Friday, December 30, 2005

Cooking up a storm...

One of the things that we have tried to do on this trip is to dig a little more into local cultures. We try and pick up as much of each language as we can (which has ranged from almost nothing to a pretty decent mini-vocabulary/conversation ability), we try and meet local people and talk to them, and we try to experience local life/see local traditions. In the Czech Republic and Italy, that meant going to low-level league soccer matches and being the only non-natives in the crowd. In Spain that meant going to a bull-fight in Madrid and observing all the people coming in their sunday best and participating in the ritual. In Thailand, whose culture revolves around the social aspects (and aesthetic pleasures) of a meal, that meant learning how to cook Thai.

Thai food was already one of our favorites back home, but aside from a couple of fish curry dishes, we never cooked it at home. Given that we are likely going to be on strict restaurant rationing when we get home, it was important to us to learn how to add this cuisine to our repertoire. The popularity of thai cooking and cooking classes for tourists has exploded, so it seems like every tom, dick, and guesthouse is offering a cooking course. After reading a bunch of reviews and scoping out websites, we decided to do it right and went with one of the original Thai cooking schools here in Chiang Mai, the Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School. While it was more expensive than many of the others, it looked liked it offered a lot more in terms of hands-on cooking (versus just demonstrations) as well as the number and variety of dishes to be prepared.

The school offers 5 different one day courses and then master classes. Being relative culinary novices, we thought master classes might be a little beyond us, but we also wanted to do more than just dip our toe in the figurative ocean of thai cooking, so we signed up for 4 days of cooking classes. (This is one of the wonderful advantages of being on a long term trip. Almost everybody else we met in the classes were just taking one day because that's all they could fit into their 2 week vacation across Thailand.)

The school runs like a well-oiled machine. Each day starts with an activity: we did vegetable carving, introduction to thai ingredients, tour of thai markets, and making curry from scratch . Then you start cooking. Every dish is demoed for you, you taste the instructor's version so that you know whether you need to dial up or down the spiciness, sweetness, saltiness, etc in yours, and then you return to your individual workstations and cook your version of the dish, adjusting it to your tastes. The schedule goes: demo, cook, eat, demo, cook, eat, demo, cook, demo, cook, eat the two dishes for lunch, demo cook eat, demo cook eat dessert. The afternoon dishes tended to be very quick and require more mixing than actual cooking, which was good as we were usually approaching food coma by that point.

In addition to the importance of fresh ingredients and quick cooking, one of the most emphasized points was that of presentation. For each dish, the instructors would show us how to garnish and dress it to (in their words) "get more money from the customer". They would show us a dish they had just cooked and say "this is 80 baht dish". They'd add some curled chives, a pretty cluster of basil, some shredded kaffir lime leaves, and/or a tomato flower and then say "now, 150 baht." We were encouraged to do the same. Little things like making patterns in the top of dark mushrooms took just a couple of seconds, but looked very nice in the finished dish .

It was great to learn how to cook all of our favorite thai dishes like tod mun plaa (fish cakes), spring rolls, pad thai and chicken green curry , etc., and also be introduced to new dishes that were just as good or better: chiang mai curry, fried fish with chilli peppers , roast duck red curry, and steamed banana cake with coconut. You can be sure that we will be cooking those when we get home.

Ironically that's one of the things we're a little bummed about. After 4 days of getting these techniques ingrained on us by repetition, we are all psyched to start using them and to start perfecting these dishes. In reality, it will be at least 8 months from now before we'll have the chance to be in our own kitchen cooking. I made lots of notes in the recipe margins, so hopefully we'll be able to remember enough. Once we have them figured out, we will be happy to be making these dishes for you all, though they may be a little spicy....

Other great things about these classes, which we highly recommend to anybody visiting Chiang Mai, were the instructors, the setting, and the other people you meet in the class. The school is offered in two locations: downtown behind the restaurant, and about 20 minutes out of town at the facility Sompon (the chef) built next to his home. We HIGHLY recommend you choose that location if you have the option (they drive you out and back) as it was much prettier, more spacious, more relaxing, and more pleasant. You are on open (covered) verandas looking out at palm trees and the herb garden in quiet country environment. The instructors are great too. If you are out at the house, then Sompon himself will teach a couple of the dishes or techniques, but the rest of his staff is equally good, energetic, and fun. There are tons of them too, so you always have somebody keeping an eye on your wok and making sure things are going ok, and as we have since discovered, they are jacks of all trades, also driving the cars for pickup, working in the office, and even washing the cars. Finally, we loved meeting and getting to know the other people in the class. Each day it was different mixture of people evenly spread across countries. We cooked next to folks from Ireland, England, Australia, Germany, Hong Kong, Sweden, France, Japan, Korea, the States, and Switzerland. It was a great way for us to get travel advice for future parts of our trip and to make new friends.

All in all, the 4 days exceeded our expectations in almost every way. The only downside was the food coma at the end of the day from eating so much food, but on the positive side, it did mean that we saved money by not needing dinner! Not only did it improve our cooking skills in general, and provide us with recipes for dozens of new dishes, but it gave us a nice little insight into an important aspect of Thai culture. You can't ask for more than that!

Here's to further culinary adventures......


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