We’re proud to announce our Bangkok cooking classes have banned the use of single use plastic. Thailand is among the worst plastic polluters in the world, and we hope being the first cooking class to go plastic free will challenge other businesses and people to do the same.
The signs of global climate change can be felt in Bangkok. The temperatures are rising, the city is sinking, and flooding becomes worse every year. The climate crisis is just the backdrop to a culture wide preference for cheap plastics used for on the go food, especially street food, of which Bangkok is known world wide. In fact, we’re still recovering from our cooking class space being flooded last month. This is a problem that can feel overwhelming, so the key is making small changes that can empower us to rethink our impact, and inspire others at the same time.
It started with straws…
We have been weening off of single use plastic for the past year. If you’ve attended our class then you know, we’ve never served plastic straws since our cooking classes started in 2017. Instead guests drink their cooling herbal teas through morning glory (a water spinach that has mostly hollow stems) straws that we provide. They’re not only a better alternative than plastic straws, but have a better mouthfeel than the metal ones, and can be stir fried or thrown in a soup in a pinch. The edible straws have gotten good feedback from our guests as well, and we’ve been building off of this enthusiasm in our war on plastic. We’ve even been bringing our green straws to teach about sustainability in Bangkok’s international schools.
From straws we moved to bowls, probably the most important plate-ware in a Thai household. Here we use a variety of solutions from plain ol’ regular bowls to biodegradable palm wood bowls, and as often as possible plating your food in a natural bowl. This means that pineapple fried rice is served in, well, a pineapple. Your pomelo salad? Dished up in the beautiful carved pomelo bowl. From everything we’ve observed, Thai culture already has the local knowledge to use less plastic. Part of our job is recognizing this wisdom, and turning back the clock to bring some of these trends, such as cooking and packaging food in banana leaves, to our classes and outreach.
There are challenges to going green…
One misconception is about what we mean by refusing to use single use plastic products. We don’t want anyone to think you’ll come to our class and won’t see any plastic present. We do still use reusable plastic containers and plates, as many of the alternatives are considerably more expensive. This is something we want to be transparent about, because ‘plastic free’ seems to mean different things to different people. We’re anti single use plastic and strive not to even accept plastic or styrofoam from vendors in the local market. This means even on our street food tour in Bangkok, you’ll catch our staff bringing our own containers and silverware for you to use to eat!
Also, for many restaurants and food providers like us, there are real food safety concerns when switching from plastic. For example, how do you naturally clean your morning glory straws before giving them to people? These are real challenges we have to spend energy on remedying, and training our staff as we abandon plastic. The hardest thing to give up? Plastic wrap and plastic gloves! We don’t want not using them to increase the chances someone will become sick from what we’re serving. This means being thoughtful about preparing for each class, and making sure our entire team is cognizant about food safety concerns that come along with these changes.
Our mission to be more environmentally friendly isn’t over. We’re learning, growing more of our own food, and doing our best to share what we learn as well. Let’s all strive to do better together!
I remember watching my mother make sticky rice every morning. She’d be up long before the sun. The roosters crowing along to the sound of lukewarm water running through every hand full of starchy grain.
Washing, rinsing, and repeating as the cloudy water floated away.
Soaking, sitting, steaming.
She’d do this day in, day out. Never skipping a beat, never missing a meal.
Piping hot pillowy balls of goodness. Perfectly salted, perfectly sweet. I never realized how much I craved for something so simple. As I grew older, the annoyance of my mother’s 5am cooking call was a missed memory. I longed for the aroma of freshly steamed rice. Searched the blankets for the warm bamboo baskets she kept it in. Hiding it from my siblings and I, until it was cool enough for consumption.
The history of this dish originates from my mothers homeland, Laos. Although you can find it in nearly every Thai market, it is one of those Issan dishes that most Lao people eat daily. Oftentimes, multiple times a day. Sticky rice is a long, white fragrant grain almost only discernible by it’s thickness, compared to traditional jasmine rice. You may find it in San Diego’s asian markets labeled ‘sweet rice’ or ‘glutinous rice’. We use it as the vessel to carry other dishes like stews, dipping sauces known as jeow, or to accompany your favorite meat. Unlike Thailand, Laotians eat almost solely with their hands. Sticky rice balls are our utensils, and you scoop your food with the rice, sharing each meal family style.
Historically Lao people ate sticky rice because it sustained them for long days on the farm. Many of them harvesting their own fields of rice as the wet lowlands provided the perfect burial ground for the coveted glutinous rice seeds. My family still harvests rice in their fields in Northern Thailand. As the days begin and end, they always include a warm Thip Khao (a traditional woven bamboo basket) full of the sticky goodness that is affectionately known as khao niew. These are the moments I now long for as an adult; family meals and shared laughter. Learning the history of how we came to be, honoring the land and our ancestors.
“A single grain of rice can tip the scale. One man may be the difference between victory and defeat.”
– The Emperor in Disney’s Mulan
Christy’s Top 5 Tips on How to Make Sticky Rice at Home
Buy the correct rice. Many people don’t know that sticky rice is a species of rice, often referred to as glutinous rice.
If you plan to make it often, consider investing in the bamboo basket to make it the traditional way. Other clever ways include making it in a pressure cooker with options for different types of rice grains.
Don’t wait until you’re hungry to make sticky rice. The process is long. Prepare ahead, washing and soaking your rice the night before you plan to cook it.
A little plastic wrap on the spoon or bowl used for scooping and molding the rice keeps the rice from sticking to it!
Sticky rice is both a dinner staple and a dinner utensil. When the food is ready, this isn’t the time to be posh! Instead use your hands to ball up the sticky rice and dip it into the food you’re eating.
Most of you know Alina as your favorite Thai cooking teacher who’s greeted you, and taken you to the market in our Bangkok cooking class. In the nearly 3 years she’s worked with us, we’ve seen her transition from shy rice farmer, to a fiery force in the kitchen.
Here are 10 quick questions to help you get to know this ambitious young woman, who we believe is a natural born leader.
What’s your favorite dish to eat?
Cheeseburgers and tom yum goong, but it depends on the cheese. I like the fake kind!
What’s your favorite dish to make?
Thai curries I think. Because I like making the curry paste from scratch.
What’s the best part of working at Courageous Kitchen?
Teaching tourists how to cook Thai food. It helps me improve my English, meet new people, and gain cool opportunities.
What has been the highlight of your time here?
I met my idol, Chef Ian Kittichai, and cooked Massaman curry with him. I learned new techniques that I use to make my curry now.
What are you most proud of?
I like discovering new recipes and creating cooking videos to teach kids. I can’t believe I can make my own videos, it’s really hard!
When you’re not cooking, what do you like to do?
I like to garden, go out to eat, and love going to the movies!
If you could travel anywhere where would it be?
New York City. I’ve always heard about it, and it looks beautiful.
What do you like to teach?
I like to teach cooking. My passion is cooking so it makes me happy every time I share my recipes.
What is your superpower?
What does courage mean to you?
To be beautiful, to have confidence, and to fight for your life.
The kitchen is a special classroom, where students can be given the power to create, collaborate, and thrive! We believe this to the core, we preach it, and try to live by it. But we are also quick to admit the kitchen isn’t the only place children can express themselves, and learn new skills. In a recent Saturday cooking and jam session, our Courageous Kitchen students welcomed children from the Khlong Toey Music Program (KTMP) for a memorable afternoon.
If you’re unfamiliar, the KTMP music program is named for one the most infamous slums in Bangkok, Khlong Toey. Despite the rough surroundings, there’s important work happening in their community, and KTMP is part of the change that’s happening in this overlooked area of Bangkok. With a similar ethos to Courageous Kitchen, KTMP believes children deserve a safe place to learn, especially because of the pernicious nature of the cycle of poverty. Instead of proselytizing the way of the wok and other culinary arts like us, their program teaches guitar, drums, and several other instruments, adding English and other extracurriculars as often as possible. Each time the students have an opportunity to perform, they earn new fans across the city of Bangkok and online!
Still kids, even the ones gaining fans each week through their music on facebook and youtube, get nervous meeting other children. For this reason, we didn’t jump right into learning to play music when our two student groups came together. First we had to get to know each other. So to kick things off, we began the day with fun ice breaking games. The games required the students to interact with one another, learning each other’s names, and teaming up to identify vocabulary words faster than other teams.
The instruments made an appearance after we got to know each other and whoa did it get noisy! The students and teachers dispersed themselves around the room teaching the same melody, with a different instrument in each group. There was an entire section dedicated to our mini percussionists, the singers and ukulele players claimed the center of the room, and the electric and acoustic guitar fans filled the gap on the other side. I’d compare the sound and fury of the activity to having a baby elephant dancing in your kitchen. But despite what it did to our eardrums, looking around at the excitement on all the children’s faces as the instrument workshop began, was incredibly rewarding.
Low thuds, random strings, and excited voices filled the room as the students began to get the hang of the instruments. The KTMP teachers encouraged the children to change groups once they had the melody down, much to the excitement of the girls torn between playing the drums, and switching into guitar hero mode on KTMP’s shiny electric guitars. Knowing the kids would be working up an appetite, our kitchen team was rendering the fat off a kilo of shrimp. They would go on to use the fatty oils from cooking the shrimp, to toss egg noodles before serving.
Days before this event, we held meetings to debate what to serve our new friends at KTMP. On such a fun day, we wanted to serve familiar food that the kids would gobble down, but with a Courageous Kitchen twist. Cooking up ‘mama’ noodles easily won by popular vote. Named for the most popular brand of instant noodles in Thailand, mama noodles are popular in the low key street food stalls all over the country. The noodles are well known as a nostalgic childhood snack. However, instead of making a broth full of the msg filled flavoring packets, we made our own giant pot of creamy tom yum broth to serve our hungry little musicians.
As the scent of shrimp tinged egg noodles, and lemongrass broth began to fill the house, full bars of notes were beginning to tumble out as well. The practice was paying off, and the students were becoming more confident playing the song. Soon they would play it together, Thai, refugee, and migrant kids, all strumming to the same rhythm. For the finale, the KTMP youth performed a few more songs, before everyone agreed it was time to eat. The noodles were ready to eat, but the kids quickly organized into teams, some making spring rolls to eat with their noodles, while the others were ready for a cooling dessert snack.
There’s more you should know about the special students from KTMP. They didn’t just show up for tom yum noodles. They have been hearing about Courageous Kitchen for weeks, selecting us as the charity they most wanted interact with and help. In the lead up to meeting each other, they used the power of their music, performing and spreading awareness to raise money for us. In a few short weeks the students, supported by their tireless teachers, raised and donated nearly 14,000 baht (about $440) to help children in our program!
A special invite has our US based team hanging out in the Bay area recently, and we couldn’t be more thrilled to share how we brought Courageous Kitchen vibes to employees at Airbnb headquarters!
One of the most important ways we raise funds is by hosting tourists for food related experiences in Bangkok and San Diego. Much of this entrepreneurial arm of our charity is possible because of programs like Airbnb Experiences, where Courageous Kitchen is featured as a Social Impact activity. The designation refers to recognized charities who host on the platform to bolster their causes, and has all commission fees waived by Airbnb. Not only is Courageous Kitchen one of only 400 such experiences worldwide, we are the first and only social impact experience in Bangkok.
We’re proud to be working with Airbnb, and most recently Christy was invited to teach a Thai food workshop at their renowned headquarters in San Francisco’s hip SoMa district. Along with longtime volunteer, Beatriz, they taught members of the Airbnb Experiences team how to make traditional Thai iced tea, papaya salad (aka somtam), and a Lao style minced meat salad full of herbs and chilies (aka larb). If you’re unfamiliar with these dishes, lovers of Thai food can tell you that along with some sticky rice, they quickly become one of the most sought after meals you can get in Thailand.
To start off their class, Beatriz showed the group of nearly 30 guests how to make their own Thai tea. She then shared her story of how she became involved with Courageous Kitchen, stemming mostly from her own familial ties to refugees. Her grandparents were spies for the United States Army, and fled Indonesia sometime in the 1950s to avoid being caught by the local government. Next, Christy demonstrated two of her favorite Thai and Lao salads which are staples in her Laotian household. Christy’s background not only provides the cultural context to work with our students, but her own story resonates with theirs deeply. Her parents, who escaped Laos in the early 1980’s lived and worked in a refugee camp in Thailand before resettling to the US where she was born.
The narratives of the people behind the food, are just as important as the food we serve, in helping others understand our mission and vision. By sharing our personal stories with our guests, we realize just how much our own paths are connected with those of our Courageous Kitchen families as well. As Social Impact hosts on Airbnb, we want the customers in our cooking classes and street food tours to understand where their dollars are being spent, and be able to walk away with both satisfied bellies and hearts, knowing they helped a noble cause.
In our short time taking over the jumbo kitchen in Airbnb Headquarters, we attempted to give employees who visited, a mini taste of what we offer each and every guest. That’s a quick serving of friendship paired with cold drinks, spicy bites, and a bold brand of courage that leads us to fight for the most marginalized.
Our team is grateful for the continued support from Airbnb and the entire Experiences community. We’ve met and partnered with some amazing entrepreneurs in California and hope to forge more friendships with likeminded organizations in the future.
We look forward to sharing our story in a kitchen near you!
Special Thanks and hugs to Stephanie H. of Airbnb, for the invite and support every step of the way!
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!