How a cookery school in a Thai slum became an international success
In 2012, the world's news media gleefully reported that a Thai cookbook - in fierce competition with Estonian Sock Patterns All Around the World and A Century of Sand Dredging in the Bristol Channel - had won a prize for the world's oddest book title.
The giggle-inducing Cooking with Poo was the work of Saiyuud Diwong, who is better known by her nickname (which is short for Chompoo, or "rose apple" in Thai) and a resident of Klong Toey, the largest and most notorious slum in Bangkok.
At the time, Poo had been running a modest cooking school in Klong Toey for only a few years. The result of the book's triumph was swift. Although Poo's school was already popular, employing slum neighbours and proving a model of positivity in a bleak landscape, suddenly she was being fêted by gastronomy's great and good.
British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver shared the cover of Cooking with Poo on Instagram. The book became a bestseller, and media tours of Australia and Britain followed. The curious pounded a beat to Klong Toey in increasing numbers, and five-star reviews piled up on TripAdvisor.
Then, in August last year, disaster struck: a fire started in a neighbour's ramshackle home reduced the immediate neighbourhood to ashes. Poo's cooking school was no more.
But you can't keep a self-proclaimed "superwoman" down, and now, after a rebuild and refit, Poo is back in business.
A Cooking with Poo class starts with a tour of Klong Toey's labyrinthine outdoor market, where aisles are jammed with mountains of young coconuts, lady finger bananas and mangos, bamboo baskets of fragrant holy basil, mint and coriander, writhing catfish and eels, decapitated frogs, waxy pig heads, all at rock-bottom prices.
Grinning ear-to-ear, amiable Poo is waiting outside her school when we arrive, and welcomes us into a single room of perhaps 250 sq ft. Walls are painted a pleasing lime green, and photos and posters of Thai dishes and beaches decorate the space, creating an atmosphere that's more cash-strapped kindergarten than international school of learning.
Poo remembers life before she opened the school, when she sold food to neighbours from her home in the slum, making just 200 baht (HK$48) a day. "Life was hard work - 12 hours a day," she recalls. "I'd start work at 5am every day, no holiday. A lot of people in my area did the same."
One of Poo's regular customers was Anji Barker, an Australian aid worker. When soaring produce prices saw Poo struggling to make a living, Barker suggested she open a cooking school. After an intensive effort to learn English, Poo managed to cook up a successful business.
The "very quick, very easy" dishes that Poo teaches tend towards the street-food end of the culinary spectrum. Options include coconut chicken soup, green papaya salad and minced duck with lemon grass. Our mission today consists of three Thai staples: spicy beef salad, pad thai noodles with prawns, and green chicken curry.
Decked out in aprons emblazoned with the words, "I cooked with POO and I liked it", we set to work on the beef salad, chopping lemon grass, kaffir lime leaves and spring onions just so. Poo strolls among her charges, offering an encouraging thumbs up here and a tip there. "If you don't like spicy, slice the chillies bigger," she advises. "For me, I use five chillies, but for you, maybe just one."
Poo rejects off-the-shelf green curry for a made-from-scratch approach, crushing galangal, lime rind, chilli, lemon grass, garlic and onion into a Kryptonite-green paste with a mortar and pestle.
"When I was young and cooking with my mother, I hated the pestle and mortar," she says, lifting a T-shirt sleeve to flash a meaty bicep. "It was one kilo, so now I have very big muscles. It's good exercise. Makes a woman a superwoman."
The four hours of the class rush by and end with most students buying the now-famous Cooking with Poo book.
Before waving goodbye, Poo shrugs when asked about the fire that nearly tore up her recipe for success. "The bad luck is gone; the good luck is back," she says. "We can have a holiday, we can have a long weekend, plus we are helping others in the slum. We can put money in the bank, and together we have hope and sweet dreams. I'm very proud."
- Four-hour morning classes are held Monday to Saturday and cost 1,500 baht, including minibus transfer, ingredients and recipe cards. Bookings can be made at cookingwithpoo.com