It was Day One of a long-awaited Sunshine Coast holiday and the rain showed no sign of abating. The tail end of Cyclone Ita was lashing the coast and dashing visitors' hopes of sun, fun and surf. But by sheer coincidence, we'd booked into the Spirit House Cooking School on the one day the weather was wielding its worst. We ditched umbrellas, donned aprons and (from our warm-and-dry vantage point inside the kitchen) decided that the drizzle merely enhanced the atmosphere of the lush tropical gardens around us.
Spend some time strolling the beautiful gardens at Spirit House after your lesson. Author image.
The award-winning Spirit House Restaurant, featuring the best contemporary Thai cuisine you'll ever experience, has become a destination in itself for visitors to the Sunshine Coast. But for guests wanting to take home a little bit of this gustatory magic, there's also a lesser-known Spirit House Cooking School situated a short stroll from the restaurant.
We were signed up for Essential Thai 1, the Spirit House Cooking School's most popular class, which has been delivered for more than 10 years now. It's considered a great foundation for those who really don't know where to start, though more experienced or aspirational cooks can opt for a range of other classes too, such as Seafood Phuket Style, Mekong Adventure and the goofily-named Wok Stars.
We first learned to create Thai red curry paste from scratch, pounding a collection of aromatic ingredients from dried red chillies and roasted shrimp paste through to finely sliced lemongrass and wisps of lime zest - a lot less tedious than it sounds. The paste was then used in subsequent recipes, including Thai fish cakes and Penang chicken curry with caramelised pumpkin, to such superb effect that I'll never considered purchasing a jar of curry paste again. Other dishes created on the day included salad of chargrilled seafood with lemongrass and ginger and stir-fried beef with roasted chilli paste and Thai basil. The latter seriously blew my mind. I've already added it to my cook-at-home repertoire.
Recipes are provided for guests to take home. However, the best bit about the Spirit House Cooking School is learning all those tiny tips and techniques that never make it into recipes, but nevertheless make all the difference. Such as: how to make tamarind water; the important differences between coconut cream and coconut milk; the most appropriate uses for light versus dark palm sugar; and the circumstances in which you'd never dream of using a food processor over a mortar and pestle.
Stir fried beef with roasted chilli paste and Thai basil. Author image.
Constant tasting was a feature of the class, too, enabling students to appreciate the difference, for example, between freshly-made versus dried shallots. Or galangal and ginger. Or the vast chasm between fish sauce made using anchovy extract and fermented for six months versus fish sauce made using fresh anchovies and fermented for two years. Or how sublime home-made sweet chilli sauce tastes (and what a no-brainer it is to make).
Our class started at 9.30am and we didn't pack away our aprons till close to 2.30pm, but you're not chopping and dicing all that time. Rather, some of the time is spent sipping herbal tea, grilling seafood over the barbecue, browsing the gift store and enjoying the fruits of your labour over a glass of wine or two.
Would I return to the Spirit House Cooking School? In a heartbeat. And for those who want to go even deeper into Thai food and culture, there are also four-day tag-along food tours which start in Bangkok and feature elephant rides, sunset drinks in ruined temples and night market dinners - for you can never have too much spice in your life.