Have you ever considered cooking with Poo? Are you finding the idea repulsive? Across the globe, there are many cultures that use excrement in the cooking process. In Kenya, human poop has been turned into a viable fuel source that is much more environmentally friendly than charcoal. And you have probably heard of the most expensive coffee, the beans of which first pass through a Civet cat’s digestive system! But fear not, the Thai cooking class I’m going to be talking to you about involves no faeces whatsoever. In fact, Poo just happens to be the business owner’s name!
Saiyuud Diwong, affectionately known as Poo, started the Helping Hands Thai Cooking School back in 2007 with the help of Anji Barker, an Australian living and working in the Klong Toei Slum since 2003. Anji was part of Urban Neighbourhoods of Hope mission, a Christian charity helping local people within the slum start and develop small businesses to help sustain their families.
Cooking with Poo is the best thing you can do when in Bangkok!
Cooking with Poo turned out to be so much more than we expected. It wasn’t just a great Thai cooking class; we also got to see a side of Bangkok that we would otherwise never have seen. We went to the market to buy our ingredients, we got a glimpse into what life in Thailand’s biggest slum is like, and most importantly, we got to meet some of the people that were benefiting from us spending money on this cooking experience. And, of course, it gave us a fantastic Facebook check-in! Cooking with Poo was hands down the best thing we did while in Thailand!
This blog post is in no way sponsored. I didn’t even have a blog when we visited. However, we enjoyed it so much that I wanted to tell you all about it so that next time you go to Thailand, you can Cook with Poo too!
Where it all started
Poo had been making a living by cooking in front of her home for over a decade. She would sell up to 100 dishes a day to feed her family. In 2007 though, the rice prices doubled, thus making her business no longer profitable. So, being the entrepreneurial woman that she is, Poo approached Anji, her Australian friend, to ask if she would help her set up a cooking school to teach tourists and locals how to make simple yet delicious Thai meals.
The Helping Hands Thai Cooking School started off small and from Poo’s home. The house was so small though, that only 2 or 3 guests would fit in at any time. Furthermore, Poo spoke no English! However, despite this, the business became more and more popular, so Poo, with the help of Khlong Toei Handicrafts (another employment initiative), built a room within a burnt down shack opposite her home. This new room allowed her to accommodate up to 8 people at a time, and with her ever-improving grasp of the English language, this cooking experience continued to soar in popularity.
Scaling for success
Poo now operates her Thai cooking classes from a larger room and can accommodate up to 12 customers. She has also developed a catering business that employs 9 other people.
I found Poo’s story incredibly inspiring. Poo is an excellent example of what can be achieved when you have a dream and are willing to work hard for it. Poo can now take time off and have a holiday, something that is unheard of within the slum community. In fact, only 30% of the people living in Khlong Toei are able to take time off. The majority work 7 days a week for the entirety of their lives without ever considering retirement. Poo also volunteers regularly with a number of other projects within the community, including acting as a mentor for other young people wanting to start their own business.
Where does the cooking class take place?
Poo’s cooking school is based in Bangkok’s biggest slum, the Khlong Toei Slum. Covering one square mile, Khlong Toei is home to over 100,000 people, all crammed together in a pile of rickety tin houses near the port and only a stone’s throw away from the poshest hotels and restaurants in town.
Khlong Toei Slum – a little bit about it
Over 20% of Bangkok’s population live in illegal squatter settlements, something we witnessed first-hand as we walked the city’s streets. One of my most poignant memories of our trip happened while we took the Chao Phraya Express Boat service (like a boat bus) from our hotel into the city’s centre. Every time we passed a posh waterfront hotel, several ramshackle houses would be next to them.
The one image that ingrained itself in my memory was watching a family cooking in their stilted home. The front of the house had collapsed, leaving the rest of their home (which was a single room) completely exposed. Floorboards lay broken in half where the front had subsided under the rotting stilts. Playing on the hole dotted floor was a toddler. I don’t think I’ve ever been anywhere else where I have witnessed first-hand the stark divide between rich and poor like we did whilst in Bangkok.
People started settling in Khlong Toei in the 50s after emigrating from the poorer regions in the North East in search of a better life. At the time cheap labour was in demand, and therefore Bangkok promised a plethora of opportunities. However, the average earnings for those living in the slum are only half of the national average and only a third of that of a Bangkok household. Basic amenities such as water and electricity are in short supply, and living standards are low. Serious crime, drug addiction, unmanaged waste, and unemployment have led to a crushing sense of doom. Social mobility is incredibly hard in these situations.
We all need a bit of hope!
Because of this, I find what Poo is doing so enlightening. Not only is she providing opportunities, she is providing hope. She shows her community that opportunities can be created and that dreams can be realised with the right plan and support. And it is because of this that I think you should add Cooking with Poo to your next Bangkok trip! It was hands down the best thing we did whilst in the city!
What to expect from this Thai Cooking Class
All the cooking classes we had done before this one had been just that, a cooking class. This time it was much more of a cultural immersion experience. After being collected, we were taken to the Khlong Toei Wet Market, the biggest wet market in Bangkok, where we bought the ingredients we needed before heading to Poo’s home to make the food.
If you are a regular on my blog or Instagram, you will know we are massive foodies and that we are always looking for ways to learn about a culture through its cuisine. We tend to start all holidays with a food tour and often add on a cooking class too. Since our experience in Bangkok, we have always made sure to visit a local market, more often than not as part of a cooking class.
Khlong Toei Wet Market
Khlong Toei is located near the popular glitzy ex-pat enclave of Thanon Sukhumvit and the Khlong Toei slum. I’m not quite sure whether it is classed as being part of the slum or not. All I can say is that it was definitely an experience, and not one you’d want to do while hungover!
The market is set over a central canal which is more reminiscent of a sewer. Furthermore, it is a wet market, otherwise known as a fresh market. By fresh, I mean “still alive” fresh! If you are squeamish, can I recommend sticking to the vegetable isles! If you venture into the meat isles, be prepared for the smell of fresh blood as animals are kept alive and only slaughtered upon request! As we walked past one of the stalls, one of the vendors was busy wringing chicken necks for his latest customer. I suppose you can’t query the freshness! This isn’t unusual though, in Vietnam we stopped at a restaurant where you could help catch, kill and cook your own chicken!
Khlong Toei is one of the most authentic markets in Bangkok, selling very cheap raw meat, fish, vegetables, and fruit. Chances are, that wherever you eat in Bangkok, the produce will have been bought here.
Visiting a wet market might be fascinating, but not necessarily enjoyable!
It was fascinating to follow Poo through the market. However, as a Western tourist, some of the practices were also tough to witness. For example, live fish were kept in nothing but a sprinkle of water, and frogs lay alive, on their back, their legs tied together so they couldn’t move. It is easy to judge, as it isn’t how I would treat animals back here. But it is also important not to. I can’t compare my situation with theirs, and until I have lived a lifetime in their shoes, I will never understand. However, I do hope that animal charities are involved in improving the livelihood for the animals without (and the word ‘without’ being very important here) compromising the peoples’ abilities to make a living. If anything, they should be working in conjunction to improve both the animals and people’s existence.
Other things you can expect to see on the raw meat section are huge piles of intestines, offal, pigs’ feet, cow placenta, pigs’ faces, and other weird and exotic animals. Hopefully, no bats! Although I have heard they sell rats! We didn’t see any… not for sale at least!
The safety of the vegetable isles!
If just reading the above makes you squeamish, then there are plenty of vegetable and fruit isles to explore! They had such a wide variety of exotic fruit, of the likes we had never seen before. From spikey strawberries (rambutan) to yellow watermelons and everything in between. Some of the fruits are similar to what we are used to, only different. Just like the famous Thai saying “same same but different”. For example, their apples appear to have a porcelain film on them. Their tomatoes are pink rather than red, and their bananas are stumpy and green (you eat them when green!).
You will also come across a lot of insects, an excellent protein source I might add, as well as stacks of spices and chilies. I absolutely love exploring markets worldwide, but since Khlong Toei was our first experience of a wet market, it was a shock. If you get a chance to visit though, it surely is one of the best ways to immerse yourself in Thai culture. It is an eye-opening and very authentic experience.
It is very important to remember when visiting Khlong Toei, or any other market for that matter, that these are working markets where people need to make a living, so please be respectful and don’t get in the way.
Time to learn how to cook Thai cuisine!
After an hour at the market and laden with all the ingredients we would need, we headed to Poo’s to start our Thai cooking class. The classroom was surprisingly nice. Big bright and airy, it stood out from the homes we had passed on the way. As we had walked through the narrow corridors of the slum, I couldn’t help but be shocked by the homes we had seen. Tin and wooden houses, and at some points simple tents, were built precariously wherever there was a gap, sometimes one on top of the other. None were bigger than your typical garden shed! Many were built on top of the sewer, which often floods during the monsoon season, with only a plank or two of wood protecting them from the contents below.
Poo’s home had burnt down the previous year, so she had made the most of a bad situation by rebuilding the rather nice classroom we found ourselves standing in. She had also built a much more spacious home upstairs for her family, with the added bonus that they now had windows. Imagine living a life where you get to celebrate having a window?!
Try these dishes at home!
Hands washed, we set about learning how to cook Thai cuisine. I am a massive fan of Thai food, and despite being a terrible cook, I have to say that under Poo’s guidance I managed to make four delicious dishes:
- Yum Tai Krai Salad – minced chicken boiled and then quickly stir-fried with lemongrass, chilies, peanuts, sugar, fish sauce, and onion. My kind of salad!
- Shrimp Phad Thai with Tofu and Rice Noodles.
- Chicken Massaman Curry served with steamed rice.
- Mango Sticky Rice Dessert
You can click on each of the above to access the recipe so that you can print them and try them at home. As part of the cooking class, not only did we get to learn how to make delicious Thai food, but we also got the chance to eat everything we cooked! I usually avoid my cooking (at least I did back then), so it was great to make 4 really yummy dishes.
If you like cultural immersion, food, and cooking, then I strongly recommend you book on to a Cooking with Poo class! I honestly believe you will love it!
Is it OK to visit the slums?
This is such a tricky question, and poverty tourism gets such a bad rep, and rightly so! It is always fascinating to see how others live. If we are all honest with each other, it is probably one of the biggest reasons we like to travel, to learn about other cultures, which for all intents and purposes are different from our own.
But I do think there is a big difference between visiting a country to learn and engage and embrace that culture to seeking out impoverished areas to “have a look”. I don’t believe people go on slum tours to gloat or make themselves feel better. On the contrary, I would imagine most are curious and want to help. And with so many tours claiming to give back to the community, you do indeed feel good for having supported them. And after all, there is no denying it, it is an incredibly humbling and thought-provoking experience. But it doesn’t mean it’s right.
I want to share two examples:
When we were in Hanoi, we went on a food tour with Hanoi Backstreet Tours. We booked it because it sounded fun. We would be exploring the city on the back of an old Russian Mink Bike and doing our favourite activity: eating! As part of the tour, they took us down to the banana plantations and then stopped off to show us how the poorest people in the city lived. Their homes bobbed up and down on the river on top of plastic drums. The tour guide explained that they were living here illegally as there was nowhere for them in the city. So by booking the tour we were supporting them, as a donation was made towards their kids’ education.
Of course, I am happy that my money was going towards a good cause, but I still don’t understand why we had to stop there. We had simply been taken there to show off the poor. I felt hugely uncomfortable and actually wrote to the company to express my belief that it was wrong.
Is Cooking with Poo ethically any better?
You might be thinking, “Why are you recommending Cooking with Poo then? That takes place inside a slum”. You are right, but personally, I feel it is entirely different. Yes, we saw some of the slums, but there was no focus whatsoever on the slum. It was just where the cooking school was because that is where she lives. We got a glimpse into that lifestyle, but not once did I feel we were being asked to observe. The focus was on the cooking class and the market. Yes, we were given information relevant to the projects that Poo works on, but that is it. At no point did I feel I was part of “poverty tourism”. In fact, when we booked the tour, we booked it because of the name, nothing more!
Of course, upon learning how much good Poo was doing, it made our decision even more worthwhile. So now, when we travel, we look for tours that genuinely give back to the community without ever putting hardship and/or deprivation at the heart of the tour. And I think Poo is the perfect example of this.
What other initiatives is Poo involved in?
Following the success of the cooking school, Poo went on to create the Helping Hands Project alongside three other women. This project aims to support and encourage small business development within the Klong Toei Slum Community. Using profits from the cooking classes and additional profits from Klong Toei Handicrafts, they have established several successful initiatives, including a sushi service, catering service, and a Thai dessert business.
Poo and her fellow businesswomen have helped so many people through these initiatives. One example was Jack, who was working 12+ hours a day pushing a sausage cart, barely managing to make ends meet. Poo and her team were able to help set up a much more profitable business making desserts, which enabled him to double what he was making before in half the amount of time! I think I could do with Poo’s help too!
So, are you ready to Cook with Poo?
If you aren’t ready to travel just yet but want to try some of the recipes from home you can buy the Cooking with Poo cookbook. If you are planning a trip to Thailand but are looking for some inspiration or some help, then check out Bikudo Travel! They offer bite size itineraries so can create your perfect holiday! If you do go to Bangkok though, I really hope you join this cooking class, it was hands down the best thing we did whilst in Bangkok!