‘Back to school. Back to school, to prove to Dad that I’m not a fool. I got my lunch packed up, my boots tied tight, I hope I don’t get in a fight.’ – Adam Sandler, Billy Madison
Day 1 01/2012 – It’s eight in the morning and the urge to stay beside my ‘not so’ porcelain throne is looking better each minute, after some dicey Indian food two nights before. I’m supposed to get picked up by the shuttle to go to the Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School. I hear the honk so I grab my bag, pop a couple Imodium and duck walked out the door. I going to have to sneak some tapioca starch! I managed to make it through the meet and greet and the drive out to the cooking studio on the outskirts of Chiang Mai.
The first demo began with an introduction to some Thai ingredients, talking about kaffir lime, lemongrass, chilies, ginza(galangal), coconut milk and cream. The dishes we made were for the most part recognizable to the average westerner. This took me back to culinary school, sitting in a demo theater, watching, listening and taking notes. He started with Tom Yum Goong(hot and sour prawn soup) and Thai fish cakes. A traditional pad thai and a green curry with chicken finished up the lunch menu. For the green curry and all the curries we made over the following couple days, coconut cream would be reduced until the oil separated. This would be used to fry the curry paste and start the magic. Unfortunately, I couldn’t really stomach a whole lot, although I forced some of everything down and glad I did, if only my body agreed. After lunch, we made a minced chicken salad and water chestnuts with coconut milk and crushed ice for dessert.
Once I was dropped at my hostel, I had a cleansing shower and walked to a vegetarian restaurant, where I laid dormant for the remainder of the day in the hippie loft drinking countless banana and mango lassis.
Day 2 – Off to a better start, the chill time last night must have helped. Not having eaten much in a couple days, I was hungry, very HUNGRY! Opening the day with an introduction to making fresh authentic curry pastes, I was exposed to a couple new ingredients. I had never before seen Thai cardamom or fresh mace. Getting my own granite mortar and pestle, being brought in back time with this ancient piece of equipment, I began to gently pound and grind the spices and chilies until my Panang curry paste was created. Waiting for everyone to finish their paste, I was chomping at the bit to get lunch started.
The first of the four was a Panang curry made from the fresh paste we had just produced. It had a balanced heat and intense spice flavour. Next was fried fish with a simple chili and basil sauce. This was followed by a regional curry, surprisingly enough called Chiang Mai curry with chicken and a basic sweet and sour vegetable stir-fry, done extremely well. This was quite the personal buffet, and I was about to feast, bib and all!
After lunch and a much needed lounge break, we made a spicy glass noodle salad, and for dessert, the best rice pudding that ever entered my mouth. Black sticky rice pudding with fresh coconut cream on top, simply divine. My knees buckled, as I plopped down to savor every mouthful.
Stuffed and feeling like getting a little sauced, a couple people who were in the cooking class and I decide on a night of bar hopping. After numerous Changs, sitting outside of a tattoo shop, a cart stops in front of us brimming with little fried critters. Of course I want some, I didn’t just get over food poisoning or anything, might as well chow down on some crunchy insects. After sampling a few we decided on a plate of crickets with fried kaffir lime leave.
Day 3 – Due to the budget of a backpacker (or lack thereof), this was my last day. It began with a trip to a local market. It was so helpful to have a guide for once, to finally explain and answer my countless questions. We were shown the process of how fresh coconut cream was made, buckets of blood curd, squirming fish and bags of frogs. I became mesmerized by the smorgasbord of pig, while I watched a woman debone a hind leg. I caught up with our guide to check out banana flower for the first time. This was a ‘kid in a candy store’ experience, a little paradise inside a paradise. I could lose hours in here with a thousand questions.
After my eyes had a feast, I was ready to cook some lunch. Starting with chicken in coconut milk soup, it was my new go-to feeling ill chicken soup. Instead of removing the lemon grass and kaffir, they were left in as an inedible garnish. Red curry with fish and a mushroom stir-fry finished off our lunch. Getting to make one of my favorite salads authentically using a mortar and pestle, papaya salad, and a steamed banana and coconut cake had me on cloud nine.
Receiving an apron, cookbook and my last ride back into the city, I sat reflecting on the last three days at how much I was taking home from this experience. Not that I would take this advice since I eat just about anything, but stay away from questionable food before hand to get the absolute most of the class, and go experience the fresh intensity of Thai cuisine.