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.
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.
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!
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…
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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?!
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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