I’m not sure I can count all the ways taking a Thai cooking class in Chiang Mai was the best idea. I love Thai food and enjoy cooking at home, which is a bit of a luxury on the road, especially in Southeast Asia. (Most of the hostels I stayed in there didn’t have much in the way of kitchen facilities, unlike similar properties in Europe.) Perhaps more importantly, food is one of the best windows into other cultures, and recipes make incredible souvenirs.
The blog grapevine pointed me to Mama Noi Cookery School, and so I devoted one of my last days in Chiang Mai to their full day Thai cooking class. Like most cooking classes, we started with a visit to the local market, where an instructor pointed out ingredients particular to Thai cuisine like galangal and kaffir lime leaf. After a few minutes to wander on our own, we drove out to the classroom, set in an organic garden.
I had about a half dozen classmates, mostly Americans, which is always surprising to me. We seem to come few and far between on the budget backpacker trail. We each had a menu to select which dishes we’d make in each of several categories. For the rest of the day, we’d cook and eat plates two at a time.
Soup: Chicken in Coconut Milk
Although we all made our dish selections individually, we still cooked as a group. Our instructor was really skilled at balancing the needs of the group, and the structure of each lesson was well thought out with many steps being similar for different dishes. She also had a pretty sharp sense of humor and as she was dividing our group into teams (people who had chosen the same dish), she dubbed my group making the mild chicken in coconut milk soup the “Baby Team.” A mother and daughter preparing a sour and spicy soup were “Mama Team,” while the lone gentleman making the ultra spicy hot and sour prawn soup became “Sexy Man” for the rest of the day. Lesson one about Thai cooking: spice is sexy.
Stir Fry: Pad Thai
The quintessential Thai dish, practically everyone in my group chose to make Pad Thai as our stir fry. Other options were cashew chicken or a stir fried chicken with basil. But seriously, who could resist the call of spicy rice noodles doused in peanuts? I don’t think I ever realized just how many ingredients go into a proper Pad Thai, several of which I’d never worked with before. Palm sugar, dried baby shrimps, and pungent shrimp paste were all on the menu. Once everything was prepped, we headed to the stovetop, where you had to be ready to put in some work. You want a good Pad Thai? You have to put your whole body into stirring the wok.
Curry: Massaman Curry
If you had told me a year ago, I’d make my own curry paste from scratch, I wouldn’t have believed it. But one mortar and pestle, and 10 minutes of some serious elbow grease turned that particular culinary achievement from “I’d never” to “I did.” Most Thai curries are red, made with dried chiles, and green, made with fresh chiles, which makes green curry the spiciest style of curry. I opted for something I wasn’t already familiar with: Massaman curry. Cinnamon and star anise are added to a basic array of curry ingredients for a mild to moderately spiced, Indian influenced dish. Other options included Penang curry – a thick and sweet red peanut curry – and Khao Soy curry, another novelty to me. Khao Soy is totally unique among Thai curries because it is served with crispy egg noodles rather than rice.
Thai Iced Tea
To tame the heat from our curries, we also made Thai iced tea. The leaves for Thai tea really do produce that bright orange-red color, and sweetening with condensed milk rather than sugar is a must. I’ve tried to make Thai iced tea at home before and it’s always been close but no cigar. Lots of sweetened condensed milk is the key.
Fried Spring Rolls
I’ve always been a little terrified of deep frying. I’m still not sure I can bring myself to stick a vat of boiling oil in my kitchen, but I was really happy with how my fried spring roll turned out in cooking class. Rather than everyone making a full serving of spring rolls, we worked as a group. One guy volunteered to work the wok to cook the filling we would all share. We each took a wrapper, learned the right way to fold, and then fried our rolls in batches of two to three before topping it with a sweet chile sauce.
Appetizer: Green Papaya Salad
This was another category that nearly every member of the class agreed on. Green papaya salad is one of northern Thailand’s most famous dishes. Green papaya itself doesn’t have much flavor, but it’s just the right texture for creating long, thin, almost noodle-like strips to be doused in a sour and spicy dressing. I was a little surprised to learn this salad is prepared in a large wooden mortar and pestle. Other appetizers on the menu were a spicy ground chicken salad and a glass noodle salad.
Dessert: Mango Sticky Rice
Ever seen sticky rice that looks like it’s been dyed a completely unnatural color? It’s not unnatural! Our final lesson of the day, dessert, kicked off with making natural food dyes for bright blue and green sticky rice. The green coloring comes from pandan leaves, which are mildly fragrant and sweet but unlike any ingredient you’d find in the west and thus somewhat indescribable. The blue comes from butterfly pea flowers, which have a host of homeopathic applications and are often found in Southeast Asian beauty products as well as treats like sticky rice. For both colorings, you chop and crush them in a little water and squeeze out all the pigment you can. If you add a little lime juice to the butterfly pea flower dye, it will change from bright blue to a gorgeous purple. Our dyes went right into a sweetened coconut milk mixture on the stove which we stirred glutinous rice into, to be served alongside a fresh mango. Sesame seeds and mung beans went on top for a little extra crunch. Most of our group made mango sticky rice, but there were a couple less popular desserts also on the menu like fried bananas and a dish called “red rubies” – a uniquely textured dessert made from water chestnuts and coconut milk.
Perhaps the biggest highlight of the day was getting sent home with a cookbook, so we each got all the recipes regardless of what we chose to make that day. Like I said – recipes make the best souvenirs.
This is still simply scratching the surface of Thai food. Read up on more awesome dishes in this quick foodie guide to Bangkok.