Thai Cooking Tom Yum

Cooking Up the Best Experience in Chiang Mai

Cooking up the Best Experience in Chang Mai, Thailand
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The charcoal speckled pestle was slippery in my hand, making it somewhat difficult to grip tightly and grind the chili leaves I had plucked from a plant in the garden just moments earlier. Beads of sweat were forming a line along my brow. I wasn’t sure what would ultimately produce more heat, the pounding and scraping with the pestle or the green curry paste the ingredients in the mortar would eventually become. It was about 90 degrees outside, even under the covered patio where the mortar and pestle action was happening. So, in typical Thai fashion, it was hot all around.

Thai Cooking Mortar and Pestle
Mortar and pestle stations to make curry paste.

Any and all romantic notions about taking a cooking class while in another country were gladly replaced with the surreal pleasure of actually experiencing something that, up until that moment, had only flickered across the screen in my mind.

Thai Cooking Self Photo
Fresh from the garden, having picked leaves, herbs, chilies, and mangoes! The hat absolutely enriches the experience.

I chose the Thai Farm Cooking School because reviews were especially positive and I liked the idea of getting out of Chiang Mai and into the countryside where some of the ingredients were growing fresh and I could cleanse my lungs from the polluted air in Bangkok. My goal all along had been to learn how to cook a few Thai dishes for my husband and I back in New York.

Cooking any kind of Asian cuisine always seemed so complicated, with recipes listing countless unfamiliar ingredients. Let’s also not forget the Thai food I’d been eating was beyond delicious and my taste buds would revolt if they couldn’t relive the good times. Experiences trump things!

Thai Cooking Ingredient Collage
Pandan leaves are similar to vanilla. Galangal is Thai ginger. There are smokin’ hot bird’s eye chilies and “only” mildly spicy long chilies. The mangoes picked off the tree melt in your mouth.

Each person in the small class had their own stainless steel work area and stovetop. The stations formed a boxy U shape, allowing the heavily caffeinated, I mean, rather exuberant teacher to get into the center and demonstrate our next steps. For each recipe, the ingredients were pre-measured and arranged on a white-flowered tray with red trim. If only cooking at home was as organized…

The customary white activity van pulled up in front of my Chiang Mai guest house promptly at 8:30 a.m. An exuberant Thai woman hopped out of the van and loudly cackled her way up the steps and into the outdoor garden seating area. I quickly introduced myself and followed her to the van.
Standing over the gas burner also breeds new appreciation for the locals who make a living behind their hot grills selling delicious Thai street food.

Tom Yum (soup) was calling, so I set aside my freshly pounded green curry paste and entered the open-air kitchen. Having always been a good student, I retrieved my tray and followed the dictated directions. I was surprised by how easy it was. Note to self…The secret to Thai cooking is in the preparations. It’s 80% prep and 20% cooking. With the mushrooms, lemongrass, galangal, tomato, and shallot chopped and ready, my Tom Yum soup was cooked, garnished, and served in less than 10 minutes. Impressive!

Thai Cooking tom Yum Collage
Tom Yum Soup from start to finish

Soup devoured and confidence growing, the class moved on to Pad Thai. Of all the dishes on the menu, I was most intimidated by this dish. The wok would be extremely hot and the sauce for the noodles needed just the right balance of water, tamarind paste, palm sugar, fish sauce, mushroom sauce, and chili powder.

Pad Thai Collage
Anyone for some Pad Thai?

There’s a reason why the cooking class is an entire day. You need to space out your meals or else you’ll bust. Slow eating and chatting with fellow classmates is highly recommended, especially for digestion purposes.

With 2 dishes finished, we returned to our curry pastes, mixing in coconut milk and adding vegetables and meat (no meat for me, though 😉 ). Having been the first thing made, I was a bit overzealous in adding chilies to the curry in my mortar. Such a newbie move, thinking 1 or 2 chilies can’t possibly be enough! The spice nearly seared off my taste buds, and as good as it was, I could only have a few bites before crying uncle.

Thai Green Curry
It looks pretty, but it was soo spicy!

My most favorite dish of the day (dessert aside) was the eggplant with basil leaves. This has long been my Thai meal of choice! It was a no-brainer when I saw it was a menu option and it did not disappoint.

Thai Cooking Basil
Thai basil is alive with flavor!

But perhaps the loveliest moments of all were the ones spent with sticky rice, coconut milk, and mango. Everyone in the class was stuffed, but no one was going to miss preparing and eating Mango Sticky Rice. If you’ve never tasted this Thai dessert, then try to imagine a sweet, velvety goodness and juicy, ripe mango combining for Heaven on Earth. Yes, that about sums it up!

Mango Sticky Rice
In case you were wondering, this is what true love looks like.

Experience over things! So, it was only natural to want to cling tight to my Thai Farm School cookbook…I mean…embed these new experiences deep into my memory. How else would I satisfy my inevitable Thai food cravings in the months to come?

Fast forward 4 months to my planned Thai dinner party in New York City. I hopped on the subway with Chinatown in my sights. I (still) carried my Thai Cookbook like a badge of honor to the Bangkok Center Grocery on Mosco Street. Reviews online correctly indicated I would find everything I needed there. The friendly man who helped me gather the ingredients was especially amused at my excitement at having found galangal and Thai eggplants! I just love you, NYC!

Thai Grocery Ingredients
Jackpot!

Remember, how perfect those ingredient trays looked back at the cooking school in Chiang Mai? Well, erase that image from your mind and imagine my tiny, galley kitchen with about a foot of counter space, looking as if it had been ransacked by my dogs, who were extremely dissatisfied with nearly everything they found, and left all their discoveries strewn across any and all solid surfaces.

No there are no photos of this…visual evidence of this kitchen disaster would only embarrass my mother and I’ve put her through enough.

NYC Rambutan
I’ll distract you with a photo of the rambutans I found in Chinatown!

I prepped for hours, chopping until my hands were literally on fire (ice packs needed later) from the bird’s eye chilies, onions..oh yeah and more chilies. Apparently, my hands knew we were no longer in Thailand and wouldn’t put up with such recklessness. Lesson learned. Wear gloves when cooking Thai food outside of Thailand.

Despite an absolute kitchen Armageddon, all Thai cooking skills were successfully revived! Tom Yum Soup, Pad Thai, Green Curry, Chicken with Thai Basil, and Mango Sticky Rice all made appearances during the night. What do you think?!

NYC Thai Green Curry
Thai “Green” Curry. The leaves needed for the green color could not be found here in NYC, but it tasted fantastic over some Thai Jasmine rice.
NYC Pad Thai
New York City Pad Thai. It didn’t cook as quickly, but it tasted the way it should!

Reliving and sharing a piece of my experience in Thailand is one of the best gifts travel can give. My elephant pants may fade in the wash, but my cooking experience has rooted itself deep within me and has left me feeling hungry for more.

What travel experiences have you shared back home? Where have you taken a cooking class? What’s a favorite cuisine or dish have learned to love from your travels?

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34 thoughts on “Cooking Up the Best Experience in Chiang Mai”

  1. I have never taken a cooking class. I was meant to take one on my recent trip to Indonesia, to learn Balinese cuisine, and was soooo sick that day, that I had to skip it. I was gutted!

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      Oh man, Claudia! That totally stinks! Definitely a missed opportunity, but also a fantastic reason to return! 🙂

  2. This post has me craving Pad Thai! Cooking classes are on my favorite things to do while traveling. It’s an experience you can relive over and over again every time you make one of the recipes you learned. My favorite one was in Inle Lake, Myanmar!

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      Definitely, Alana! It’s an experience that stays with you. I would love to visit Myanmar and take a cooking class there. I’m sure it’s really authentic! Thanks for the tip. 🙂

  3. Yum, this all looks amazing, well done! Awesome that you found Thai eggplants at home too, they’re so good. I’ve also done a cooking class in Chiang Mai and one in Vietnam. I don’t know what I did wrong, but ended up making my curry more brown than green ha. Also love how everything is prepared for you ready to go!

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      Having a team of people to prep and clean is always appreciated! I’d love to take a cooking class in Vietnam. Add that to the list! 🙂

  4. I just had dinner and I am now hungry again. These all look delicious! What a great experience and I’m so glad you were able to re-create it in NYC. There are only two places in the world I would love to do a cooking class – Thailand and Italy. We haven’t done any classes other than on cruise ships but would love to do one soon.

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      Both are great places to take a cooking class, Mary, with an unlimited amount of delicious food choices!

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      Thanks, Dave! I was lucky enough to find the ingredients in Chinatown or else I don’t think I would have been as lucky. 🙂

  5. I’ve never done a cooking class while traveling (seriously considered it in Bali) but if I ever do decide to do one, it would have to be in Thailand. The food is just SO amazing! I’d love to know how to make more of the dishes myself!

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      The food is so delicious in Thailand and, after taking a class, you realize how easy it can be at home as long as you can find the ingredients.

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      Aren’t those recipes worth gold!? I would never want to lose my Thai cookbook. I’d love to do a cooking class in Vietnam. Sounds delicious! 🙂

  6. so cool you got to re-do it back home! I will admit I did plenty of cooking lessons abroad and never repeated the dishes home, bad on me I should try like you! the dishes looked great 🙂

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      Thanks, Mar! Definitely give it a try, especially if you can find all the ingredients. I’m sure the food would turn out deliciously!

  7. Just stop! You’re making me hungry! 🙂 That green curry and the eggplant with basil leaves., mmmmmm!
    That is so cool that you actually successfully recreated those Thai dishes you had learned. I’ve taken a cooking course or two during our travels but have never actually gone back to give it a try. As I salivate over your Thai food photos here, I’m inspired to hit the the kitchen. If it turns out as half as good as your dishes look, I’ll be a happy camper!

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      How did it go, John? Did you satisfy your Thai craving!? 🙂 I was lucky to find the right ingredients for all the dishes because that made it a success!

  8. I’ve heard so many great things about Chiang Mai and I can imagine it’s such a joy to cook over there because of the variety of ingredients and how fresh everything is. Looks like fun, I’d definitely give it a go, but can guarantee I would probably set something on fire, I’m terrible in the kitchen haha! 🙂

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      Haha, Mel! I love your honesty! Chiang Mai is a lot of fun, with fantastic food, whether you cook it or someone else! 🙂

  9. I would love to try the sticky rice with mangoes. It looks interesting. Taking a cooking class while you are in another country seems like a good idea. You will probably save a lot of cash when you reach back home and feel for Thai food.

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      It’s certainly a plus to know how to make a few dishes when that Thai food craving comes on strong. 🙂 The mango sticky rice is so delicious and just has to be a must-try when you make it to Thailand.

  10. Congrats on reviving your cooking skills! I take my hat off to you – I’ve tried reviving cooking skills I learnt abroad once home and we ended up eating take out that night lol I can just never replicate what it was when we were in the country with a local instructor telling us how and what to do 😀

    Congrats on a successful dish!

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      Oh don’t let my confidence fool you, Meg! We had the pizza menus ready! The Pad Thai definitely didn’t cook as fast as it did in Chiang Mai, so there were definitely a few moments of panic. Luckily, it all turned out well! 🙂

  11. I’m getting hungry just looking at your photos, especially the Green Curry. My whole family, kids included, took a cooking class when we were in Chiang Mai, and I’ve made a few recipes from our cookbook, especially the Mango Sticky Rice. I am envious that you have a Bangkok store close to you as finding the authentic ingredients is the hardest part for me. Your friends are so fortunate to get to enjoy a taste of Thailand from you.

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      Thanks, Michele! Everyone really loved the dinner and felt like it was pretty authentic. I wasn’t sure what I’d find in that Bangkok Grocery, but I hit the jackpot! That’s New York for you. 🙂

  12. To be honest I do not understand why all Asian meals have to be so spicy. We used to go to the Chinese restaurant in Prague, and they offered free soup with every meal, but that soup was so spicy that only few guys were able to eat this. 🙂

    1. Jackie Sills-Dellegrazie

      Wow, that must have been some really spicy soup, Julius. I’m a fan of spicy, but not so spicy that it can’t be eaten. It’s food after all! 😉

  13. I love cooking classes when I travel! I am the worst cook ever, but there is something wonderful about learning a few local dishes and then sharing them with your friends and family back home. I took a similar class in Cambodia and learned that it, too, is 80 percent prep and 20 percent cooking. Your Pad Thai looks delicious!

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