an ankle-length black skirt, a black silk blouse, and, atop her long black hair, a black hat modeled after the cat’s of Dr. Seuss.

Twelve adult students entered the Home Ec classroom, the lights were switched on, and the magician laid out her tools.

This marked the fourth Thai cooking class in a series of five in the ACE MV program. Some years before, Ms. Silarak, who came to the U.S. in 2009, co-managed Bangkok Cuisine on Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs, then opened her own Thai restaurant alongside The Ritz. It was a brilliant use of that space that had long been given over to a billiard table, but unfortunately not enough Islanders were aware of its existence for it to catch on. Its debut was followed hard upon by a closing bow.

Like all girls growing up in small villages in Thailand, Ms. Silarak learned at the earliest age how to prepare the fresh and ultra-tasty cuisine that westerners have taken to with gusto. Mothers and aunties teach little ones how to chop hot peppers and heat rice noodles so that culinary arts are acquired as a second language.

Ms. Silarak’s childhood was, by our American, largely suburban standards, exotic in the extreme. She grew up in a small village in the northeast of Thailand. At the age of seven she worked in the rice fields with her grandmother. She also tended the family’s water buffalo. Her mother cooked at the side of the road, and brought home whatever remained from her sales. Before dinner, the family blessed the water buffalo for his essential part in the day’s effort.

Ms. Silarak said, “I grew up to appreciate hard work and good food. All Thai food is filled with love.”

Minutes after her arrival, the teacher lavished on us her radiant smile, then handed out lettuce, cucumbers, and carrots to three groups of four, instructing us to wash, chop, and peel. As the only attendee who had no idea what she was doing, I watched as teammate Cynthia Bloomquist of West Tisbury parsed the washed lettuce into confetti-sized shreds. Jennifer Crawford of Oak Bluffs cut cucumbers into thin shavings, while Carol Koser of Edgartown showed me how to use the carrot peeler to whittle long orange strips.

We were on our way to making, from absolute scratch, Thai spring rolls.

It was only later that I was able to appreciate the charm and efficiency that went into presenting this two-hour class. There was no sense of blather or rush. At the same time, with a professionalism on the part of the teacher and teamwork on the part of the students, we kept moving forward, fully coordinated, and yet with a thorough sense of fun.

Whenever necessary, Ms. Silarak summoned us to the central cubicle to demonstrate a new drill, in particular sautéing garlic and shallots with the chicken she’d grinded at home. (Back in her village at the earliest age she’d often be sent to dispatch six or seven chickens at a time for her mother’s roadside lunch trade.)

She also showcased the interesting use of spring roll wrappers — available at Cronig’s and the Tisbury Farm Market — which in their uncooked form resemble tinsel-thin disks of clear plastic. A brief immersion in a pan of warm water creates instant flex and stickiness. We positioned two together on a cutting board, overlapping in the center to form a larger edible platter.

Into the center we placed our exquisitely sliced veggies, thin rice noodles, dibs and dabs of the chicken mixture, topped by parsley and mint. We all practiced our rolling techniques, and jokes were made about something called “blunts,” but most of us ended up with bulkier tubes than Ms. Silarak’s slim demo roll.

No matter, we sliced each cylinder into three chunks, then dipped them into sauce prepared from sugar, white vinegar, salt, and fresh red chili peppers. Silence fell over the Home Ec room as we happily ate.

Ms. Silarak passed out tiny bowls of sliced hard-cooked eggs, tomatoes, and cucumbers, made ambrosial by a dressing of soy sauce, brown sugar, shallots, lime, and chilies.

Sated by our delicious and insanely fresh food, the other students knew enough to bring containers for left-overs; I had only my memories and a full tummy.

Cleanup time ensued as if Snow White were singing to her dwarves. The happy galley workers went to work wiping tables, washing utensils and bowls, and leaving each cooking space even spiffier than we’d found it.

Ms. Silarak sent us home with printed recipes of the marvel we’d just concocted with rice wraps and shredded carrots. My table mates named their favorites from past classes — green curry and pad Thai. I’m willing to bet that once these novice Thai chefs have run the full course, they’ll be cooking nothing but South Asian food for the rest of the year.

Hot dogs? Mac ‘n cheese? Maybe as an occasional reminder that what they’re really hankering for is fried rice with pineapples, cashews, shrimp, and lime-chili sauce.

For more information on ACE MV classes throughout the winter and spring, visit acemv.org. Pissamai Silarak is currently catering private dinners and parties and may be contacted at silamai707@hotmail.com. Her popular course (the original Tuesday night slot received so many sign-ups that a Thursday class was added) will be launched again in the spring.