I love food. (Clearly, all you have to do is take one look at my zoftig frame to figure that out.) And the more I travel, the more I come to believe that the best way you can learn about a place and its people is through food.
In the months prior to my trip, after I had decided that Thailand was my destination, but before I had chosen what I was going to do on my trip, I was watching a video by a couple of my favorite travel vloggers who took a Thai cooking class in Chiang Mai from a place called the Secret Thai Cooking School. It looked amazing, so I signed up then and there.
The morning of my day-long class, I ate an early buffet breakfast then headed back to my room to take a bit of a nap. (My stomach wasn’t quite as upset as it had been the previous day, but still felt a bit delicate.) Then I got up, grabbed my camera, and waited at the lobby of the resort to be picked up for my class.
The driver arrived, and I spent the drive to our first destination chatting with a lovely young couple from California who had just gotten married a year earlier and were taking a sort of late honeymoon. They had just arrived in Thailand and were going to be visiting many of the same destinations I had already visited. Exchanging travel tips with other travelers was one of my favorite parts of international travel. I got some great ideas from folks that way.
Eventually, we arrived at a local outdoor covered market where we met May, our instructor. May is a former restaurant chef, and one heck of a spitfire. She was a hoot right from the beginning. We started the class by gathering around an empty stall where she handed us slips of paper. On the paper were five courses, each course featuring between 3-5 dishes. We each filled out our own slip of paper with the dishes we wanted to make, and then she and her assistants set out to buy fresh ingredients for the day’s class.
While that was happening, she bought us these incredible, fresh from the hot oil, fried dumplings filled with potato and cheese. Then she took us from stall to stall in the market, pointing out different ingredients that were unique to Thai cooking. She explained how to gauge the heat in different peppers, let us try different types of basil, and different parts of the cilantro plant. (Cilantro roots have an amazing flavor…I never knew.) Through it all, she explained what we could look for in the U.S. Asian supermarkets that could match or approximate the ingredients we found in Thailand.
Finally, with all the shopping and teaching done, we loaded into our rides and drive out to May’s house. Under the house, which was raised up on stilts, was a covered pavilion with 20 cooking stations, each with a cutting board, a couple of knives, ramekins, a burner, and a wok. Then we got to work learning how to make our dishes.
First stop was the large garden next door to the cooking area. May walked us through the garden while pointing out various vegetables and fruits. We picked Panda Leaves, Butterfly Pea flowers, green papaya, and a few different types of basil. Then we returned to the kitchen.
It was clear, right from the get-go, that May knew her stuff. She also knew how to manage a class of 20 people, each cooking different things. My first dish was a Thai cashew chicken. As she barked out instructions, I began prepping my vegetables, peeling and chopping my garlic and onions. Now, I’m really, really comfortable in the kitchen. So much so, in fact, that my neighbor leaned over to me after about 30 seconds of staring my way and whispered, “Are you a chef?”
“No,” I laughed. “I’m certainly not. I just like cooking.”
“Wow,” she replied. “You’ve got amazing knife skills.”
If I had any hair, I would totally have done a Cher-style hair flip at that precise moment.
After we each finished cooking our first course, we gathered at the long, communal table and tested our work. Y’all. It was SO. GOOD. Again, I was reminded that a lot of the Thai food to which I had been exposed in the U.S. was really mediocre. This dish was wonderfully balanced, with a nice, subtle heat.
Next up was the green papaya salad. This was a simple dish to prepare, requiring essentially no cooking and only prep work. It was tart, crunchy, sweet, and very spicy—but in the flavorful way, not the burn-my-tongue-off-and-sear-my-sinuses kind of way. Again, we sat around the communal table, sharing food, laughing, telling stories, and passing along tips and tricks for traveling through Thailand.
Step 3 was a Thai chicken soup with noodles, and it could not have been simpler. The broth was made with cilantro root, ginger, garlic, spiced, a sliced chile, soy sauce, and chicken bouillon. Then the rice noodles were floated in the broth just until tender and served. It was one of the easiest and tastiest soups I have ever eaten/made. It was like chicken pho, but even more flavorful. This course was so good I refused to share it with anyone.
It was at this time that we took a break. May cooks lunch for her staff every day, so she cooked while we lounged and talked and played with the sweetest, 3-legged, black cat. He was a total sweetheart, and just loved the non-stop attention, the lazy beast.
Finally, we began the fourth course by learning about curry pastes. There were four different curries available to us: Red, Yellow, Green, and Panang. I had gone with the green curry. We toasted spices and ground them in a mortar and pestle, working in garlic, ginger, palm sugar, soy sauce, oyster sauce, and chiles. Then we learned how to prep and cook the actual curry, which was fun. Woking curry is an exercise in very precise timing and temperature control…especially when you’re using homemade curry paste. You have to toast the spices without burning them. You have to set the heat properly to cook the curry paste without burning it. You need to add the coconut milk at the right time, followed by the chicken and vegetables, each in order, and each with just enough cooking time to cook them through without overcooking them. If I may say (with another trademark hair flip), I kinda rocked the curry.
So, I know I’m rather prone to hyperbole. But I will say this: the curry that we made from scratch was one of the best things I have ever tasted in my entire life. It had a flavor I kind of recognized from trips to Thai restaurants near my house or office, but it was so much more rich, complex, delicate. As we sat there eating, I got to try the other curries as well, and each was as delicious as the last. (Although the green was, in the end, still the best.)
Our final dish of the day was dessert. We began by learning how to husk and open coconuts. We were then put to work using some bizarre medieval torture devices that looked like a shoe-shine stand with a spike-covered disc on an arm attached to one end. We used that device to scrape the coconut meat from the inside of the fruit.
Once that laborious task was done, we took the coconut, added sugar and water, and squeezed (squoze?) the living daylights out of it to make our own coconut milk. At last, we made sweet sticky rice, colored blue with the butterfly pea flowers, and assembled our mango sticky rice.
With the long day over, we all piled back into our rides, and headed back to our hotels. Interestingly, it was this cooking class more than anything else that connected me with other travelers. It’s impossible to spend a full day cooking and eating with strangers, nd end the day still strangers. Food just has that power. Aside from the diving, the cooking class was, by far, my favorite part of the entire trip.