Monday, February 20, 2012

A Thai Cooking Class in Chiang Mai

Having lived in San Francisco for almost 8 years, I've been fortunate to try almost every cuisine in the world and have almost every cuisine that I crave at close reach. Thai food has been almost a weekly habit, with several cheap Thai restaurants close to my house and another few ones close to my work. Over the years, my tolerance for spicy food has also grown considerably, to the point that I am now proudly able to eat very spicy dishes.

All that said, I have always been intimidated to cook my own Thai food. The neighborhood that I live in, the Sunset, is packed with cheap Asian grocery and produce stores and I would have all the ingredients that I need readily at my disposal. However, those Asian stores have always intimidated me. I walked through the isles staring at all the exotic ingredients, jars of chilli paste, bottles of oyster or fish sauce, dried fish or mushrooms and some other things that I did not know what they were.

So I decided to take a Thai cooking class, to hopefully shed some light on how it's all done and to break the ice between me and the myriad of tasty ingredients in Asian cuisine. I booked a class in Chiang Mai and absolutely loved it. From 9am until 5pm we went to a farmers' market, got introduced on some of the ingredients we needed for the day, bought a few things, then drove on for an hour out to a farm where we walked through the gardens with vegetables and talked about them. Then on we went cooking all day, about 6 dishes, from appetizer to desert, we ate them all and even took doggie bags with us. All this for about $30 USD.

Each student was able to choose the dishes he/she wanted to cook, and this is what I chose: tom yam gang, soup, yellow curry paste (made from scratch), yellow curry, basil chicken stir fry, pad thai noodles, papaya salad and mango with sticky rice. Below I'll give some brief descriptions of the dishes that I prepared.

The kitchen where we cooked. Each student had their own individual stove and cooking station.

We first visited a local market and our teacher gave us the scoop on some of the staple items in Thai cooking.There are many types of chilli peppers, but the spiciest ones are the small dried red ones. If you want to make a dish very spicy (Thai spicy, that is), you put 4 of these small red chillies per dish. If you want to make it "European spicy," you put only 1 per dish. For me and any other westerners used to spicy food, 2 or 3 chillies are tolerable, but 4 would be too much.

Different kinds of rice. The whiter is is, the more processed, thus more expensive, ironically. Thai people eat mostly Jasmine rice. Also, in the northern part of the country, people eat more sticky rice (kao nio) and in the south they eat more boiled rice (kao jaw). Thailand is the biggest exporter of rice in the world.

From left to right, curry pastes: green, red and yellow. Green is the least spicy, while red is the most spicy. Green is made from fresh green chilli peppers and a lot of fresh herbs, thus it has a sweeter, more herbal flavor. Red is pure spicy madness and I stay away from it most of the time. The color of the yellow curry comes from special ingredients, such as cumin, coriander, turmeric. This is my favorite curry and the one that I chose to cook.

Durian (the nickname of our cook) making Vincent, one of the students, smell the flavorful yellow curry paste.
Above: this is how coconut milk is being made.They use dried coconuts, not fresh ones. They cut the coconuts into slices, then shred them through this machine. The shreddings are then pressed to produce the milk. Pure coconut milk is very thick and concentrated, so they usually mix it with water. This is why, when you add coconut milk to an oily curry mix, you have to make sure to keep the flame low, otherwise, the water in the coconut milk will separate from the oil and make your curry look weird.

Food stall in the market. This is one of the things that I absolutely love about Thailand: their food culture is fantastic. So readily available, at any street corner and any hour, day or night. Hungry? Just walk down the street and get a soup or a curry to go in a plastic bag. Everything you ever wanted to eat is already cooked for you, and you can buy it on the street in small portions, to go. Craving some watermelon, mango or a mix of fruit? No problem. They got watermelon cut up in small pieces, packed in small bags, ready to eat with a little wooden stick. Simply amazing!

Eating directly in the produce market. You get a bowl of soup and you add in your own bean sprouts, basil and shopped cabbage, which are provided in separate containers.

 Produce market in Chiang Mai.

The green tomato-ey looking things in the front are Thai eggplants. It's more sweet than regular European eggplant, and it's used in curries or can be eaten raw in salads.

Different kinds of mushrooms.

Bamboo basket used for washing sticky rice. Since sticky rice has to be soaked overnight, it becomes very crumbly, therefore it's better if you don't touch it a lot with your hands when you wash it. This basket is like a sieve and you can let the water drain through it, while shaking it a few times.

Sticky rice is never boiled, it is always steamed. Ideally in a bamboo steamer like the one above. It should be steamed for about 30 minutes until it becomes soft, then kept in a closed container to prevent it from drying out and becoming hard.

Banana flower.

The garden where we picked some of the herbs we used in our cooking class.

Various herbs used in Thai cooking, such as: galangal, thai ginseng, lemongrass, turmeric, sweet basil, holy basil, morning glory, kaffir lime leaves.

 The helping staff preparing the ingredients we need to make our individual bowl of soup.

Ingredients to make yellow curry paste (from left to right): 2 super spicy small red chillies, kaffir lime rind, garlic, ginger, a big red chilli, shallot, turmeric, and lemongrass root. The quantity above is to make enough curry paste for 1 portion of curry. You also need cumin and coriander seeds. You first chop up everything small, then put it inside a mortar, where you hammer away until it all turns into a soft homogenous paste.

The teacher told us that a Thai man knows if a Thai woman will make a good wife by the way she holds the pestle and by how vigorously she hammers away to make curry paste. Obviously, everyone in the room started giggling.

My own hand-made from scratch curry paste. I have to tell you that it smelled amazing. As soon as all those ingredients started breaking apart, releasing their scent, and blending with each other, the entire room filled with the sweetest smell in the world.

And this is my first curry that I ever cooked from scratch. Modesty aside, it tasted like curries you'd buy at nice restaurants in San Francisco. If you follow the instructions carefully and have the right ingredients, it really is an easy dish to prepare.

Ingredients for Tom Yam Kung soup with shrimp, my favorite Thai soup and probably an all-time favorite dish as well. It is seasoned with fish sauce and lemon juice, so the soup is spicy, sour and salty all at the same time. The lemongrass, galangal and kaffir lime leaves are the key ingredients that give it its unique flavor.

 My bowl of Tom Yam soup.

 Next on the day's schedule is stir fry. Kaprao is the Thai word for stir fry and you can see it a lot in menus all over Thailand, meaning that whatever items they have (vegetables, pork, chicken, etc.) will be stir fried. Above is the teacher, showing us how to do a proper Thai stir fry.

 My ingredients for a chicken basil stir fry.

 Preparing my wok for the stir fry. 

The first half of the day is over! We are now eating the results of our first round of cooking: stir fry with rice and curry. Next to me is a wonderful lady from Fremont, California. It was great hanging out with a fellow Californian - it really makes you realize and appreciate the cultural similarities you share with people who live in the same place as you do.

Round number 2! Now I'm making papaya salad (som tam), another favorite of mine. We only made one big portion for everyone, but the teacher let me prepare it, since I was so into it. :) You can buy som tam everywhere on the street in Thailand and I've had my fair share of it already. Without going into details, papaya salad is shredded green papaya and carrot, pounded in a big mortar with all sorts of yummy spices, lime juice, fish sauce, chillies, tomatoes, cucumbers, long Thai beans and sometimes Thai eggplant.

Onto desert: sticky rice with mango. This one's super easy to make, as long as you have the rice already steamed. You mix some hot coconut milk with palm sugar in a bowl, then you add the sticky rice and keep mixing. The coconut milk and the palm sugar give the rice the sweet and creamy texture, kind of like a European vanilla rice pudding, but more crunchy.

And finally, my last dish to make was pad thai. This is a relatively easy dish to make, with ingredients that are super easy to find in Bay Area food stores. I can't wait to make a lot of it when I get back home, especially since I will be broke and this seems a cheap and filling dish to make.

Some of the ingredients for pad thai. The two ingredients that are specific to this dish are the chopped up pickled radish (the yellow thing at the top) and the tamarind sauce used for cooking the rice noodles.

 Teacher demo on how to prepare pad thai. You have to be really, really fast for this one.

My own pad thai.

Overall, I really enjoyed my first cooking class ever and can't wait to cook Thai food again. Although there is no shortage of excellent Thai food in the Bay Area, I think I'd still be able to surprise my guests at a dinner party with some Tom Yam soup. It's also nice to be able to whip up some pad thai in just a few minutes. I enjoyed the company I did this cooking class with: Thai Farm Cooking school, and the lovely, witty, funny teacher we had, by the name of Durian. At the end of the class, she and the driver dropped me off at my guesthouse, which was out of town and far out of the way for them and I got to have a heart-to-heart conversation with Durian, which made me like her even more.