OK, let’s start this off with a confession — we’re terrible when it comes to food.
Don’t get me wrong, we love eating it… but getting something edible on our plates isn’t one of our strengths. When left to our own devices we eat a lot of muesli, peanut butter sandwiches, watermelon, and black bean/cheese quesadillas. The foods of champions!
Mostly we’re just lazy, but we’re also uninspired and fairly unskilled when it comes to kitchen lore. If we just had the expertise, and maybe an easy recipe or two, and a cuisine that’s easy to cook while still being complex and flavorful…. !
And so we found ourselves at a Thai cooking class in Chiang Mai, Thailand, learning how to make curry and pad thai and cashew chicken.
Our day-long introduction to Thai cuisine started at a small local market, where our cooking instructor showed us how fresh coconut milk is made, reviewed all the spices and sauces we’d be cooking with, and explained the fine distinctions between various strains of rice.
There were a surprising number of spices — in addition to fish oil and oyster sauce, these are a few of the key ingredients in Thai cooking: lemongrass, turmeric, chilis, coconut milk, galangal root, palm sugar, tamarind, kaffir lime (leaves and rind), and basil.
After that we headed to the cooking school, which is located on a large farm twenty minutes outside the city. This rural location allows the school to actually grow many of the ingredients they use, and our instructor began with a tour of the gardens. She gave us a rundown on each plant before stripping off a few leaves and passing them around for us to smell and/or taste.
And then we got down to business.
Round 1: Curry Paste
Our first real cooking task for the day was grinding our own curry paste. Kali finished his well before anyone else (over-achiever!), but I managed to pound my pestle so exuberantly that the table shook my vegetable plate right over the edge. How’s that for showing everyone else up, huh?
Round 2: Soup
Kali and Ruth (his mom was visiting for a week) tackled Chicken in Coconut Milk while I tried my hand at Thai Vegatable Soup. Both dishes were super easy to make; you add some spices and sauces (most notably fish oil) to water and coconut milk to create a flavorful broth, and then just throw in some vegetables to lightly cook. Voila! Deliciousness served.
Round 3: Curry Dishes
After a quick break to nom on our soup, it was back to the kitchen to whip up some curry dishes with the paste we’d previously beaten to a pulp. Once completed, we set them aside to wait for the jasmine rice to finish cooking and moved on to our next dish.
Round 4: Chicken Dishes
The three of us each chose something different to try (Sweet and Sour Chicken, Cashew Chicken, and Basil Chicken), and they were all fantastic!
Some fun facts: the Thai recipe for Sweet and Sour Chicken calls for ketchup (heh), the Cashew Chicken was my favorite dish of the entire day (go Kali!), and apparently when I mince meat for Basil Chicken I look positively diabolical (Muahahaha!).
Once we finished these, we took our chicken and curry dishes out to the garden for a grand lunch feast. We barely made it through half of each dish, though, so our instructor taught us how to properly rubber-band little plastic to-go bags so we could take the leftovers home for later.
Round 5: Noodle Dishes
Ruth chose to cook Pad See-Ew (stir-fried big noodles), while Kali and I both went with our favorite, Pad Thai, to see if we could make it better than the delicious Pad Thai we regularly order at the street cart outside our apartment. This might just be my ego talking, but I think we came close.
We were so full at this point that we only scooped a couple bites out of the pan, then immediately bagged it up to take home.
Round 6: Dessert
I tried making Pumpkin in Coconut Milk… which really is just pumpkin in coconut milk (with a little sugar and spice, but still). It was uninspiring, so I stole some of Ruth and Kali’s Mango and Sticky Rice. The sticky rice is prepared in a cool little bamboo steamer, and then you pour coconut milk with palm sugar all over it. Now that’s a dessert.