Saturday, October 26, 2013

Chiang Mai: Cooking School

It's kind of funny that the only cooking classes I've ever taken in my life have been SE Asian cuisines. VietNamese and now Thai.

The place we're staying in Chiang Mai is owned by a Korean-American named Steven and his Thai wife Ketsuda. They were helpful in telling us what was worth seeing, and organizing the tours for us. We had no more disappointments like the one in Bangkok.

I wanted to take a cooking class, and the area we had walked around had half a dozen schools. Steven recommended Asia Scenic and even paid the bill and arranged the pickup for the next morning. "Don't eat before you go" he warned.

The class started with Miss Indi taking us to the garden in the back to sample fresh leaves of Thai sweet basil, kefir lime, and garlic chives. She had a basket filled with fresh pieces of turmeric (which looks just like orange ginger root), eggplant, taro root, and other SE Asian vegetables.

Miss Indi led us down the street a couple of blocks to a small market called Sompet where the prices are the same for everyone, not higher for tourists. She joked that we needed to stick together, because if we got lost, she might not recognize us, all Farang (foreigners) look alike to her.

At the market we were introduced to the twenty different varieties of rice, all of which were only about 28 Baht per kilo (a little less than one dollar for 2.2 pounds!). The market was typical, a bit stinky from the rotting bits on the ground and the ever present slight sewer odors. Vegetables and fruits were lined up in well organized stalls and the prices were really cheap. Everywhere else in the Old City, I had paid much more, though even those prices were cheap.

Back at the school, which was a large roofed parking lot with a building in the back, we settled down on cushions at a low table and were served a welcome snack; tiny pieces of onion, garlic, mango, chile, and a sweet sauce put inside a folded betel leaf. She showed us how to fold it into a small cone so we could fill it and eat.

There were 8 people in the class, all but one Italian fellow and I had signed up for the half day class. So as a group we decided to make a stir fry, a curry, and an appetizer. The Italian and I made soup and a dessert after they left around 1:00.

I've cooked Thai at home, using recipes from the internet and following instructions on bottles of curry paste, but in this class, we made our own curry paste from scratch.

Made from scratch
curry pastes for green, yellow,
massaman, and red curries
Dry chiles had been chopped and soaked in water for a few hours. Those were the basis of the paste. We had to mince up onions, garlic, green mango, hard tofu and other items that got mashed up with the chiles in a large stone mortar and pestle (similar to the tool in Mexico called a Molcajete).

Paste-making is very time consuming, it's no wonder everybody just buys curry paste in large quantities from the markets.

We each made a stir fry, and cut up vegetables like the long skinny corn in small slices so they looked like yellow stars in the dish. Each person selected a stir fry and a curry from a list of five, so even though we each made our own, we learned to make them all as Indi discussed the differences while we cooked. We each had a wok and a burner, and the meat (a tiny bowl of chicken pieces) was added just after the emotions, the bits that add the most flavor like chives, garlic and chile.

I'm definitely have to get a Chinese Cleaver. It was sharp, easy to use, and had a long enough blade to artistically slice many carrots or chunks of cabbage at once.

After each cooking session, we ate our own dish and sometimes passed the others around for a sample. It was a nice group of people, some cracked jokes, we laughed a lot. Some of us made fried spring rolls and one fellow from the Netherlands was so precise, every vegetable was the same size, and his spring rolls were identical. I had one long skinny roll, and one that looked like a little pig. It all tasted good.

After the group finished up and just the Italian and I were left, I took a longish walk to help digest all the food I'd already eaten, and he did a much more sensible thing, he moved some cushions around, and took a nap.

Then we geared up to make desserts and soups. Again, there was a lot of fine chopping and prepping. The soups took almost no time to make, and in fact the less time the better, as it kept the vegetables nice and crisp. We made batter fried bananas which he gobbled right up, but left his soup. My soup was so good and filling there was no room left for bananas. So my companion Rheta got the leftovers, packaged up in a plastic bag. Both were still warm when I got back to our apartment, and she said (absolutely true too) that it was the best food she'd had so far in Thailand.

Indi demonstrating cooking with vegetable oils.