Learning to Cook Thai Food in Chiang Mai, Thailand

by Christy on

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.

Thai Cooking Class in Chiang Mai

Don't we look like real chefs? We have aprons and everything!

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.

TIP: You can’t cook Thai food without fish oil or oyster sauce – they’re critical to the seasoning! They smell terrible, but the aroma eventually cooks off and leaves a delightful flavor behind.

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.

Thai Cooking Class in Chiang Mai

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?

TIP: If you love the taste of curry but can’t handle the heat, consider making your own paste so you can control how many chilis make their way into the end product.
TIP:To make your time at the mortar and pestle easier, chop your ingredients as finely as you can before you start pounding; it’ll make the grinding phase much quicker!
Ingredients for Curry Paste Creating Curry Paste

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.

Thai Soup

TIP: Apparently not all ingredients in certain Thai dishes are meant to be eaten. For instance, kaffir lime, hunks of galangal root, and stalks of lemongrass were added to our soups for flavoring, but they’re not meant to be swallowed. Most people (at least the ones who know what they’re doing) pick them out or eat around them.
Cooking Thai Food in Thailand

The bits you don't eat.

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.

TIP: When cooking rice, a handy way to tell how much water you need is to put your hand inside the container and lay your palm flat against the rice. Apparently regardless of how much rice you’re cooking (1 cup or 5 cups), the water level should come to your wrist and just cover the top of your hand.

Rice at a Market in Chiang Mai, Thailand

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!).

Thai Cooking Class in Chiang Mai

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.

TIP: Once you understand what each ingredient is for (fish sauce: salty, kaffir lime: sour), you can tweak the recipes to suit your tastes. During the class I liberally – albeit stealthily – altered my dishes (Chilis? Bah, who needs those!), and I loved how they all turned out. I realize this is probably obvious to most non-cooking-impaired chefs out there, but hey – I’m a newbie. Cut me some slack.

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.

Thai Cooking Class in Chiang Mai

TIP: Prepare all your ingredients in advance, since many dishes cook quickly. Pad Thai, for instance, is often called Thai Fast Food, and once you start your wok going IT’S ON. In order to make sure nothing got burned we were frantically tossing the contents of our wok around while counting out in five to ten second increments. It was like extreme cooking; I even managed to catch a flame in my wok!

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.

TIP: Eat mango and sticky rice every chance you can get.

Mango and Sticky Rice

Have you ever taken a cooking class? Would you be willing to give it a try?

{ 69 comments… read them below or add one }

Stephanie - The Travel Chicatwitter: thetravelchica March 5, 2012 at

I am exactly the same about cooking! When I lived in Buenos Aires, I took my first cooking class ever, and it was so much fun and even inspirational. I also think it helps to connect more with the culture. And I love the part where you get to eat :-)
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Christy March 5, 2012 at

Oh man, the eating! We made so much food that we stuffed ourselves silly, and then Kali and I ate the leftovers for like three meals after that.

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Annette | Bucket List Journey March 5, 2012 at

I am a HUGE foodie and even own a restaurant, but have never taken a cooking class in another country. Your experience looked like so much fun that I am going to look into it when I am in Barcelona next month.
Annette | Bucket List Journey recently posted: My Biggest Regret in Venice, Italy

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Christy March 5, 2012 at

You own a restaurant, Annette? That’s cool! What kind? And a cooking class in Barcelona sounds fabulous – I’d definitely enjoy learning how to cook some Spanish food and tapas. :)

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Christy March 5, 2012 at

Mango and sticky rice is the best! I think my favorite out of all of these would be the coconut vegetable soup. It sounds like it’s super easy too. Now if only I could get Scott to like it. :)
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Christy March 5, 2012 at

That was Kali’s discovery of coconut soup… and since then we’ve eaten in constantly! We found a number of places on Koh Tao that made it really well, so we basically just bounced around between those so Kali could order it every night. :P

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Leightwitter: hikebiketravel March 5, 2012 at

This sounds like so much fun and I love your tips.
I’ve taken several cooking classes – and loved everyone of them. I think they can add an interesting focus to a trip – in fact I’m trying to organize one for southern cooking when we’re in Georgia and South Carolina.
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Christy March 5, 2012 at

A southern cooking class sounds awesome, Leigh – when we were in Savannah we saw a lot of brochures for “Cooking with Paula Deen.” I don’t know if you actually got to cook with her, but I wouldn’t mind learning some of those recipes. :)

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Maria of The Culture-ist March 5, 2012 at

I also took a cooking class in Chiang Mai, but I love that you were able to participate in one that was held on a farm. I still make many of the recipes I learned in the class, but without having all the authentic ingredients the dishes never come quite as good.
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Christy March 6, 2012 at

The farm was a big selling point for us; a lot of cooking schools are in the city and are sort of cramped, but I loved how much space we had. Plus, it was cool to see what some of the ingredients looked like growing on the trees. ;)

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Jenny March 5, 2012 at

I can’t WAIT to try a cooking class abroad! I’ve taken one here and home and had so much fun I put it on my “must do” list when traveling. Sounds delish, and I love that you started at the market!

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Christy March 6, 2012 at

The market was cool! Our instructor used to work there, so she had all the ins and connections… plus she bought fresh coconut milk for our dishes from the guy we watched making it.

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Scott - Quirky Travel Guytwitter: quirkytravelguy March 5, 2012 at

I guess it’s not has hard as it seems, once you know what you’re doing. Great tips! I used to have no motivation to cook until I started watching Top Chef… now, I find it a challenge to try to create weird dishes.
Scott – Quirky Travel Guy recently posted: 9 Things You Didn’t Know About the Grand Canyon

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Christy March 6, 2012 at

What’s that cooking show where they have two chefs facing off, and they only have 30 minutes or an hour to prepare a lavish meal for the judges? I watched it a few times and it was so intense! I think I saw an episode where they each had a crew carving bowls and platters out of ice for the chefs to use… and the ice sculpture artists also only had an hour. Wild.

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InsideJourneystwitter: InsideJourneys March 5, 2012 at

Love Thai food, would be nice to do a cooking class.
Sometimes I make curry from scratch but I’d love to make the paste in a pestle.
Hope your cooking’s improved now that you’ve taken the class.
InsideJourneys recently posted: Soulful Sundays: Freddie McGregor

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Annie - FootTracker March 6, 2012 at

!!! Wow, I have never seen curry made from ground up. I got use to having the curry cans and pouches ~

Looks like a fun class to attend, and please….be careful with that knife O_O
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Christy March 6, 2012 at

Ha, I did get a little over-exuberant with that knife… :P As much as I like easy solutions (such as curry paste already prepared), the stuff we made was fantastic. I wonder if we could make big batches and freeze it?

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Ruth March 6, 2012 at

My cooking has definitely improved. Kali’s younger brother is even eating some of the food that I am making! Now that’s saying something.

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Christy March 6, 2012 at

YAY!! Heck, if your dishes have the Terry stamp of approval, then they must be stellar. ;) I’m a little worried we’ll forget everything before we have the chance to use it again, but I suppose we’ll just have to practice a lot.

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Greg Tidwell March 6, 2012 at

I’ve just arrived in Chiang Mai and am benefitting from your posts! Thank you for that. I’m assuming this class is from ThaiFarmCooking.com?

What solutions did you find for living/working here? Do you recommend any office space, cafes, hostels, guesthouses? I sincerely appreciate any advice you have. I’ll be working (similar situation to you two) and designing a pair of custom, nylon overalls while here in Chiang Mai for the next couple of weeks. (I will make sure to avoid those visa fines).

It seems that I just missed you. I found you by searching twitter for Chiang Mai. I will definitely be following you folks and learning from your experience. Thank you for sharing

BTW, in another post you asked about ant protection. I was at the Pun Pun Organic farm last weekend (punpunthailand.org) and learned about a trick for avoiding ants. Food should be placed on surfaces with legs underneath (table, tray) and the feet should sit inside a small receptacle containing water (like a milk carton with the top cut off). The ants won’t swim through the water in order to climb the legs! Brilliant!

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Christy March 6, 2012 at

Thanks for the awesome comment, Greg!! Yep, we went with Thai Farm Cooking – how did you know? :) I’m bummed we missed you in Chiang Mai, but I’m sure you’ll love it there – it’s a great place to be productive. How’s the air quality right now, though? I hear it’s sort of terrible. =(

I’m not sure about guesthouses, as we stayed in an apartment, but I know Smith Residence is really popular with expats. They have studio rooms and one bedroom apartments that are quite cheap, nice, and well located, but the downside is that sometimes they get booked up. In terms of wifi, Butter is Better has good food and (usually) solid internet, Peppermint Cafe is a good place to work (just make sure to buy something or they charge like 30 baht an hour for internet), and you can check out the Bird’s Nest Cafe (http://www.thebirdsnestcafe.com/).

But the BEST tip I can give? Every night (except Sundays) at Chiang Mai Gate there’s a street cart you should become well acquainted with – Mrs. Pa’s Smoothies. These smoothies are literally the best in all of Chiang Mai, and they’re only 20 baht. Seriously. Start now, and enjoy them every day you can while you’re in Chiang Mai. :)

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jenjenktwitter: jenjenk March 7, 2012 at

love, love, LOVE mango sticky rice.

one thing with making japanese sticky rice – laying your hand flat on top of the rice is the method I use EXCEPT when it’s a new crop [it'll say it on the bag of rice]. that’s when it needs a skosh less water. :)
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Christy March 9, 2012 at

Thanks for the heads up, Jen! And I think our instructor told us that making sticky rice is quite different from other types… but I can’t remember. So the Wrist Rule of Rice (as I’ve so dubbed it) may only be applicable for stuff like jasmine or brown rice. Oiy, when did I become such a terrible student? :P

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Artitwitter: artisdiary March 7, 2012 at

How much I love cooking, I love playing around Indian dishes using different spices!!
A fabulous post on Food and Cooking, both of which I love:)
Have a fabulous week ahead:)
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Christy March 9, 2012 at

I would love to take an Indian cooking class… especially if I could figure out how to maintain all the delicious flavor but dial back the heat to a more survivable level. :)

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Alex March 7, 2012 at

Wow the pictures are amazing. I find this idea so exciting to take some cooking classes while I am going to visit Philippines this summer.

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Christy March 9, 2012 at

You should definitely give it a shot, Alex – I’m sure there are tons of cooking classes in the Philippines.

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Sabrinatwitter: countryskipper March 8, 2012 at

I’ve never taken a cooking class – at home or abroad – but would love to try it one day. I think it’s probably one of the best ways to learn something about a different culture and you can actually relive your trip my making things at home again. How fun! Your pics look delicious… I think I need to buy some fish oil and try to make my own pad thai at home.
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Christy March 9, 2012 at

It really would let you relive those memories; we haven’t tried any of the dishes yet as we’ve been on the road, but I imagine when we pull out our recipe book and give it a go, all the memories will come flooding back.

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Raymond @ Man On The Lamtwitter: m March 9, 2012 at

I did a cooking class in Pai, Thailand and I found out I LOVE green curry. :)
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Christy March 9, 2012 at

Aww, green curry is the one we didn’t try making! I think I read your post about that Raymond – didn’t you have extreme cooking (that included fire) as well?

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Sophietwitter: SophieR March 9, 2012 at

I’m not much of a cook myself. I took cooking lessons in Italy last summer, and learned much of it was neither difficult nor all that time-consuming. Sadly, I haven’t kept it up… Maybe a new course is in order.
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Christy March 10, 2012 at

An Italian course would be awesome – I’d love to learn how to make delicious pizza and pasta! It’s neat to discover that cooking tasty and interesting food doesn’t have to be difficult.

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Christopher March 9, 2012 at

I absolutely loved this post. Thai cuisine is my favorite. And you’re both adorable chefs.

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Christy March 10, 2012 at

Awww, thanks Christopher!

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Pete March 9, 2012 at

Looks like so much fun!! One of the first few ingredients I usually look for in the market, no matter where I am, is fish sauce and Oyster sauce :). I’ve tried to make my own curry paste, and although it turned out good, I opt for the little jars of the pre-made stuff to save lots of time. Thai food is by far my favorite food out there, and when I get there, for sure I’ll be enrolling in some cooking class.

BTW your photo of the bits you didn’t use looks pretty elegant and tasty ;)
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Christy March 10, 2012 at

Don’t let that photo fool you, Pete!! Galangal root is nasty to chew on. :P I’d always been skeptical of fish sauce and oyster sauce, but now I’m a convert.

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Laurence March 9, 2012 at

From what I know of cooking, it’s all about the look. Having an appropriate apron is 90% of the battle already won ;)
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Christy March 10, 2012 at

I know! I think my problem before was that I didn’t own an apron. Bonus points if the apron says something cheesy like “kiss the chef!”, right?

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dtravelsroundtwitter: dtravelsround March 9, 2012 at

You two are SO cute!! I didn’t get a chance to take a class while I was in CM, but fully intend to go back and take one when I return. These look yummy!!
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Christy March 10, 2012 at

Thanks, Diana! :D You should def check it out next time you’re in Chiang Mai, and consider one of the schools that’s on a farm. I thought the setting added a lot to the experience.

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The Time-Crunched Traveler (Ellen) March 9, 2012 at

Wow! What a fun experience! Great tutorial, and wonderful photos! Makes me so hungry!
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Christy March 10, 2012 at

Sorry about that, Ellen… but I’m glad you liked the post. ;)

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Victor March 11, 2012 at

Excellent post. Very interesting. And you are the real adventurers :-)
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Christy March 14, 2012 at

Thanks, Victor. :)

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Caanan @ No Vacation Requiredtwitter: NVRguys March 11, 2012 at

This is such an entertaining post that I didn’t realize I was learning something. Damn it!

We took cooking classes in Chiang Mai as well, and loved the experience. It simply deepened our love for Thai food.

Now, I assumed those bits in my Tom Ka Gai were not edible, but I didn’t KNOW this. I have tried to get down a pice of galangal or lemongrass. What a boob! :)
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Christy March 14, 2012 at

You are so not alone in that, Caanan – we had NO idea before this class that we shouldn’t be eating everything in the dishes. We just thought some of the stuff was gross, but an acquired taste! Oiy vey. :P

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Akilatwitter: theroadforks March 11, 2012 at

Great tips and post, guys! I especially love the last one — definitely eat mango and sticky rice whenever possible. :)
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Christy March 14, 2012 at

That’s clearly the most important tip of them all. ;)

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Micamyx|Senyorita March 12, 2012 at

Fun! :D I am terrible at cooking, but an expert in eating! :D I wanted to try the cooking lessons in Chiang Mai, but I didn’t have enough time to do so. I wanna go back soon!
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Christy March 14, 2012 at

Ha, that’s exactly like us – great at eating, terrible at cooking. :P The best thing about the course is that there’s SO MUCH food to eat during/afterwards; gluttony at its finest! :D

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Camtwitter: travelcanucks March 13, 2012 at

Looks like a fun cooking class!
We did something similar in Battambang, Cambodia. The most fun was visiting the local market and learning about the various ingredients – love Asian food!

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Christy March 14, 2012 at

Mmm, a Cambodian class would be great. We just traveled a bit through Cambodia and really enjoyed the food – I’d love to learn how to make the amok dish.

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Sherry March 13, 2012 at

Christy – you look so dangerous with the cleaver :) But serious, if I could take a cooking class anywhere in the world, it would be in Thailand. Mainly because I eat Thai food so often; at least the American version. I love the coconut milk in their curries and the taste of that fish sauce is truly delicious on anything. Just don’t tell me where it comes from and how its made. I’ll definitely try a cooking class in one of my destinations. They always look really fun (and you get to eat).
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Christy March 14, 2012 at

Ha, clearly I shouldn’t be allowed in the kitchen. ;) I agree with you about Thai food – it’s just so diverse and flavorful and fresh. And I never really enjoyed coconut before coming to Thailand, but now I’m a convert and can’t get enough.

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Michelle March 14, 2012 at

Gahhh! Jealous! Thai food is one of my most favorites. I grew up eating Southeast Asian food, so this would have been such a fun class to take. Looks like you learned lots and had a great time. Did you like the sticky rice with mango? Love it! :)
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Christy March 14, 2012 at

Mango and sticky rice is the BEST. If sticky rice was any easier to make, we’d probably eat it every day. :)

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Cheryl April 1, 2012 at

AMAZING!! That food looks soooooo good. I love taking cooking classes whenever I travel!

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Christy April 3, 2012 at

Apparently we need to try it elsewhere! It’d be fun to take a cooking class while we’re in France, but seeing that we don’t speak the language and no one around here seems to speak English, that might not go over so well…. :)

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Jade - OurOyster.com April 2, 2012 at

Wow! I love the way you presented this post and the information….very well done! I did a cooking class in chaing Mai as well but it was with a different instructor. But it was absolutely amazing and now I try to do cooking classes in most places I visit. I feel that it really connects you with a place when you understand the food and how it is made.
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Christy April 3, 2012 at

It really did connect us more with Thailand; we’d been in Chiang Mai long enough to get a sense of the food beforehand, but this helped us understand the foundation of the cuisine.

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Shanna Schultz April 3, 2012 at

We took a cooking class at the same school outside of Chiang Mai and LOVED it! The ingredients were so fresh, and the things we made were out of this world! I haven’t tried to cook anything since we got home, as I know that it just won’t taste the same without the fresh ingredients, but one of these days I will get brave and head to the asian grocery to pick up ingredients for a Thai feast.

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Christy April 3, 2012 at

Ha, that’s cool that you went to the same school! We haven’t made anything yet (it’s not really practical to carry fish oil around with us, lol), but I’m hoping in a few months we’ll get a chance to cook when we’re in Oregon. We’ll see how much we remember…

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Kieu ~ GQ trippin April 4, 2012 at

We’ll be in Chiang Mai in less than a week! I can’t wait to take a cooking class – looks fun. Is it weird for me to think the bits-you-don’t-eat looks delicious? LOL.. This will be Gerard’s first time doing real cooking. Haha. We will see..
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Christy April 5, 2012 at

LOL, I want to know what you think about those little bits once you’ve chewed on a few. ;) And Gerard has never cooked before?!? Get him in a kitchen, stat!

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Mary @ Green Global Travel May 8, 2012 at

Great cooking tips. I especially like the one about how to tell how much water to use. I’ll definitely use this trick at home!
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Christy May 11, 2012 at

We haven’t used it yet, Mary, but it’s on my list of kitchen tips to try once we start cooking again!

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Vicky May 22, 2012 at

I absolutely loooove to cook (I also run a food blog http://avocadopesto.wordpress.com) and I am very interested in taking a cooking class in every country I’ll be traveling to. If you’ve taken any other good cooking classes please let me know!
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Christy May 22, 2012 at

Ooooh, that sounds like a worthy goal. :) The thai cooking class was the only one we took, but I wish we had done more. Then I’d probably be a better cook by now, lol.

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