Ah, holidays without cold and snow. After a rather dreary and gray November, skies cleared this month, the temperature dropped, the sun shined brightly albeit a tad hazily for so early before “burning season”, and it began to look like a perfect Tropical Christmas Card. For those following along, you’ll recall how much I’ve craved real fresh roasted turkey. Harder to find than a good pastrami on rye or a beef hot dog, turkeys roam wild all over Asia and maybe that’s because nobody ever tried to catch them. Although commercially raised turkeys are available in Chiang Mai, they’re not very good and the quality and can’t hold a candle to North American Butterballs. Having attended a Thanksgiving buffet last month at a friend’s catered event, disappointment abounded when the turkey turned out to be a pre-cooked processed roast similar to deli sandwich meat.
Although we didn’t move to Asia expecting to eat turkey sandwiches, burgers and pizza, Chiang Mai is a hub of western expat civilization with throngs of farangs from Christian missionaries out of Omaha to digital nomads from Europe, Australia and everywhere in between. Add in the thousands of retirees, millennial dropouts, begpackers and tourists that never leave and you’ve got a sub culture looking to eat everything from burritos to haggis. (I’m not sure where you can find that but it’s probably somewhere). Since arriving six months ago, there’s been a crush of new western food outlets opening all over and many say they serve “authentic” cuisine. Taking some of the fun out of what used to be a town filled with mostly local ethnic Thai food, the largely opinionated Facebook food group people go on and on posting about the greatest new burger in town and then rave about some ribs cooked by Europeans from nations that normally specialize in herring or schnitzel. Granted there is some good western style food here and it literally blows the shit out of Penang’s version but after a while it all seems to blend together. Yearning for the good ol’ days, we put aside the stereotypes associated with cheesy tourist attractions and did the only sensible thing. Looking for a way to further indulge our inner Thai gastronomic urges. we went to a Thai cooking school.
Almost a decade ago, Diane and I visited Thailand as tourists for the first time and did all the typical stuff one does when visiting the Kingdom. From trekking up a mountain for a hill tribe homestay to riding elephants (when it wasn’t yet politically incorrect), we covered all the good stuff here in Northern Thailand. Totally unaware the American two-party system of elitism and greed would prematurely end my career thanks to an unforeseen layoff, we never imagined moving to Chiang Mai and only had a day or two for local sightseeing in the city itself. For any Europeans wondering why we just didn’t take more vacation time, it’s because adequate holiday time is unheard of in the hypocritical land of Republican Family Values and even those lucky enough to work well-paying white-collar jobs usually get a whopping two or three weeks off per year. Anyway, with so much to see we set out walking the streets and stumbled on The Thai Kitchen Cookery Center in the heart of the tourist district. Apparently not full for the next day’s class, it looked interesting enough so we gave it a go.
Back then smartphones were barely invented and I learned a lesson in futility when I tried to smash the hard drive of our old computer for fear of someone stumbling on personal information so unfortunately I lost most pictures of our first Thai cooking school class. Using some backed up pictures, I wrote about our first cooking school class back in a 2014 post. Thinking back and always looking for an interesting day out, we remembered how much fun it was and now that we live here, it’s high on my list of things to do for visitors. Our friend Rose suggested the outing and ironically, her partner Grant is a chef by profession so a Thai cooking class seemed like an odd choice of things to do. But his kids were visiting all the way from South Africa so after some convincing from Rose, he agreed. With most cooking schools offering door to door pick up/drop service, we drove to their condo and waited for the driver who arrived in a red songthaew around 8 AM.
Choosing a smaller and more personalized option than our first foray as tourists, Rose heard good things about We Cook Thai Home Garden Cooking School, and it turns out the good reviews are well deserved. Situated off the tourist track on a small street in the quaint neighborhood of Santitham, it’s actually someone’s house and they use the fully shaded front yard for cooking class. Meeting us at the front door, Mam was our very personable Thai host and after short introductions, she gave us name tags written in Thai script. Like most cooking schools in Chiang Mai, We Cook offers various choices of items to cook and after selecting, the group accompanies Mam to a local fresh market where she buys the ingredients. Explaining each ingredient in detail and answering any questions, Mam’s outgoing personality and sense of humor makes up for the few shortcomings. (They covered techniques in greater detail by our first school but it was also much larger and we cooked less).
Inclusive in the price, you cook a soup, a main dish, an appetizer and a dessert. Since each category had several choices, we tried to avoid making the same thing we did in 2009 although the soups are usually limited to Tom Ka and Tom Yum. But Mam’s menu included Kho Soi (a local spicy Northern curry style soup not usually seen in western Thai restaurants) so I chose Tom Yum while Diane went for the more exotic Lanna option. Within walking distance from the school, Thanin Market is the area’s largest fresh market and although it’s aesthetically nicer than Mae Hia Fresh Market (where we shop), it’s also a bit pricier. Explaining that most western tourists shun dimly lit markets that look too “third worldish“, Mam told us she’d prefer to shop somewhere cheaper but it’s just part of doing business. Usually giving clients a few minutes to wander around independently, we used the time to enjoy the cool morning sunshine since we obviously know what fresh markets look like. But if you’re visiting, use the time to marvel at how much of the world eats really fresh food and not processed crap.
Spending the first half hour in the back room where you ultimately eat whatever you cook, I assume Mam got everything organized and like so many Thai business owners, it was sadly clear that good Thai staff is hard to find. Spending most time texting in a corner, her employee botched the ingredients, didn’t set out enough places and chopped the wrong ingredients. Clearly not happy, she addressed her in Thai so we didn’t know what transpired but be prepared for this obstacle if you’re thinking about running a business in Thailand (and make sure you have all the right visas and paperwork or risk paying lots of fines). Eventually, we began and as I mentioned, Mam’s personality is great for a fun day out but not for someone trying to learn the intricate nature of Thai cooking, Running down a few basics, we chopped, separated and then cooked over small gas stoves. My spring roll making technique leaves something to be desired but they did actually taste very good.
After we cooked the appetizers and main dishes, we all went back to the room in the back to eat them. Tasting better than I thought, my stir fry wasn’t exactly my best creation but it wasn’t bad. (Although I’m not a classically trained chef, I’ve been cooking the dinners in our marriage for 17 years and I love Asian food so I know a few things). After we ate, we cooked the soup and desserts and everyone agreed that my Tom Yum was the perfect balance of sweet, spicy, sour and salty. Not usually eating Tom Yum since Diane hates it, I enjoyed it immensely. Finishing up for the day at about 2:30 PM, everyone gets a certificate of participation and a small cookbook that lists the ingredients and recipes of every dish she offers. Priced at a very reasonable 900 Baht each (about $28 USD), it made for an enjoyable day out and I would recommend her to potential visitors and expats alike.
And about that turkey dinner I finally got on Christmas Eve; Yeah, that didn’t work out so well. Despite choosing a reputable institution offering a large buffet dinner with everything from shellfish to sushi, turkey, meats, cheeses and a cornucopia of other goodies, I wound up with a horrible bout of food poisoning that started about 4 AM. Only the second time in my marriage I can remember vomiting, it literally knocked me on my ass for two days when I slept all day and ate nothing but non spicy Thai noodle soup. And it’s just starting to get better after five days, a round of antibiotics and those charming earthy looking bowel movements usually associated with bacterial or viral infections after ingesting undercooked meats, improperly stored shellfish or other fun stuff you’d expect at a local food court in Sub Saharan Africa. Even worse, the turkey and Canadian lobster was delicious and most everything looked good as you can see below.
Unfortunately, slander laws are very strict and clearly defined in Thailand. Potential new expats should be mindful that things are often taken out of context and something as simple as a bad food review on a Facebook page that mentions a business or person by name is subject to penalties from fines to revision of visas or even jail time. Given how I constantly advocate respecting and following all local cultural norms, rules and regulations when you’re a visitor and a nation is hosting you, I will not name the institution we ate at nor will I go on record as saying I’m 100% sure it was improperly stored or bacteria laced foods from this specific dinner that made me sick but if the turkey fits…
So New Year’s Eve is quickly approaching and while Chiang Mai can’t possibly compete with the likes of Bangkok’s massive celebrations, there are dozens of places offering dinners, cocktails, parties and special deals for would-be revelers. Clearly, we’ll be avoiding any of that. Aside from the added checkpoints and drunken stupidity associated with the year’s busiest night, we’re suburbanites at heart and since Chiang Mai’s rural gated communities differ little from our old communities in Calgary and California (sans the Thai people and different language), we found a local restaurant hosting a nice “open mike” night. Finding it interesting that the Thai people roll over their year from 2560 to 2561 on January 1st and not in April which is the Buddhist New Year, it’s yet another tidbit that makes The Kingdom a fascinating place to live.
And given what happened on Christmas Eve, I think I’ll wait a week before revealing the name of where we’re going on New Year’s Eve since it’s mostly a dinner thing. Wishing everyone a healthy and happy 2018, thanks for the ongoing support of my very insignificant but hopefully slightly offbeat and entertaining point of views on life as a North American expat couple experimenting with early retirement overseas. Cheers from Northern Thailand.
Comments greatly appreciated. Except questions on Malaysia. Please refer those to a blog from someone who liked living there.