Learning to cook in Chiang Mai

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Those who know me well are very aware of my skills as a chef.  These skills could be kindly described as ‘functional’, and more accurately described as ‘occasionally one step above food poisoning’.  There’s a very good reason why I used to live less than 100m from a street full of restaurants and cafes in Melbourne, and it certainly wasn’t because I worked in one of them.

Despite this lack of ability, however, I was determined to have a go at learning how to cook, Thai style.  After more than a month in this beautiful country the one thing I loved more than the beaches, mountains and people was the incredible food.  Having never ventured far beyond the traditional options of green curry and spring rolls while living in the West, the diversity and flavour of the food in Thailand was an absolute revelation.  I couldn’t get enough of it, and decided that I needed to be able to recreate the joy of every mealtime after I left the country.  It was time for my first ever cooking class.

I was in the northern city of Chiang Mai at the time, and classes there aren’t exactly hard to find.  Every guesthouse has several brochures, websites list dozens of options and even just walking around the streets seems to yield a cooking school every few blocks.  With such a wealth of options the challenge became not finding someone to teach me but working out which one would be best.

After some half-hearted attempts at research on the web I did what I usually do, and asked around for recommendations instead.  A friend of mine mentioned that he had enjoyed the course that he had taken and that was enough for me.  A quick email later and I was booked on a course with [email protected] the very next day.  I was even able to pay by Paypal and get a discount, which was a rather nice surprise – many places charge you more for the privilege, not less.

Noi and Pom – two of the three young women that run the cooking school – picked me up from my guesthouse right on time at 8.30am and along with the one other ‘pupil’ we headed out of the city to a local market filled with seafood, meat, fruit, vegetables and more herbs than I’d ever spotted under one roof before.  We were introduced to many of the essential ingredients that go into northern Thai dishes, some of which I had seen before and many of which I’d never even heard of.  Trying a pinch of this and a mouthful of that as we worked our way around the market for half an hour, we also picked up a few bits and pieces that would later make their way into our culinary masterpieces.

View from Cooking@home

[email protected] is run out of a family home in Sankhampaeng village, about half an hour’s drive from Chiang Mai.  Set amongst the rice paddies and herb gardens, the school is only a year old – and it shows.  The outdoor kitchen and dining area looked brand new, modern and immaculately clean.  There was a separate bench and gas cooker for everyone – obviously not much of a problem when there were only two pupils, but the school can cater for at least a dozen people easily.  The whole setup seemed very professional – to be honest, it totally exceeded my expectations.

One of the fun things about the courses that [email protected] run is that unlike some of the other schools they don’t just teach you to cook the typical fare that you’d find on the menu of a Thai restaurant back home.  The options are entirely different each day, with everything from fluffy catfish salad to sweet custard cake with pumpkin being offered up over the course of a week.  If you want to know how to cook the standard pad thai and spring rolls then they are on the menu too, but there are literally a couple of dozen other dishes as well.  You could easily spend a full five days at the school – and apparently many people do – without ever repeating a dish.  Very cool.

I only had one day spare, however, so my Thursday menu looked like this:

  • Fried rice with pineapple and prawns
  • Red curry with roasted duck
  • Thai spicy minced pork salad (Issan style)
  • Sweet and sour vegetables with fish
  • Steamed banana cake with young coconut flesh

Are you hungry yet?  I’d been warned not to eat breakfast beforehand – a very useful warning, as it transpired.

Pom and Noi were both excellent teachers, and very patient with a novice like me who was focused mainly on working out which end of the knife was the sharp bit and trying not to set myself on fire on the gas cooker.  After making a beautiful tomato ‘rose’ garnish that looked a little like a romantic flower and a lot more like a squashed tomato, the real cooking was underway.  To my absolute astonishment, and probably that of Pom and Noi as well, under their guidance all of my dishes actually came together remarkably well over the course of the day.  Even more amazingly, they tasted good too!  As Pom joked “If the food is bad, blame yourself.  If the food is great, compliment the teacher”.  At least I think she was joking…

Spicy pork salad

It’s amazing what you can do with a serrated knife and a few minutes in charge of a wok.

The fried rice with pineapple and prawns was a quick and easy way to get the hang of using the various pieces of equipment, slicing, dicing and stir-frying my way to a delicious breakfast.  From there the hard work began, bashing and grinding a potent mix of ingredients in a mortar and pestle to come up with a deliciously spicy red curry paste to accompany the roasted duck for lunch.

My favourite meal though – and not just because it was so easy to cook – had to be the minced pork salad.  I think I may have had a poor imitation of this dish in the past, but the incredible combination of heat, spice, sour and sweet literally made my taste buds tingle.  Best of all, I can’t see how it could take more than ten minutes to make, start to finish.  I have a feeling this may become my go-to dinner from this day forward.

After finishing off the cooking extravaganza with sweet and sour vegetables and a steamed banana and coconut dessert in a handmade (well, hand-stapled…) banana leaf cup, the course finished mid afternoon and it was time to waddle back to the van for the journey back into Chiang Mai.  And to then collapse on my bed for a nap in a vain attempt to digest some of the incredible food that I’d made and eaten over the last several hours.

The glossy cookbook that accompanies the course should prove to be invaluable when I attempt these dishes in my own kitchen, as it contains not only detailed recipes but suitable substitutes for the vegetables and other ingredients that are hard or impossible to find outside Southeast Asia.  I was so impressed by it that I bought a second copy for my sister – a far more accomplished cook than I, I hasten to add.

I feel that I learned an awful lot over the course of the day, and will now be totally happy to have a go at cooking a variety of Thai dishes for my brave / long-suffering / foolhardy friends and family.  Any course that can achieve that is worth its weight in gold and as a result, I would highly recommend checking out [email protected] when you are in Chiang Mai.  For around $30 USD for transport, a full day course, cookbook and of course five meals, it is an absolute bargain.

So, see you at my place for dinner around 7?

5 Responses to “Learning to cook in Chiang Mai

  • Nice article about a Thai cooking in Chiang Mai. That way you can bring your trip back home & recook the trip experience!

  • sounds great – we will be there soon, so will make sure to check it out 🙂

  • I’m the friend yay!

    I don’t think I told you the story of how I offended one of the teachers, who then picked on me (playfully?) for the rest of the day. I even got a picture with her smiling with a knife near my throat.

    oops. I’ll tell you the story next time we meet up in Chiang Mai…

  • Sounds cool, checked out their website and I like the Thursday or Friday menu – I like the idea of pineapple fried rice sounds yummy

    • I doubt you could go wrong with any of the menus to be honest, but I’m regularly cooking the minced pork salad at least once a week since I’ve been home, if that’s any helpl! 😉

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