Final Day in Chiang Mai and Chef Mastery
21.03.2010 - 21.03.2010
Today was our final day in Chiang Mai and we signed up to do an “all day” cooking course. This was something we had all agreed on with great interest and anticipation prior to even arriving in Thailand, so the expectation was for a fun experience. Fortunately our expectations were met, although a little disappointing because the course turned out to only be from 9:30-2, rather than a full day. We felt a little cheated with our money, but we really learned all I consider necessary for a novice in the way of Thai cookery.
We were picked up by Master Chef (that’s what we were told to call him, as if I could really call him by his Thai name—Thai names are impossible to pronounce, let alone repeat when told) in another pickup truck, but this time we were the last lot picked up and we got to sit in the cab of the truck. Woohoo! Air conditioning and a smooth ride--such luxuries after the previous nine days in Chiang Mai.
Our first stop of the day was a local market where our guide showed us around and explained different common ingredients in Thai cooking and what one looks for when buying them.
That part was wonderful. There are so many vegetables I have never cooked with that are quite tasty. We learned about what seemed like simple and already known cooking facts, such as with rice, which in actuality I knew little to nothing about! For instance, sticky rice is its own species of rice plant. Who knew? Not me prior, but I sure do now. We learned how to tell when rice is old (it’s dusty) and learned about what noodles to cook with and their differences. Did you know that glass noodles are made of bean sprouts? Here I thought all noodles were bad for you, but calorically speaking, glass noodles are perfectly low calorie and okay to eat. Awesome! We learned you have to soak sticky rice 4 hours before cooking (or one to two days, preferably), but not steamed rice. We also learned you have to soak the noodles prior to cooking, particularly the glass noodles.
At the market we were given a low down on curry pastes and how to make them from scratch. We learned that curry pastes are virtually the same regardless of color and that if you learn how to make one curry you can make them all (good to know for my confidence level as a novice chef). There is also a shrimp paste you can put in curries, but we didn’t learn how to use it in our cooking today. Master Chef said Thai men use this as a means to rid of their women when they grow tired of the same partner. Smear shrimp paste on your lips, give her a good kiss, and she won’t come back the next day. Master Chef explained that Thai men are too polite to say goodbye to a woman. I think he was just joshing us, but I liked the story all the same.
After the rundown at the market we were driven to the actual cooking school (about 12 of us) and given our own individual stations to prepare food at. We were allowed to select from a series of food dishes to prepare, but shown how to prepare all the options. Jenna, Zac, and I picked separate dishes to prepare for variety, and all our dishes came out pretty good. The first dish we made was hot and sour soup. This was pretty damn easy to make. 3 slices of ginza (a ginger-like root), lemongrass, shallot, green chilies (the more the spicier), kaffir lime leaf, mushrooms, tomato, water, meat of choice (or tofu), fish sauce, cilantro, lime juice, chili jam, and garlic. You cut the veggies, boil the water, add the veggies and cook for a minute, add meat (marinated in sauce) with the sauce, cook until meat is cooked through, squeeze some lime, and you’re good to go! Instead of water you can add half a cup of coconut cream and half a cup of coconut milk to get thom kah. So easy!
We learned that all stir fried dishes (and most noodle dishes) have virtually the same ingredients. Fish sauce, soy sauce, sugar, oyster sauce—that’s it! The variation comes in how much sugar (more for noodle dishes, very little for vegetable dishes) and how high of heat you cook the food at. For instance, vegetables are cooked at very high heat so they cook fast, stay crunchy, and don’t get soggy with oil. Meats are cooked at medium heat, as are most noodles.
Pad Thai was the hardest dish we prepared today (according to Master Chef) because the noodles are so easy to cook improperly and burn. My Pad Thai was a little burned because I left it in the pan with the egg a bit too long (whoops). The difference in sauce for Pad Thai (same ingredients as the rest of the sauces) is the addition of tamarind juice. If you don’t have tamarind you may substitute lime juice for the tartness. You can also make it with ketchup, but this is the less authentic means of preparation. Master Chef told us that some lazy chefs will use ketchup in their pad thai in Thailand, but generally speaking this is only something seen in American Thai restaurants. Simply order your phad thai "Thai style" and you'll be good.
Anywho, we also made chicken with cashew nuts, sweet and sour, mixed fried veggies, spring rolls, papaya salad, and sticky rice with mango (SO GOOD). But the best meal I made for the day was panang curry. Holy shit, that was good, easy to make as well. Curry paste (can make from scratch or buy already made), coconut milk, fish sauce, kaffir lime leaf, palm sugar (or maple syrup!), red chili, and basil leaves. Add pumpkin and whatever other veggies you want in it and you’re done. Cook at a medium heat, stirring frequently.
I’m excited to get home and try these recipes outside of the cooking school. It was so much easier than I thought it would be and with the fish sauce, soy sauce, sugar, and oyster sauce I feel prepared to make most stir fried dishes. I even feel confident in the ability to make curry paste (you have to fry it if you make it from scratch with about a centimeter of oil above it—and it can last for up to ten years!), assuming I can get all of the ingredients. Seattle has a good size Asian population though, so I’m sure I can find all of this stuff by venturing into the international district.
After cooking class we walked around and found new masseuses for Jenna and Zac. They didn’t want to go to the previous parlor because Jenna wanted to be massaged by a new person and see the variety. It is the spice of life, I hear.
I again opted out of the massage and waited around for them to finish up. We then headed over to the Sunday market, but didn’t stay long since we went last Sunday as well. We came back in time for Zac to get his new spiffy suit (looks great!) and then Zac and I went to dinner and we’re now packing up for the night in preparation for our early morning check out and flights to Bangkok and then Krabi.
The beaches are going to be expensive (lodging is easily twice the price we’re paying now) in comparison to our current area and while it’s still relatively inexpensive when compared to previous travels it still sucks to pay more. The quality doesn’t go up with price either, as the beaches are supposed to be so gorgeous that hotels and such don’t need to go that extra mile to please customers because they know people will come regardless. I’ve also read that people are fairly rude down south, jaded by tourists (or “turist” as Jenna has been saying). I’ve become accustomed to the very friendly northern Thais. Truly, people here are wonderfully friendly and accommodating. For instance, this afternoon after Jenna and Zac got massages we were outside and as they were putting their shoes back on one of the women working at the parlor came out with trays of water to take with us because it was hot outside. They gave me one and I wasn’t even a customer!
I could get used to the friendliness, particularly when compared to the Seattle freeze. One thing I can’t get used to? The driving. Holy crap, it’s so nuts here! Safety seems to be a suggestion rather than rule and I can’t count the motorbikes that have passed with entire families jammed on them—mom, dad, and two kiddos! No joke. And none of them are wearing helmets. People weave in and out of lanes, blinkers are occasional, and stop lights merely recommendations. We asked our chef on the way out to our class if learning to drive was hard in Thailand and what the rules of the road are. He said it wasn’t hard, and there were no rules. You just go and don’t hit anybody. Oh, and you always have good insurance. According to him there aren’t many traffic accidents, and admittedly I haven’t seen any myself—although for the first few days I was just holding my breath expecting one. I’ve now acclimated to just trusting my life to some driver, knowing he wants me to get to my destination just as much as I do so he can get paid.
It will be interesting to see the differences that southern Thailand offers.