Chiang Mai: a transition from beach-bumming, an escape from the oppressive humidity, a place to enjoy a sudden decline of high-school flashpackers and where street meals over 20THB are a thing of the past. The jittery 20 hour sleeper train seems to shake all of these things off and more on its way up from Bangkok and new passengers hop on in the hope of exploring rural Thailand, native hill-tribes, strikingly golden temples and a chance to enrol for the day in a Thai cookery school. Because of this, in the north, tourism and local-culture live side-by-side with slightly more ease.
For me, most importantly, Chiang Mai was the time to do the cooking and the Thai Cookery Kitchen Centre (TCKC) was where this happened. Not even Christmas beat the amount consumed on this day, my stomach found no limits, even when I thought I’d peaked and signs of a jaw ache and an uncomfortably stuffed stomach became apparent, a mere five minutes later, with my hands and mouth on auto-pilot, more food was being applied to face, even once the cookery workshop was over. I am probably still burning off the calories from this day, but those innumerable ‘moments on the lips’ was actually worth lifetimes on the hips.
The full-day option was a reasonably priced 900THB and this is the course the day followed:
- Dropped at TCKC to choose our dishes.
- Trip to the local food-market to find our ingredients
- Course One- Cooked Pad Thai- ate Pad Thai
- Course Two- Cooked Chosen Stir-fry dish or Salad
- Couse Three- Made Chosen Curry-paste and cooked curry
- Dinner time- Ate our stir-fries and curries
- Course Five- Made Spring Rolls, cooked them…ate them.
- Course Six- Cooked chosen Dessert.
- Final consumption.
SOURCING OUR INGREDIENTS
TCKC firstly took us to a food-market. A completely tourist-free one. Limited pre-made food was available, just organic fruit, vegetables, spices, pastes and herbs in bountiful proportions only attracting local home-cooks.
Our guide for the day lead us around the market and pointed out key ingredients and essential facts, such as:
- Thai Basil is sweet unlike Italian (you can smell the difference).
- The skin of Thai Garlic can be eaten.
- The smaller the chilli the spicier!
- The very bitter pea-sized green vegetables often seen in Green Curries are Baby Eggplants (Aubergines).
- The Green Tomato looking vegetables also served in Curries are called Sweet Eggplants.
- Lemongrass is another essential flavour used in Curries. It can be rubbed on skin and left around your bedroom to ward off Mosquitos
Aprons on, Sleeves up and with the name ‘Hibby’ (not Libby) attached to my chest (a misunderstanding at the start of the day) it was time to start getting my hands dirty. TCKC do all the mundane parts of cooking for you. All the ingredients were pre-portioned and meticulously placed in cute tubs before us and ready to be chopped. Calmly and attentively our assigned Thai Chef slowly helped us to understand each ingredient demonstrating precisely in which direction and shape each ingredient should be chopped.
Once we ‘d finished prepping each dish we were placed, with our fellow cooks, behind a work station as though we were contenders on Ready.Steady.Cook and were given specific directions on the order that the ingredients needed to be added to the wok, the temperature needed and the exact amount of seasoning to perfect each dish.
Course One- Pad Thai
It is questionable whether the Pad Thai is authentic or just a mild dish invented to lure backpackers to street vendors. Either way, you can’t deny it’s deliciousness and it’s really quite fun to cook. It’s a fuss-free dish with minimal ingredients but the simple combination of flavours marry ever so well. If you don’t know, Pad Thai is noodles cooked in garlic, spring onions, fish and soy sauce, egg, chicken and/or prawns and tantalisingly finished with a squeeze of lime and sprinkle of peanuts. We were shown how to manipulate our wok so that our egg fried into an omelette on one side and our noodles sizzled in the other, once both were cooked we scrambled and served.
And dish one was served:
Course Two- Chicken in Cashew Nuts and Penang Curry
Dish two (Chicken in Cashew Nuts) was even more effortless. Chicken and cashews fried in a bit of soy, garlic, onion, sugar and chilli. The outcome was a modest yet morish dish as the sweet and toasted flavour of the crunchy nuts worked wonderfully against the saltiness of the soy and softness of the chicken.
Just as I was beginning to think Thai food cooking was plain sailing, it was time to make our curry pastes. This did not involve whizzing together a few components in a blender, but, with sweat, toil and the necessary requirement of arm muscle (which I lack) we firmly ground an infinite amount of ingredients in a pestle and mortar to fully release those distinctive Thai aromas. Believe you me, this exercise hands-down beats lifting weights at the gym and when you’re making a Penang (like I did) the bag-full of chillies which go into the paste are a real pain to pulverise. Henceforth, a spoonful of this paste added more than a ‘kick’ to my curry. Although curry pastes can be a HUGE effort to make not a lot of the paste is needed to make a curry and the remaining paste can be frozen.
Course Four- Spring Rolls
Spring Rolls were a daily pre-dinner snack for me in Thailand, I’d mindlessly munch on these without any thought of the effort that goes into making a single roll. You need to chop the veg into minute strips, then fry and season, then individually hand-wrap each one, deep fry and make an accompanying sauce. The assembly part was more like an origami lesson as there is a rather precise way to wrap and roll in order to prevent rips whilst having a nice tightly packed roll (see my Turkey and Cranberry Spring Roll recipe to see how).
Course Five- Fried Bananas in Coconut Toffee
Bananas in South-East Asia are so much more delightful than ours, they’re miniature, soft and sweet. Therefore, SE Asian bananas work a lot better in desserts and smoothies without having to wait for them to slightly pass their sell-by date. This dessert is banana fried in butter, coconut sugar, coconut cream and lime juice. The sugar caramelised on top of the banana and formed crunchy crystals. This hot dessert was served with cooling vanilla ice-cream.
The day was completed with a hand-out of certificates and a cookery book. The book (which is now my primary source of reference for Thai cooking) includes thirty recipes, pictorial demonstrations on carving flowers from vegetables and it explains the different types of Thai noodles and rice.
Following the Cookery School, our protruding stomachs lead us to the Sunday Market on Walking Street. I left the school fit to burst, but then I passed these cute things, I was so intrigued that my eyes took over my stomach and I just had to try..what difference does another bite make anyway?
If you’re wondering, like I was, this is sushi with dyed tofu made to look like teddy bears, with a splodge of mayonaise. They looked a lot nicer than they tasted to be frank. I think it looks like they stuck Percy Pig on a sushi.