Cooking in Chiang Mai
On a warm, sunny Saturday in February 2008, my friend Tuk and I awoke early, and, mindful of the admonitions of our hosts-to-be for the day, skipped breakfast. We waited outside the entrance of our hotel, the Centara Duangtawan, and awaited our pick up. Soon, an old, funky, beat up looking, bright blue Volkswagen van, emblazoned with the logo 'A Lot of Thai', pulled into the hotel entrance. Yup, these were to be our hosts for the next 4 or 5 hours, Yui and Kwan of the 'A Lot of Thai' home cooking school.
We piled into the van, introduced ourselves to the three ladies already inside, and headed off to the home of Yui and Kwan, picking up a further two participants along the way. So, 6 females and one male (that would be me), representing 5 different nationalities between us (UK, Germany, Israel, US and Thailand) arrived at Yui and Kwan's unassuming, but pleasant home and workplace. This is not a gleaming, stainless steel, air conditioned, elaborately equipped kitchen, but the lack of those attributes adds to its charm and stamps upon it the authenticity of a true Thai cooking school. It is a semi-outdoor, roofed, but partially open kitchen area, adapted with individual work stations for eight people. It is clean and the work stations and cooking utensils are superb. The temperature was pleasant in February but I can imagine that the cooking area would get a tad uncomfortable in the much hotter months of March and April. However a well placed fan or two would cool things down.
Yui was a brilliant teacher, patient, clear, articulate, amusing and clearly knows her stuff. We made 6 dishes throughout the morning. What dishes you cook depend on the day of the week. This was Saturday so the first three dishes were the classic pad thai, tom yam kung (hot and sour prawn soup) and paw pia tawd (spring rolls). The latter I found difficult as I had trouble with the wrapping of the delicate spring roll wrapper and Yui had to show me again how to do it. As a consequence I was the last to get my spring rolls into the fryer for the quick one to two minutes frying.
After three dishes it was time for a bit of a break from the kitchen so we clambered back into the van for a trip to the local market. It was very much a Thai place with no other foreigners visible. Yui took us around and explained about the different types of food on sale there and what to look for when choosing produce. The sheer variety was mind boggling and to be honest I would not have been able to name most of the foodstuff on sale there, let again know what to actually do with it if I bought it! Eat it would be the logical answer, but how? My companion, Tuk, was not particularly excited by the market as she is Thai herself, and she has been around these places all her life. Now at this point you might think taking a Thai lady to cooking school is like taking snow to Canada. But she had told me she could not cook and, as she does not have a kitchen in her apartment (very common in Bangkok) and buys her food from street stalls I believed her. As it happened she seemed to be a natural on the course and was probably the best out of all of 7 of us. She was a little bit shy at being among 5 western ladies and, lacking confidence in her English skills (which really are quite good, though she does not recognize that), did not say much, but Yui made her feel very comfortable and the two had frequent exchanges in Thai and, on a few occasions, Yui did point to Tuk's work as a good example of how to do it (kudos to Tuk!)
After the market visit and a refreshing mango smoothie it was back to the house for part two. We cooked another three dishes, gang keow wan gai (green curry with chicken), gai pad med ma muang him ma paw (stir fried chicken with cashew nut) and kao nieuw ma muang (sweet sticky rice with mango).
In between each dish we would of course sit down and sample what we had cooked so by the final meal of sticky rice and mangoes we were all pretty full.
There are many cooking schools to choose from in Chiang Mai, but for a small, friendly, but professional place, this one is hard to beat. Great care was taken to explain the smaller elements which help to make up the essence of the meal, such as the correct tearing of the kaffir leaves and the pounding of the garlic and the correct use of spices which are such an integral part of Thai cooking.
We chose the half day course which ran from 9.30 to 1.30. If I recall we ran a bit over that time and Yui was happy to chat for a bit after that and young son, Sid, was a star attraction, drawing many oooohs and aaaahs from the ladies! Price was in 2008 (and still is, in 2010, according to the website) 900 baht for the half day and 1200 baht for the full day from 9.30 to 4.30. The price included a thin, but invaluable, cook book detailing all 29 dishes taught by the school, laid out in a colorful, picturesque style. Additional sections on ingredients, sauces, fruits, curry pastes and dips complete the book.
I am not one of life's natural cooks, but I really did enjoy this course and, more importantly, learnt things which have remained with me to this day. Sadly, my own pictures of that day and the dishes we cooked are lost (and I must credit fedification.com for the VW picture) but that, happily, means I will have to take this course again and update this post with fresh 2010 pictures.
If you do drop by
A Lot of Thai cooking school in Chiang Mai, have fun and pass on regards and best wishes from Peter and Tuk.