When I think of Thailand, I think of food. I think of pad thai, fried rice, and spicy curries. When we meet other travelers in Thailand or who have been here, some type of food is always on their list of what we should try while here. I believe one of the best ways to learn about a culture is to study the relationship with food. Why certain foods are eaten, how they are prepared and, of course, how they are served.
We had the pleasure of visiting two of the top-rated cooking classes in Chiang Mai during our time in Thailand. Our experiences with both were great opportunities to become more a part of the culture in the city we are visiting. When choosing a Thai cooking class, there are two options: taking a cooking class at a farm or to taking a class in the city. Asia Scenic Thai Cooking School offers both options. This is a special Food Favorite that will highlight the experience of visiting a farm-based cooking class.
We were picked up around 8:30 am in a nice, air conditioned van. We made a couple stops to pick up more participants and then arrived at the in-town school location. I was feeling a bit nervous, not for lacking confidence in my cooking skills, but to be learning to cook in a structured setting. Our group of ten students sat down around a long table and were offered coffee and tea. The owner, Gay, began by showing each of us a menu and explaining the different dishes, with in-depth descriptions of the different curries. As if she expected a bit of nervousness, Gay expertly used humor in her introduction to put us all at ease and let us know that we were there to enjoy ourselves and not to worry.
After the explanations, we each chose the dishes we wanted to learn to make that day. The menu included one of each of the following: stir fry, appetizer, soup, dessert, and curry. Kaitlin and I decided to choose different dishes so that we could learn as many as possible between the two of us. My menu consisted of pad thai, spring rolls, tom sab soup, deep fried banana, and khaw soi curry. Kaitlin chose to make pad see uw, green papaya salad, coconut milk soup, sticky rice with mango, and panang curry.
Following the creation of our individual menus, we set off on foot to visit a local market. Gay walked us through the market, stopping at different stalls to talk about different products. We learned that there are two types of rice, normal and sticky. Sticky rice, which is more white, grows on mountains and is plentiful here in northern Thailand. Jasmine rice, a common type of normal rice, needs more water and grows better in flatter areas. She also explained that brown rice, which used to be considered less appealing, was originally used to feed prisoners and white rice was eaten by everyone else. Due to nutrition research, that has now changed and brown rice has become the more expensive option. In addition, we learned that while very few Thai people are vegetarian, most eat tofu with their meals. They consume small portions of meat and supplement their protein intake with tofu, an inexpensive source.
After exploring the market, we loaded up in the van for the 20 minute drive to the farm. When we arrived we were offered a welcome snack and then spent time walking around the farm learning about different ingredients. We were able to see the plants, experiencing the feel and smell of the raw ingredients and learning about the growing process. At this point it was time to don our pink aprons and start cooking!
For each course on our menu, we began by standing around the prep table with chopping blocks and knives. Gay would demonstrate the way to cut and group certain foods for each dish and then we would follow her lead, preparing our ingredients to cook. We would then step over to the cooking station while she again demonstrated proper use of the cooking equipment as well as when to add each ingredient to prepare our dish. Once again, we followed her lead and in no time we had cooked our first dish. By explaining each step and clearly demonstrating her technique, we were able to easily follow Gay’s instructions and create our own delicious dishes. I can now say that I make damn good pad thai! Here is a video of her demonstrating how to cook pad thai:
We continued to progress through our menu this way as her courteous staff quickly cleared and replaced dirty woks and cooking utensils. The facilities were very clean and there was plenty of space to work with and around each other during the day. Some ingredients were already prepped for cooking, such as diced chicken, sliced papaya, and steamed rice. When the time came to make our curry dishes, we actually made the curry paste from raw ingredients. For both the khaw soi and panang, we used a red curry base: dried large red chillies, shallot, garlic, turmeric, coriander seed, galangal, kaffir lime skin, lemongrass, and ginseng – all mixed together and pounded with a mortal and pestle.
Throughout the day, Gay encouraged us to mingle with each other and share our dishes so that we could all taste a bit of each dish prepared. She explained that in Thai culture, it is traditional to share dishes among the table. As you might imagine, by the end of the day, having eaten five courses and tasted those prepared by others, we were stuffed!
During our entire time spent at Asia Scenic, Gay welcomed us to ask any questions we had and was always happy to share her knowledge and enthusiasm with us, along with plenty of humor. I learned a great deal about the preparation and cooking of popular Thai foods as well as information about and the importance of each ingredient. The opportunity to visit the farm and cultivate the connection between the raw ingredients and the finished product that we consume made the class particularly motivating. Each of us was provided with our own cookbook containing recipes for each option from our menu. The cookbook is very well put together, with color pictures of all ingredients and offers alternative suggestions for hard to find ingredients. I left Asia Scenic with a full belly as well as the skills and recipes needed to prepare these delicious meals at home!
About the author: Brian
Brian is one of the two backpacks traversing the globe with his lovely wife and better half, Kaitlin. He enjoys all things relating to delicious food, good beer, and the great outdoors. When he isn't out taking photographs and adventuring himself, he enjoys writing about travel and backpacking gear, his favorite foods from around the world, and lessons he has learned throughout his adventures.