Sustainability has becoming a much larger global conversation, and we’ve been thoughtful about how to be more friendly to the environment in our cooking classes, reduce waste, and encourage others to do the same. Bangkok’s International Schools have also been a part of pushing discourse and action to protect the environment, and we’re proud to be in partnership with schools encouraging students to make a difference. Most recently we have been doing workshops and demos in schools to teach youth practical ways they can reduce waste in and around the kitchen.
Thailand is one of the world’s worst plastic polluting countries, creating about 2 million tons of plastic and growing each year. The single-use plastic is especially egregious and has been the focus of many of the awareness campaigns in the past few years. This has been encouraging people to use last plastic, especially plastic bags, straws and other utensils, and even hygiene items such as toothbrushes.
When we have an opportunity to do outreach with students, generating discussion is usually our first task. The majority of students we meet in international schools have already seen the viral videos of animals suffering or dead from swallowing too much plastic. In fact some of the current initiatives to influence retailers to use less plastic, have been started by the students themselves. This makes getting students to speak up about how to make changes easy.
Just like the students, we can all acknowledge we need to use less plastic, but can’t always imagine what that may mean. We have to remind students that plastic, as much as it’s a regular part of life today, wasn’t always around. What then, did people do before they were given 3 straws and two plastic bags for every drink purchase they make? We believe that asking these questions can provoke students to realize that many of the solutions they desire may already be in hand.
Using Natural Straws
One fun way to get the discussion going is to make natural straws with the students. To their shock, we grab what seems like an unimportant vase of long stemmed light green plants, and assign them to make their own straws. The plant is morning glory and the students set up cutting, pithing, and cleaning them, while discussing how they’ll use them at lunch later in the day.
We find most students know very little about the morning glory plant, whose name in English can be used to refer to a large family of plants. In Thailand however, most discussion revolves around two edible varieties used commonly in Thai cooking. The most famous is referred to as a Chinese breed (pak boong jin or ผักบุ้งจีน), and is flash stir fried with chili and garlic. This version has skinny stems, and if you purchase it, intending to make a natural straw you will be sorely disappointed. Or maybe not, because you can still make a stellar stir fry.
The other common variety (pak boong thai or ผักบุ้งไทย) is native to Thailand and grows much larger. Since the stems are mostly hollow on the inside, the plant can float on the water above competing species. However, the strong stems can also make the plant less desirable to eat, so this version doesn’t yet enjoy the culinary popularity of its Chinese counterpart. While tasty, the dishes you would make with this quick growing water vegetable, for example gaeng taepo (แกงเทโพ), are seldom well known by people outside of Thailand. This is because the local variety of morning glory is more likely to be cooked at home than in a restaurant.
Already the students, who are a mix of Thai and expat kids, have learned more about this native ingredient, and especially how to use it to reduce plastic waste. The plant is plentiful in the region and easy to grow. We can imagine the surprise of Thai farmers, if suddenly this ‘water weed’ becomes as valuable as other vegetables. The key is to remind the students that there are some drawbacks to using natural ingredients. The most important issue to be weary, is the ability of the plant to spread disease when not washed or cooked properly.
Making Banana Leaf Bowls
Thais still recognize the value of the banana leaf. You can find everything from steamed seafood, to sweet snacks being wrapped in banana in strong, sturdy banana leaves for cooking. Chefs who want to give their dish a more natural look, may even use a banana leaf at the bottom of their plate to improve aesthetics. However, the banana leaf has slipped somewhat in importance due to the cheap price and ease of use of plastics and styrofoam. We think the time has come to remind everyone how spectacular these large leaves can be for culinary purposes.
Once you have your hands on some banana leaves, it’s important to know Thai cooks will toast them, before using them with food. This can be done by quickly holding the leaf over fire, or dipping them a few seconds in boiling water. This helps with the hygiene of the leaf, but is also widely down to improve the strength of the leaf, making it tear less easily. Dry and cool the leaves, and they’re ready to be manipulated into all sorts of shapes. Toothpicks can be used to hold them together, but if you’re new to banana leaf origami, you may want to start by simply stapling the leaf to help it hold shape.
Cutting the banana leaves into spheres and putting them on plates alone, can help us reduce water usage and how much work needs to be done to wash the dishes. This is really big selling point with teenagers, and we use their sudden enthusiasm to pivot into making a snack together. The snack of choice is Thai crispy cup, filled with a mildly spicy chicken salad (with younger students we will make a Thai coconut pancake with the kids). The students mix their salad to their liking, some adding more fish sauce and palm sugar than recipe really requires. We don’t scold them much, we’re thankful they’re walking away excited about their banana leaf bowls, morning glory straws, and the tasty snack they learned to make.
We all have a role to play in caring for the environment and caring for people in need. Sharing this mission with kids, whether in slums or Bangkok’s fancy international schools, has been rewarding for our Courageous Kitchen team. To take our commitment to the next level this year, we’re on path to become Bangkok’s first plastic free cooking class, and hope to more cooking demos with students around the city.
Thank you for your support, and hold on to your aprons, we’ve got more to say about sustainability and making a difference in Thailand. If you have other tips for being sustainable in the kitchen please leave a comment below!
Exciting news! We’ve been featured in a local online magazine called The Cloud. The publication is in Thai, and includes some great photography, but we wanted to share more about the phenomenal weekend they visited, for supporters who may not read Thai. If you do, you can read the full article about Courageous Kitchen on The Cloud’s website, and help us by sharing with more Thai friends.
Typically when we have an opportunity to work with refugee kids from the communities we serve, it’s only for a few hours at a time. However, during the children’s school break, there’s more flexibility for us to host longer activities, such as our cooking camps. The camps give us a chance to work more closely with each of the students, and teach a wider range of subjects to the kids.
The day the team from The Cloud visited was the last day of our May cooking camp. In this cooking camp we worked with students who had much weaker English skills than the students who participated in the previous camp. If you remember the last cooking camp, in addition to fun Thai dishes, we also had everyone excited about the burgers and pizza we made too. However in the May camp, instead of fully focusing on cooking, our students were doing everything from fancy hat making, to an impossible human knot challenge, and learning to edit their own videos.
The subjects we choose for each camp depend on the ability of the students, and the interest of the participating volunteers. To be better suited for students with weaker English, our last batch of volunteer teachers helped run art therapy exercises, team building sessions, and challenged the students to use the English they’ve learned to make their own recipe videos.
The finale day saw the students putting the finishing touches on each group’s recipe video. While some students filmed and helped behind the scenes, others were challenged to stand in front of the camera and explain the recipes they were making in English. To keep the video editing from being too complicated, the students were assigned to simply explain how to make an herbal tea drink recipe. They made drinks from popular Thai ingredients like butterfly pea, chrysanthemum, and bael fruit, while managing to narrate and film at the same time.
Of course we had to take a break and cook lunch as well. The finale meal was a celebratory plate of banh xeo, a sort of Vietnamese crepe. For this cooking feat, we made an assembly line of students cooking pork belly and spring onion to use as filling for their crepes. Once everything was hot and smelling nice, they moved further along the station with their filling to make their crepe. The action of swirling the thin batter of turmeric tinted rice flour in the light weight, non-stick pans was exciting for everyone.
The challenge, however, was to get the crepe out of the pan without the fragile exterior fracturing into many pieces. While it was easier for some of the smaller students to fold the crepe in the pan, lifting it on to their plates, there’s a better way. The best technique to finish with a beautiful plate of banh xeo, is to dump the entire crepe out on your plate, folding it together as it falls, with a quick motion of the pan. Sound tricky? This is definitely a move inspired by the quick hands of the street food vendors we frequent!
After lunch, we gathered all the students to celebrate their accomplishments and watch their final videos. The students giggled with glee (and some horror) seeing their faces on the big screen. We discussed being brave in front of the camera, and being more conscious of lighting and sound when video making. Finally, everyone shared their biggest challenges and successes from the cooking camp before we said goodbye.
Our entire team had a great time this cooking camp and want to thank everyone who helped donate to sponsor this activity. Getting the students to be proud of their art, video production, and especially their culinary creations can be especially challenging with students overcoming trauma and fear they’ve accumulated over the years. However, this mission wasn’t in vain, and the wonderful article in The Cloud, and all the fun photos from the camp are a testament of what can be accomplished when we really believe courage is contagious.
Wherever you are reading from, and whatever you’re going through — be courageous!
Today’s shared plate is fresh out of the wok, and we’re ready to enjoy it with the latest episode of The Bangkok Podcast! Feast your eyes on our beloved pad see ew, and listen to the podcast on spotify or youtube. This drunken noodle dish from Thailand is often featured in our morning market cooking class, but today we wanted to share a version with a slight twist.
This isn’t just any pad see ew, it’s made with a little extra TLC, by taking the time to make our own rice noodles. For those who love pad see ew, you can probably imagine why this is special. Pad see ew is normally a milder Thai dish, but if you prefer the noodles a little spicy, you can dash a bit of our homemade sriracha on top (or alternatively you can make pad kee mow drunken noodles instead). Beyond a spicy sriracha sauce, we’re pairing this special plate of noodles with an episode of The Bangkok Podcast, whose hosts Greg and Ed, decided to feature Courageous Kitchen. We hope you will take the time to listen and share!
Homemade ‘Sen Yai’ Rice Noodles
The process has been tricky, but we have been testing recipes to create our own wide rice noodle on our own. One of the factors that makes pad see ew in Thailand, more outstanding than versions you can have in restaurants abroad, is that street vendors in Thailand can usually grab fresh rice noodles from the market. The noodles are factory made in giant batches each day, and delivered to the markets where a local vendor can purchase them, and slice them to the thickness that customers dictate. Best of all, you can buy a kilo of fresh rice noodles for much less than a dollar.
The local market version is sliced precisely, and dirt cheap, so why would you make your own?
We simply love the nuance of hand cut noodles and the ability to customize them to your preference. If you prefer them melty, bouncy, super long, or some combination of those characteristics, you can adjust the amount of rice flour and a tapioca starch you add into the recipe. In a city that thrives on street food, this is a lost art in most Bangkok homes, but we’re happy to guide you through the process of making your own rice noodles.
You can find the dish made with other types of noodles, but there’s something special about freshly made, wide rice noodles or ‘sen yai’. The texture is extremely soft and pliable, unlike most of the dried, pre-packaged noodles you find in Thailand’s supermarkets. Admittedly though, they can be a pain to cook. The noodles tend to get so gooey in a hot wok, that if you’re not quick enough when stirring, they begin to melt and glue the entire dish to the bottom of the wok.
Many cooks, especially Thailand’s beloved street chefs, solve this problem by cooking the noodles quickly with high heat. When you spot vendors doing this, you’re really peering into the impact of centuries of Chinese migration on Thailand’s food culture. When the pad see ew noodles pour out of those high pressure gas or charcoal heated woks, the entire dish has absorbed the smoke and the stir fry sauce has been charred through the lightning quick process. This is the same wok hei style cooking that gives us dishes like Malaysia’s ‘char kway teeo‘, a sibling dish which Malaysians love as much as Thais adore pad see ew.
We’ve just launched a new class to teach you to make these noodles, please check it out! We hope guests will have fun going a little deeper with their pad see ew, and take noodle making knowledge home to places where good rice noodles for pad see ew and other dishes are a rarity. As in the podcast, we also hope to share Courageous Kitchen’s message of how food has the power to transform communities with everyone who visits for this tasty meal.
Happy listening, and thanks for stopping by to snack with us.
Special thanks to The Bangkok Podcast. If you have any trouble listening, you can also find them on youtube. We recommend listening to their latest episodes with a sharing plate nearby!
Today’s shared plate is a piping hot bowl of mushroom soup known by locals as ‘gaeng hed‘. The soup’s popularity pales in comparison to Thai cuisine’s soup juggernauts such as tom yam, and tom kha soups. However, despite not having as strong a reputation, we believe this enchanting green soup too, will leave newcomers craving a second taste.
The soup isn’t only great tasting, with a sneakily slow and building brand of spiciness, but gaeng hed is also good for you. Contrary to popular belief, the soup base isn’t tinted green from the mix of herbs and mushrooms added, but is given its color by blending together ‘yanang‘ leaves (ใบย่านาง).
Unfortunately, there isn’t a great name for yanang in English. The scientific name is tiliacora triandra, and it’s popular with older folks in the countryside, especially the area called ‘issan‘ that borders Laos. Wise in their years, they will often drink the grassy tasting herb as a juice, to most quickly benefit from yanang’s anti-inflamatory, anti-cancer, and pain relieving properties.
When you factor in the benefits from the fresh acacia herb (cha om or ใบชะอม), sweet Thai pumpkin, and a flurry of mushrooms, you’d be hard pressed to find a healthier Thai soup. The health benefits from the acacia alone, a common ingredient in gaeng hed, include antioxidant properties, a source of vitamin A, and helping to regulate body temperature.
These amazing herbal properties and their Lao-issan origin, made the dish our choice to cook for US Embassy guests, including Dr. Joanne Hyppolite, curator of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC). Both the dish, and the often appropriated Lao-issan cuisine in general share some commonalities, and ingredients with African American soul food. This ranges from the darker skin, socio-economically disadvantaged people of the region, to gaeng hed’s culinary versatility allowing it to be easily supplemented with herbs and vegetables you may have on hand.
Most interestingly is the texture of the soup. Named as a ‘gaeng’ in Thai, which implies a curry or curry-like, thick consistency, however, this is a bit of a misnomer. Instead gaeng hed is eaten as more of a thickened soup, with many recipes calling for the addition of tapioca starch. The starch, used similarly to how many people use corn starch, gives the soup a consistency that is similar in mouthfeel to the natural thickener of African American cooks in generations past, okra.
Although not commonly included in this soup, Thais too love their okra. The young soft okra (aka ladyfingers, kra jiap, or กระเจี๊ยบ) fruits are steamed or eaten raw as an accompaniment to traditional Thai chili pastes. Fortunately, Courageous Kitchen has 3 six-foot okra trees which produce fruit every 2-3 days. This made it easy to grab a few from the garden and quickly slice them for our guests from the US Embassy.
Gaeng hed may be a little known dish outside of Thailand, but it certainly brought two seemingly disparate food histories together at Courageous Kitchen recently. We’re all about using food to start discussions, break down barriers between people, and heal ourselves. We hope you’ll be intrigued to find out more about this healing soup and the spice and herbs that make it special. Happy eating, please share this plate with someone!
If you’re curious about Thai food, especially any of the ingredients mentioned in this article, be sure to let us know to include them in your cooking class or street food tour with us in Bangkok.
Courageous Kitchen typically provides weekly English and cooking class to students from marginalized communities. This is important work and partially funded by our efforts to host cooking classes and street food tours for tourists visiting Bangkok. However, a few times a year we invite the youth we serve to take part in a multi day cooking camp. We recently hosted the first camp for this year and invite you to watch the following slideshow from the event:
During the camp we have more time to review and drill the English vocabulary the students are usually learning in Saturday classes. Since the kids are usually cooking every meal, they have extra time to develop in the kitchen as well. During the camps we invite teachers from outside the charity to help us expand what we can offer students including specialized cooking, art, drama, and music activities.
We believe all of the classes work well in tandem with our English teaching curricula, by giving the students plenty of opportunity to practice their English in the kitchen, and during other fun activities. The biggest challenge is that the students all come from a variety of backgrounds. Some have participated in our classes since they were very young, with our pre-school teaching being their first organized classroom experience. Others may still be new to our classes, and have only rudimentary knowledge of English. Each camp is special because with more time to spend with the students, we can more easily identify where a student may be excelling, or needing more encouragement and assistance.
If you’ve visited us before, you know our specialty is teaching and cooking Thai cuisine. However, in the slideshow from the most recent camp we were able to offer a variety of dishes, thanks to our volunteer chefs, teaching the kids to make Vietnamese cuisine, and western dishes such as hamburgers and pizza. Since the majority of our students don’t usually have an opportunity to eat in restaurants, they cherish the chance to try new dishes and learn about how people in different cultures eat in other parts of the world.
We are so grateful to everyone involved, especially visiting teachers who braved through Thailand’s summer weather, and all of our sponsors. If you’re interested in to sponsor a future camp, just leave a note when you donate online that the funds are for our cooking camp. As a small organization with no institutional funding, your support is so important to us!