A major action step on my Chiang Mai wish list has been learning about the food culture, and naturally, I couldn’t resist signing up for a Thai cooking course. Michael and I have tried our hand at various curries, Pad Thai, and spring rolls back home, to mixed results. So we couldn’t wait to find out the hidden secrets of these mysteriously delicious dishes.
We stumbled upon the Thai Farm Cooking School while taking care of other business in an internet cafe. Turns out, pretty much anyone who’s minding any store in Thailand can and will sign you up for something. So the woman who sold us our internet also sold us a day at an organic farm in the countryside. *shrug*
The songtaew picked us up around nine with a promise our first stop would be at the market. This is where our friendly guides began explaining the building blocks of what we know as Thai food. They went through the processed ingredients: Various rices, noodles, coconut milk, and oils are the mainstays of pre-packaged foods around here. The rest is fresh, and usually involves some combination of eggplant, morning glory, mangoes, onions, carrots, papaya, mushrooms, bananas, and eggs. These, along with rice or noodles, make up the bulk of the meal and are accompanied by slivers of seafood, chicken, pork, and beef – this composition is quite the opposite of meals as we know them back home.
The distinctive flavor profile comes from the addition of the little fellows (don’t tell them I said that). Chilis of all sizes, shapes, colors, and Scoville ratings add heat that can make or break your day. Galangal adds gingery depth, while lemongrass lends its unmistakable twist. Shallots, garlic, multiple varieties of basil, kaffir lime, and parsley play supporting roles, and limes are usually included, too. They call them lemons – we were told this is because native Thai speakers have a hard time pronouncing the word lime.
Following the market excursion, we loaded back into the songtaew toward the farm. Our new teacher put embarassing hats on us and walked us around the garden where many of our yet-to-be discovered ingredients were grown.
On the way in, we had selected what we’d like to prepare. We chose between curries (green, red, and yellow), soups (tom yam, coconut chicken, or Thai vegetable), another dish (chicken with cashews, basil chicken, or papaya salad), ANOTHER dish (spring rolls, Pad Thai, or stir-fry), and a dessert (bananas in coconut milk, mango sticky rice, or pumpkin in coconut milk). This, my friends, was not an easy series of decisions.
Then the cooking commenced. We cooked, and cooked, and cooked some more. I went with green curry, tom yam, chicken with cashews, Pad Thai, and mango sticky rice. Michael opted for yellow curry, chicken coconut soup, papaya salad, spring rolls, and bananas in coconut milk. We had each chosen five dishes, and you’ll notice that Michael and I selected strategically so that our selections were mutually exclusive. After the cooking marathon, we had a lot of eating to do. This wasn’t easy either, but we worked through it.
At the end of the race, our hard-earned prizes couldn’t have been better – full bellies, leftovers, and a recipe book to boot. Since I can’t wait until I see everyone to share these, here’s a link to some of them on the Thai Farm Cooking School’s Web site. Let us know if you try anything! I hope you can enjoy these as much as we have.