If I were to choose my top three favorite ethnic foods to eat, Thai would be up there, the spicier the better. I’m lucky enough to have two or three really good Thai restaurants within walking distance of my house back home. Tragically though, going out to eat there once a week tends to get expensive. I’ve always wanted to make Thai food at home but it seemed complicated and quite a bit more time consuming than making my usual sautéed vegetable and pasta concoctions.
You can imagine how happy I was then when I saw the multitude of Thai cooking classes available in Chiang Mai. Apparently the city is just chock full of chefs practically falling over themselves to impart their wisdom in the ways of curries, noodles and soups. Choosing the right school looked to be a bit of a chore as there are many a la carte options for learning.
Do you want the class in town or out on the organic farm? Is half a day learning a couple dishes all you need or do you want to challenge your inner Anthony Bourdain (booze and snark not required) and spend the entire day cooking up a storm. Do you have a small budget or can you spend more to cook in a state of the art kitchen?
All I knew is that I was getting hungry just thinking about the options and frankly, if it came down to learning how to make pad thai over a campfire while surrounded by a horde of ravenous goats then I’d still call that a win.
My hostel had been a wealth of information concerning other activities in the area and hadn’t currently disappointed so I checked out the options and convinced my friend Yvonne to join in the fun. We chose the half day course, which actually ended up being around six hours. The option of learning how to cook at the organic farm where some of the ingredients for the dishes would be plucked fresh from the garden and trees sounded really cool to me so into the country we went!
The first stop we made after being picked up at the hostel was to the local market right near the farm. This is about as local as you can get – if the ingredients aren’t coming from the farm you’re cooking at then they’re coming from a farm near there – organic local food at its finest!
I’ll go ahead and warn those of you who have never been to a local market in a foreign country what you’re in store for. At home what we call a farmers market is the main market here – proper grocery stores are few and in a lot of places completely nonexistent. In America I’m used to brightly lit stores with well stocked shelves, bright crinkly packaging, cuts of meat arrayed in appetizing rows under glass cases while resting on bed of ice. Our vegetables are gently misted every 15 minutes, and even before being turned into a meal, the food already looks presentable.
Oh how things are so very different here. In these markets you see where your food comes in a very visceral and unignorable way. There are a few pictures below that made me squirm while I was taking them and for my vegetarian and vegan friends – unless you’re the type who can’t help but look at a car accident – you might want to scroll quicker than a disgruntled employee looking for a new job when the boss suddenly walks by.
The great thing about these markets are the bizarre (to me) things that are considered normal foods. Cow stomach – yep. Basket full of frogs – they got em! You want your fish so fresh that they flop around on the table in front of you – why no problem at all sir!
When we encountered a place which had brown eggs and then eggs with a pink shell it was impossible not to ask what the pink eggs were. According to our cooking instructor, the pink was a dye to differentiate these eggs from others because they had been soaked in red wine, salt and some other ingredient for about two weeks until it “cooked” the inside. She told us that these are popular with older men and usually drank with alcohol. These wine soaked pink eggs are also purported to give men “much power” wink wink. So when the offer to try one came up I decided that saying no to avian embyro Viagra would be doing you a disservice and though with no place to direct it, I figured having “more power, wink wink” couldn’t hurt.
Upon peeling the egg just a little you could see that the white had turned a very disturbing black color and had solidified into a pliable gelatinous substance – it was like poking the worst looking flavor of Jello ever. I pulled off a small piece of it and popped it in my mouth and….it wasn’t bad actually! I continued walking around the market with Yvonne and our instructor, wandering the mazes of stalls constantly gaining “more power” with each bite. Sort of like a Pacman with dirtier intentions. Everything was fine until I got to the yolk part and broke it open.
Imagine a viscous custard like filling, similar to what’s in a donut. Then imagine that it’s the color of dirty motor oil. Then smell it and imagine how much you’d rather put dirty motor oil into your mouth. The first tiny piece I tried was overwhelmingly salty yet still tasted like the yolk of a hardboiled egg does. However the more I ate it the worse it actually became. I’m not sure what alcohol pairs with this egg but I imagine it needs to be 200 proof to burn out the nasty aftertaste this leaves in your mouth. I don’t know about giving you “much power”, unless the power is a breath so rank that the ladies pass out when you breath near them, making you think that perhaps it’s your charming good looks and not the blackened fermented egg in your teeth that is causing the fainting.
As I washed the unidentifiable aftertaste out of my mouth we headed towards the farm as I snacked on a few other things to forget what my stomach was currently thinking : “Oh look food!….wait…what the hell is this!? WHAT DID YOU DO TO THIS EGG YOU BASTARD!!!!!”.
Once at the farm the instructor made us a cup of Thai tea, which if you have not had, is about the most delicious tea creation known to man. There is a unique spice taste and they dump enough sugar into it to give the person next to you diabetes. It’s delightful. As we sipped the tea she walked us around the garden showing the types of produce they grew, what types of foods it they were used in and how to tell if something was ready to be plucked for eating.
Finally we were shown to our cooking stations. I kind of felt like I was on the set of one of those daytime cooking shows that you see on TV when you’re hungover and too lazy to change the channel and I excitedly – probably too excitedly – put on my apron to begin the course.
We selected which dishes we wanted to make on the way to the farm, and first up was soups. I chose to make Tom Yum Goong which is a spicy soup with shrimp. It was surprisingly easy to make and when I tasted the end result I was actually very surprised at how well it turned out. I can cook fairly well but this was too tasty for me to have created, and yet it was my creation!!
What followed next was a Massaman curry, which is more of an Indian style curry than Thai, and a basil with chicken dish, both of which were easy to make and turned out delicious. Our instructor showed us the five basic ingredients used to make any curry paste, and it was usually the addition of only one or two other ingredients that completely changed the color and taste. Our ingredients gathered we sat on a bench with a mortar and pestle, being shown correctly how to smash the hell out of the ingredients to make a proper paste that we’d be using for our dishes.
I began to think our teacher had a bit of a dirty streak as she joked that a Thai man knew he would have a good wife if she knew how to correctly grip the pestle and make the correct stroke to smash the ingredients. If you don’t know the correct motion and what she was devilishly alluding to, I’ll just say that if you’re someone who likes something that rhymes with ‘band knob’, you will be very excited by the correct technique used to make curry paste.
Needless to say, when I tasted the massaman curry dish that I had made I was about as happy as someone who had gotten a great ‘band knob’. The funnier part of making that dish was that I had requested to make it spicy. When a Westerner says to a Thai cook “I’d like it spicy please” what the Thai person must be thinking is “No you don’t”. What is hot to a Thai is decidedly different than what is hot to most Westerners so you can see how they’d want to tone it down for our perceived delicate palates.
I however must have burned off my taste buds pretty well at some point because I’m a great fan of hot peppers and spicy sauces. Maybe it’s a guy thing but the hotter the pepper the more willing I am to give it a try. I think I actually get a little too much of a rush. When the oil in the pepper hits that part of my mouth that makes me start to spontaneously sweat, drool, have watery eyes and make unintelligible sounds while frantically looking around for something to cool the magma like sensation in your mouth, I like that.
So it was a great pleasure to see the incredulous looks on my instructors face when I kept tasting my dish and asking for more and more chili paste to be added. Her eyes got wider as I urged her to spoon more in and when it got hot enough she said “wow, you eat like Thai people!” in a way the showed her admiration for the toughness of my tastebuds. It’s like I’d just walked into food prison and shanked the toughest guy there. Gold star for me!
By the end of the course I was so stuffed that I couldn’t finish the last dish I made. Well that’s sort of true. I had to eat the mango with sticky rice because as an American it’s one of our mottos that they’re always room for dessert. My final meal was wrapped up in a takeaway box made of a freshly plucked banana leaf. Satiated and filled with food and cooking skill success we rolled back into town dreaming of naps.