Have you ever played that game where you ask a person if they could only eat one type of food for the rest of their lives, what would it be? Many people would answer Italian, or Japanese. Every once in a while I have heard French, or Indian, but I have never heard anybody mention English food. If you ask them what their second choice would be, Thai food tends to pop up more than any other kind. Sometimes when hearing this second choice from other people, some may change their minds and make this delicacy their first choice. It is a type of food with rich history, tons of variety, and enough spice to keep you interested for the rest of your life. And if you are ever in Chiang Mai, it is a wonderful way to spend a day, not by hopping from restaurant to street vendor, but enrolling in a day long cooking class.
There are many different school offering all day cooking classes around town and it may be hard to pick the right one, but I was happy with the one that we went with, the Thai Farm Cooking School. The day starts early in the morning when they picked us up at our hotel, and drove us out to one of the markets so they could talk to us about some of the ingredients that we could find there, and what would we would want to buy to make the perfect Thai dishes. It was a fun introduction to the markets in Thailand, and the one they took us to was one of the better ones I have seen for produce.
Afterwards they took us out to a farm that they ran. The tour continued as our guide, Gift (yes, Thai names can be weird, but they usually fit the personality of the person that possesses them), took us around so we could try the various flowers, vegetables, and roots that could be found in the garden. It was interesting to see how complicated the process came to collecting the right ingredients to make some of these iconic dishes.
The rest of the day was spent making a dish and then eating it. I had heard about what a test of endurance this could be for even the hardiest of eaters, so I made sure to have a light breakfast before I started on what would be a delightful culinary day. I learned about why my Thai cooking never turned out as good as the food I could have gotten at a restaurant, and I learned how to blend them together to make the perfect dishes. A lot of it had to do with ingredients that can only be found in Thailand, or at least the local Asian market in the United States. Either way, it takes a little more time to collect these ingredients, and then it takes even more time to prepare them so they are ready to be made. This includes pulling out a mortar and pestle to grind up chilis and other spices to make the paste needed for curries.
But it wasn’t just about learning how to make the perfect Tom Yam Kung, it was also about learning a little bit about the Thai culture and language as well. Gift was great about telling us about how to eat like a real Thai person, and the language that we could use to blend in a little bit more. She even explained to us all about the complicated wai as a greeting, a sign of respect, and a goodbye. I had heard a lot of this before, but I could see how the other people along the trip would have appreciated hearing all about it.
Thai food is not only delicious, but the really good Thai food also knows how to be visually stunning as well. There are numerous stories about why this is the case, but the most popular one comes from one of the ancient kings, Rama IV. One of his servants would craft the food that she made into some of the most intricate art including ships and flowers that when he saw it he became instantly enamored of her talents. He then required that his wife learn this art while she prepared food as well, and the tradition took off in Thailand. Our teacher tried to teach us some of the finer aspects of this art as she would made some of the most beautiful dishes I have ever seen with what appeared to be the simplest of ease.
I quickly found out that recreating these masterpieces was not as easy as it looked. And even though I could not make it look as pretty, at least, it still tasted delicious. The meals kept on coming as well. After the soup and curry, we made pad thai, and stir-fried basil chicken. We had a papaya salad, and even ended up by making a traditional Thai desert of bananas in coconut milk.
Along the way, I even was able to make one of my dishes appealing enough so a five year old might even want to eat it. There were no five year olds around, so I have to eat it instead. And it was delicious. By the end of the long day, and the five courses that I had consumed, I had created a food baby in my belly, and was verging on a food coma. I had learned a lot about traditional Thai food, and a little bit about their lifestyles. And all along the way, I had a great time. It was a great way to spend the day, and should be placed on anybody’s itinerary who makes it out to Chiang Mai.