With a metal ladle in one hand, the wok handle in the other and my May Kaidee cooking school menu book tucked under my arm, this is starting feel more like a shoddy one-woman vaudeville act than a cooking class. An overly ambitious swirl of the wok and my peanut sauce goes flying, leaving orange-brown streaks across my notebook. I try to convince our instructor that I’m not usually this clutzy in the kitchen (a lie) and she just shakes her head laughing, assuring me she’s seen worse. And I don’t doubt it.
Nim, our small, but fiery Thai cooking teacher has been working for May Kaidee for many years: long enough to see many spilt sauces and more than a few small fires. The May Kaidee vegetarian restaurant and cooking school, our culinary institution for the day, has been teaching the secrets of Thai cooking for over 20 years in Bangkok and several years at this Chiang Mai location. We’ve been invited to participate in the class by Cookly, a marketplace connecting foodies with chefs and cooking schools to learn and enjoy a unique culinary experience.
At Cookly they believe that learning to prepare authentic meals is the perfect way to dive straight into a new culture. And because we love authentic travel, and eating, it was a match made in heaven. Cookly has classes throughout Southeast Asia in Vietnam, Indonesia and Thailand and will expand to other regions including Australia, Europe, India and Morocco throughout 2016. For our experience today we chose the well-respected May Kaidee vegan and vegetarian cooking school in Chiang Mai to learn the classic dishes of Northern Thailand.
Our instructor Nim teaches cooking classes every day, sometimes three times a day and usually the same dishes. To say that she could do this with her eyes closed is an understatement. With such expertise comes the right to adapt hundred-year-old dishes to suit your liking. Measurements are flexible, if not downright instinctual. Nim gives us instructions like one “lady hand” (literally the amount of product that the average Thai women could hold in her hand) and fry till fragrant. It’s these instinctual processes that separate her perfect Pad Thai from our decent one. I know that going back to the United States and repeating these meals for my family will be one level further removed from the tastes of Thailand, but I’m determined to do my best and learn the secrets of authentic Thai cooking.
Our day starts with a trip to the local market. Several other small Thai cooking classes crowd around stalls and I feel grateful that our class includes only Jules and I. Nim shows us the ingredients we’ll be cooking with today. She brings out a pre-organized basket of fresh produce and points to what looks like a green pea no bigger than a blueberry.
“Do you know what this is?” she asks.
After a series of guesses, Nim shakes her head. “Eggplant!”
Jules and I peer into her palm and try to sensitively correct her that this tiny vegetable could not possibly be an eggplant. Just as patiently she insists that she is sure it’s an eggplant.
“Eggplant. Or maybe you called it aubergine?” she asks. Okay, clearly she knows her stuff.
The market lesson continues with a series of herbs that she places in the palm of our hands to smell. Lemongrass. Coriander. Sweet basil. All the smells of our favorite Thai dishes come alive in our palms, as our appetites begin to grow.
As we continue the market tour Nim teaches us Thai versions of ingredients we cook with at home. Kaffir limes and their leaves. Galangal ginger. When we ask if we can simply replace galangal with our regular ‘ol American ginger, she responds with a resounding no! When we ask what we should use if we don’t have galangal, Nim nonchalantly states that we should just skip ginger, but she seems like she really wants to say don’t bother cooking the dish at all. As relaxed as Nim is about cooking, there are certain non-negotiables when it comes to mixing up these classic dishes.
Back at May Kaidee we start preparing our dishes for the day. Today’s lineup includes: fresh chili paste, Tom Yum soup, Green Curry, Papaya salad, peanut sauce, Pad Thai, spring rolls, pumpkin hummus and mango sticky rice for dessert. As we begin cooking we notice that most of the dishes are some combination of same 10 or so ingredients. Two lady hands of onion, tomato and carrot. Two tablespoons of soy sauce, combined light and dark to taste. Brown sugar, juice from two lime wedges, heaping scoops of coconut milk. And yet, somehow, each dish comes out looking and tasting vastly different. Tom Yum has that salty sour taste, where as Pad Thai comes out salty sweet.
Cooking Thai food really is a five senses experience. Simply tasting a dish to assess its quality isn’t enough. Scent, sight and even sound play a huge part. Most recipes we learn today include a step like “fry until fragrant” or “grill until you smell garlic.” Dishes should have a certain color, as well. If your green chili paste isn’t quite green enough, add sweet basil to double the color. Nim assesses our chili paste by its color just as much as its taste. Even sound plays a part. Heat the oil until you hear the sizzle of onion when it hits the wok.
Ah yes, the wok. Thais certainly have mastered the one dish meal. But what looks like a simple cooking utensil, actually takes quite a bit of finesse to handle. Our first few attempts see us throwing a lady hand of onion a bit too forcefully into the wok, releasing a retaliation of hot oil spat in our direction. Gracefully sliding the ingredients down the side of the wok yields much better results.
After making homemade peanut sauce, we move on to a personal favorite, Pad Thai. This dish is a staple of Thai street carts and, quite frankly, the perfect 2 am drunk food. We’ve seen an infinite amount of locals whipping up this dish, four plates at a time in great big woks, and it seemed pretty simple. It seemed!
The recipe starts off easy enough, steaming rice noodles until soft. Then add oil, chunks of tomatoes, onion, garlic and cubes of tofu. Fry until fragrant. We are then instructed to push these ingredients to the side of the wok to make room for the egg. The egg is cracked directly onto the hot metal surface and begins to cook immediately. This sounds easier than it is.
My heat is turned up too high and my vegetables immediately start burning. The wok tips from the uneven weight distribution, meanwhile my egg is frying into a crisp. Nim steps in and sorts me out, turning the heat to medium-low and skillfully scrambling the egg. Crisis averted. The noodle and veggie mixture is tasty enough, but the toppings are really what makes the Pad Thai: fresh, crunchy bean sprouts, hot chili flakes and roasted ground peanuts for extra flavor. Yum.
Throughout the class our cooking is punctuated with singing. In the back of our recipe booklets is a traditional Thai cooking song. Nim has a lovely voice and Jules and I follow along, attempting to mimic, but inevitably butchering almost ever word. After all the cooking the day is wrapped up with dancing, but we’re absolutely stuffed with food. Nim teaches us a traditional Thai dance, middle finger and thumb together, wrists held outwards, arms gracefully gliding up and down. We dance in the middle of the restaurant where other patrons have just sat down for a delicious lunch. We dance despite being absolutely stuffed and we dance until we’re laughing out loud.
The staff send us home with full bellies and take away containers filled with curries, spring rolls and a Pad Thai that tastes just as good eaten cold in bed later that night. And while we may not have mastered Thai cooking from one class, we do have a few simple, tasty meals under our belt, as well as a greater understanding of the Northern Thai cuisine.
A big thanks to May Kaidee, the best cooking school in Chiang Mai, and Cookly for inviting us to such a special experience. Jules and I love eating, but as vegetarians, food has always been just as much of a challenge as it is a pleasure while traveling. With a fully vegetarian menu, however, we were able to uninhibitedly nibble, savor and relish every dish and ingredient. Our class gave us a taste (pardon the pun) of traditional Thai culture and we loved learning a new skill that we can take back to our families to give them a taste of Thailand.
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