Last weekend was spent in Kingston Upon Thames, a place I haven’t been in years. The last time I was there, I was at the uni open day getting information on their renowned architecture course. Although I changed my mind later on, oddly enough, I always remembered the place. It’s nothing short of charming.
On the Sunday, I was lucky enough to be able to experience a CookThai lesson with Chef Hesham, with a little help from KingstonFirst. For more information on the amazing work they’ve done in Kingston-upon-Thames, see here.
The day began with pouring rain but quickly changed as I wandered along Riverside Walk, the views up and down the Thames were exactly as I remembered, with colourful riverboats tied to each river bank. Stumbling upon Busaba Eathai, I was greeted through a large, wooden door and instantly hit with the intoxicating smells of Thailand I’d only experienced a few months before. I was being catapulted back.
“Sandalwood loomed heavy in the air and the wooden interior, with hints of gold, suddenly felt incredibly relaxing and welcoming.”
Taking a seat with the rest of my blogger group for the morning, we got out our camera equipment, pens and paper, ready to listen to Chef Hesham. Originally from Malaysia, he’s worked at Busaba for roughly 7 years and by the end of the day, it really showed. He quickly got us into our own kitchen overalls (we’d looked amazing ;)) and gave us a tour around his kitchen, introducing us to the tools we’d be using that morning and what we’d be cooking. It turns out, we were going to make Som Tam Salad, fresh Thai Fish Cakes and an infamous Pad thai.
We kicked off with the salad. Talking us through the recipe, Hesh explained that papaya has to be caught at the right time, when it’s green as a vegetable and not yellow as a fruit – each crunch has to carry a flavour. When we got to the palm sugar, he regaled us with a funny story from his childhood, where his mum always used to catch him eating little chunks of palm sugar as it was just so tempting and sweet as a kid. You could still see the cheeky smile on his face as he re-told the story. The most important thing he said after, was how Thai cooking had to be sweet, sour and spicy – if one of these flavours was missing, then the dish would be incomplete. This is where Som Tam got its name, in English it means ‘hot smash‘ representing those three flavours. After preparing a salad each, we moved on to the fish cakes…
“Thai cooking has to be sweet, sour and spicy – if one of these flavours is missing, then the dish would is incomplete.” – Chef Hesham
Hesh soon began running through each ingredient for the fish cakes and explaining why each was included. He then let us all have a go at binding the ingredients with our hands. Therapeutic to say the least! We were told that the more the ingredients were combined, the more the flavour of the fish cakes would hold and develop. You could smell them. It reminded me of walking the streets of Bangkok and venturing upon Pak Khlong Talat market, with all its delightful smells and smiling faces. The red curry paste and fresh red chillies were just enough to tinge my senses.
This is when Hesh told us that the ingredients they needed for most of their dishes are now being stopped at the UK border, no real reason but it means they’ve begun a community greenhouse project to grow what can’t be attained. It was great to hear how they were going to overcome this glaring problem, with such a home-grown idea. I asked him how long it takes to perfect the flavours for each dish, whilst we each binded the ingredients, and he replied, ‘a month’. That’s the kind of food I’d choose to eat everyday if I could – fresh ingredients and prepared with real care, what’s not to love!? Hesh went on to say how much of a balancing act his job is, he has to play the subtle balance between what he’d love to cook personally and what the public would eat. I found this quite fascinating to listen to, a personal side to cheffing I’d not thought of.
“It reminded me of walking the streets of Bangkok and venturing upon Pak Khlong Talat market, with all its delightful smells and smiling faces.”
After we’d prepared the fish cakes, we moved on to Pad Thai with each of us on the woks, with a step-by-step tutoring session. It was so adrenaline-fuelled, I can see why Hesh has such a deep love for what he does. I can see why he keeps coming back to the wok – it’s an addictive feeling, like being on a rollercoaster but better. Creating something so delicious and so quickly (within 3 minutes) – it’s truly satisfying work.
Once all three dishes had been prepared, we all sat down to enjoy the fruits of our labour. Ordering a Mango Lassi (natural yoghurt, honey, rose water and cardamom) to go with my dishes, I was in foodie heaven. Without a doubt, the Pad Thai I devoured was as good as what I’d had in Thailand. Each mouthful got better, building on each different flavour and I just couldn’t stop eating. The heat was just right, with the tip of my tongue pulsating with warmth, the same with the fish cakes. There was just something so fresh and flavoursome about the whole meal. I asked Hesh what his favourite dish was and he replied, ‘anything with duck and chicken with sticky rice and fermented anchovies but you must try the calamari!’. It was with a quick step that he went and prepared us Busaba’s well-known calamari. Feeling more anxious by the moment (as I’m not keen on seafood), I awaited his return. Before I knew it, it was in front of me and I was hesitantly chewing it. I can honestly say that I’m glad I tried it. Presenting a totally different texture to anything I’ve ever experienced, it also has interesting flavours to match. It was the perfect way to end after a morning reminiscing about my previous Thai trip.
I walked away feeling like I’d learnt a whole host of valuable skills, ready to try out in my very own kitchen. So, thanks Hesh, it was a pleasure!
Have you ever visited a Busaba Eathai restaurant before? What’s your favourite restaurant in Kingston Upon Thames?