Cooking Class in Chiang Mai
During our week in Chiang Mai, my travel buddy and I lucked into finding a magical Thai cooking class, with Siam Rice Thai Cookery School. After spending the morning riding around in the back of a rickety covered pickup to what turned out to be the wrong location, we ended up missing out on our scheduled cave spelunking trip. So we had an afternoon free for the school's half day cooking class, attempting to achieve the perfect aromatic balance of Thailand's most ubiquitous export — its cuisine.
The school's schtick is that depending on which class you take, you get to cook between four to six courses: six for a full day, and four for the afternoon class. For our four courses, we got to choose out of about five fiery Thai options for each; an appetizer, noodle, curry, and desert dish. If you have the time to pursue the full-day option, you get a visit to the market to select ingredients as well. Definitely a cliché, but worthwhile tourist activity. The class gathered around a beautifully organized open-air kitchen, complete with knives and chopping blocks, woks and neatly prepared ingredients. The teacher, flanked by assistants to keep the clearly polished routine going smoothly, started right in with showing us know exactly how everything should be done.
Spring rolls, Papaya salad
Khao Soy, Green Curry
Pad Thai, Pad Se Ew
Mango sticky rice, Banana in coconut milk
Learning the Thai Herbs
lemongrass / ta krai / ตะไคร้
turmeric / kha min / ขมิ้น
garlic / kratheiym / กระเทียม
kaffir lime / makrut / มะกรูด
Thai ginger / kha / ข่า
Thai ginseng / kra chai / กระชาย
sweet basil / bai horapa / ใบกะเพรา
holy basil / vai kra pao / ใบกระเป้า
Khao Soy is a specialty of northern Thailand. And probably because of our compulsive watching of Anthony Bourdain specials, we spent not an insignificant amount of time in Chiang Mai searching for the very best version of the dish. From street cart to restaurant, we hunted down that local shit. It's a type of curry soup, based off of a yellow curry paste and made with both egg noodles and crispy fried noodles. The dish is influenced by the Shan people in Myanmar, with the Thai twist.
Spices: Garlic, thai ginger, lemongrass, thai ginseng, coriander root, turmeric, coriander, cumin, dry pepper corn, curry powder, kaffir lime peel
Etc: Green chilies, shallots, shrimp paste, coconut cream, fried noodles, egg noodles, onion, fish sauce, sugar
Green curry paste
Learning to making real curry paste is the most valuable lesson you get from this class, using only fresh herbs and pounding them into a pulp with your mortar and pestle. The teacher stressed that this brings out the herbal flavor better than any other prep method.
Red, Yellow, Green, Massaman — they're all made with the same basic base, and then individualized with an additional set of ingredients. My choice was the sweet green curry, fired up with super spicy green chilies and candied with holy basil.
Green chilies, sweet basil, shallots, garlic, thai ginger, lemon grace, thai ginseng, shrimp paste, kaffir lime peel, coriander root, turmeric
Green Papaya Salad
Papaya salad is another Thai specialty — you'll find it just about anywhere. Like Khao Soy it's an import, but from Laos, brought to the country by migrant workers. Though it's main goal is to bring on the pucker with it's sour, bitter notes, it's almost always (and particularly when it's done right) EPICALLY spicy. The perfect snack to have at the beginning of any Thai meal.
Green papaya, carrot, garlic, tomatoes, long beans, roasted peanuts, fish sauce, palm sugar, lime, dry shrimp
Our endearingly gruff teacher helping some of the students. One of the best parts of a cooking class is that you don't have to do any prep or cleaning. Everything is measured and set out for you to slice, and then cleaned up while you gorge yourself on food in between rounds at the wok.
Mango sticky rice
Desserts in Thailand generally center around their saccharinely sweet fruit — coconut, banana, mango, etc. That, and Palm sugar, one of the main spices of the cuisine. The king of the desserts, at least as far as tourists go, is the sticky rice pudding. It's made with coconut milk paired with a sliced mango: easy to prepare, sticky to eat.
Banana in coconut milk
For me, the baby bananas of Southeast Asia beat the chalky puffy ones in America any day. For a local treat, boil coconut cream, water, palm sugar, and a bit of salt, then add the banana. Let cool to at least room temperature, and slurp — it's a bit like when you let the sugar from your Lucky Charms sweeten your morning bowl of milk.
A little bit of hot oil, or let's be honest — quite a lot of hot oil, gets you a long way in Thailand. Sizzle up these ingredients and wrap in little spring roll wrappers: glass noodles, tofu, chives, carrots, bean sprouts, garlic, sugar, fish sauce, soy sauce, oyster sauce, and egg.
Pad Se Ew
Another classic, a heavy honeyed noodle dish. To prep, take the ingredients and pretty much just set them on high in a wok: thick rice noodles, chicken, greens, carrot, egg, garlic, oyster sauce, fish sauce, sugar, soy sauce, black soy sauce. Garnish with ground peanut, chili powder, and lime.
Surprisingly, there is actually quite a lot of pad thai in Thailand. Though it's so often touted as an Americanized dish (foodies everywhere teasing any uncouth friend who orders it) Pad Thai has roots in Chinese and Vietnamese food. It became popular in WWII and is a Thai national dish.
All you have to do to make it is combine rice noodles, chicken (most commonly), chives, bean sprouts, long beans, eggs, garlic, tofu, oyster sauce, fish sauce, sugar, and both light and dark soy sauce, for your own masterful meal. Top with ground peanut, chilies, lime, sugar, and vividly orange tiny dried shrimp.
In the end a lot of the ingredients and garnishes for these dishes are similar if not the exact same, and it's all about how you combine them. The central theory of Thai cooking is that you have to work to balance the four elements: sour, salty, sweet, and spicy. One or two of the four might be dominant in any dish, but pretty much every dish should have all four of them.