Strolling through Chiang Mai with no particular destination makes you hungry. Having completed the sweaty but fascinating excursion to the Karen Hill People Village, we searched for another new experience as we strolled the streets of the core. Passing markets filled with interesting meats, veggies, seafood and more chili peppers than a factory, our stomachs craved some authentic food. Appearing out of nowhere from a small alleyway, a frail old woman handed us a brochure for a Thai Cooking School offering daily classes.
Honestly, one of the main reasons we’re becoming expats in Southeast Asia is the gastronomical delights offered every day on just about every street corner. Understanding cooking techniques piqued my curiosity and with the school only a few blocks away we strolled over for a look. Lured in by the friendly woman, the half-day cooking class taught us why restaurants outside Thailand simply can’t create “authentic Thai food.
Chiang Mai, in the Northern part of Thailand, sits in a beautiful lush mountain environment. It’s the second largest city, often cooler than the south and most certainly worthy of a visit. In fact, it’s up there as a close second choice for a retirement destination. Ditching the tourist books, we simply went walking. Possibly the second most interesting experience of the trip, this post continues my series on our first Southeast Asian visit to Thailand and 2009 entry of our Annual Expat Research Destination Vacation.
Arriving early, Diane and I entered the impressive lobby of Thai KItchen Cookery Centre Cooking school. Convenient by foot or tuk-tuk,, Loi Kroha Road is a main artery just outside the perimeter of the city flanked by a host of small restaurants, shops and small alleyways. Offering full day, half day and even private courses, there’s a schedule to fit anyone’s needs. Prices are inexpensive and at THB 800 (less than $25 USD), the half day course didn’t put a dent in our budget.
Setting this school apart from others, the class is a hands-on experience including a market tour for purchasing the ingredients. Fascinating enough by itself, we journeyed to an off the beaten path market used only by locals. Explaining not only the main ingredients but also answering any questions about exotic items found only in Southeast Asia, the friendly and knowledgeable staff walked us through the process.
Owned and operated by a professional chef born into a family of restaurant owners, the proprietor’s grandparents passed on all the recipes ensuring authenticity for his teaching techniques. In 1995 he opened his first cooking school and he’s also authored four recipe books and now runs a restaurant in Adelaide, Australia. Chopping, cooking and making all the sauces using the family recipes, students learn basic techniques in a real kitchen environment flanked by a beautiful background of local plants and gardens.
Choosing four courses from various categories, the half day class offers enough for a complete meal. Diane made papaya salad , fish with peanuts and pad-thai while I chose curry, a shrimp sir fry dish and soup. Possibly due to low season, the school was empty that day and nice young British couple shared the course with us. Arriving back from the market excursion they led us to a table where skilled cooks explained proper methods of chopping, dicing, slicing and grating.
Once versed in the methods we brought the freshly chopped ingredients to small portable kitchen stations just like contestants on an episode of any cooking show seen on Food Network. Another lesson followed on stir frying techniques including seasoning tips, how to avoid burning and how long to cook each item before adding another one. Often bringing these techniques back to the kitchen in my current house-husband role, the short lesson helped improve my cooking .
Finishing in less than fifteen minutes, we placed all the dishes out on the table and the best part began. Eating our own creations brought a great sense of satisfaction and the amazing part is how incredible they tasted. Sitting with our new friends, we sat down for an early lunch and feasted on home-made Thai food. The real stuff.
Offering tea, coffee, herbal snacks, free transportation pickup from your hotel, a free cookbook written by the owner, a certificate of completion and a fully air-conditioned room with local flair, the Thai Kitchen Centre Cooking School was an experience worth sharing. Highly recommended, even wives lucky enough to have a house husband (like Diane) will enjoy this interesting fun-filled afternoon.
The downside? The spice package they gave us sits full in my cupboard to this day. Although I cracked it open once or twice after returning to California, the sad reality is I can never eat Americanized Thai food again after spending two weeks in Thailand all those years ago. Freshness is the key and although Kafir limes, Thai basil and galangal are commercially available in North America, the Mexican versions simply don’t cut it. Choosing to save money for the upcoming move, we bypass all the hoopla of local yuppie joints now that we understand what real Thai cooking means.
As next door neighbors to Thailand, I assume abundant authentic Thai food helps round out the Penang cuisine scene. Although smaller portions are probably the norm, I fear 18 months of constructive unemployment might get wasted in a short period due to a carbohydrate infused explosion of taste. Uggh