Written in Thailand, Posted from Sri Lanka
A couple of weeks ago now, back when we were still in Chiang Mai, I took an AMAZING cooking class. Those of you following along have already heard about the class, but up until now, I haven't had the time or the energy to write about it. Sometimes, when you do something you've been waiting a long time to do, it's hard to find the words to write about it. And while it may seem silly to say it, I've been waiting a long time to take a cooking class. That I took my first cooking class in Thailand is awesome. But that I took my first cooking class with one of the sweetest women I've ever met, in a class with just three other people, where we cooked no less than 6 different Thai dishes, AND we got to wander around a market with our teacher? Well that's the kind of thing that makes a girl dream about cooking for the rest of her life. (Don't worry Daddy, I'm still interested in the law thing. For now anyway.)
I heard about this cooking class via the Internet, of course. But then I heard about it from everyone I talked to in Chiang Mai. "You want to take a cooking class? Go to A lot of Thai." So I did. I signed up for the all day, 7-hour lesson. It came to a whopping $30. And a whopping 6 pounds -- which is how much weight I felt like I gained from all of the food that I ate. Because here's the best part about the class: everything I made was tasty! SUPER tasty.
Like I said, we made six different dishes -- pad thai, green curry chicken, tom yum soup, fried spring rolls, and stir-fried chicken with vegetables. We also ate some sticky rice with cocounut milk and mango for dessert, but our teacher, Yui, did most of the prep work for that. I just had to find room to stuff it in. Since the rice was purple and the mango was amazing, I managed just fine.
Here are a few things you should know about Thai cooking:
1) Each dish uses the fewest and freshest ingredients possible. Everyone, even people who hate cooking, knows that this makes for the tastiest food.
2) The following ingredients are in just about everthing you make: palm sugar, fish sauce, kaffir lime leaves, garlic, tamarind sauce, cilantro, chilis, and purple basil (otherwise known as holy basil or Thai basil).
3) This is what you didn't know about the above ingredients: kaffir lime leaves come from a lime that's all knobbly and wounded-looking. The wee little limes that are everywhere in Thailand are just plain old regular limes, but they're amazing. You can use dried kaffir lime leaves if you can't find fresh ones. Palm sugar is made from the palm coconut tree. It has the consistency of maple sugar, and I could eat it by the fistful. At home, cook with brown sugar instead. Fish sauce is really salty. If you want to cut the salt, use half fish sauce, and half low-salt soy sauce. Tamarind sauce in Thailand isn't nearly as sour as the tamarind sauce we get in the US. Since the point of the Tamarind sauce is to make things a little more sour, just use what you need to in order to balance the flavors. Balancing the flavors! That's the point of Thai cooking. So you can do a lot of things by feel and taste, rather than by recipe. I love that in a meal. Most of the garlic that they use in Thailand is grown in Thailand, and the skin on the garlic is so thin that when you saute it in oil, the skin kind of crisps up nicely. So you can LEAVE IT ON FOR FLAVOR! That's brilliant because it saves time AND adds flavor! Most of the garlic we get at home is big and the skin is thick and coarse. So you have to take it off, which is kind of a pain in the ass, but whatever, we're used to it. The firmer the chili is to the touch, the spicier it is likely to be. If it yields a lot when you squeeze it, it's probably fairly mild.
4) In order to make a really decent fish stock, you use shrimp heads. Seriously. Shrimp. HEADS. If you're a vegetarian or vegan, you make your decent stock by using garlic skins, the really tough lemongrass stalks, and the bottom tough part of a green onion.
5) Oyster sauce has some sugar in it. So if you're making a dish that calls for oyster sauce, you can reduce the amount of palm sugar you use.
6) You can add holy basil to taste. This is music to my ears, since I love the stuff and can't eat enough. You can also add cilantro to taste, which is also music to my ears, since I truly can't stand cilantro and it's perfectly acceptable to leave it out.
I took a bunch of pictures from the class, partly because I'm a dork, but also because there was this really sweet father-son duo in my class who forgot to bring their camera. So when you look at the pictures, say hello to Ben and Jim! Ben's a teacher in Chiang Mai and his dad came to visit him. How cool is that?
I wanted to post the recipe for Pad Thai, courtesy of the cookbook that Yui provided. But I accidentally sent the cookbook home in the last box we sent back to the States. So you're just going to have to wait until we get back. In the meantime, you should go out there and find a good recipe for pad thai. But if yours doesn't taste quite as spectacular as you want it to, don't blame me. There was magic in Yui's kitchen (which, incidentally, was outside), and there was magic in Chiang Mai. But I'm hoping that those of you who are feeling adventurous enough to venture out to an Asian grocery store and throw this simple noodle dish together get even a bit of the magic I experienced under Yui's tutelage. And in case you don't, well, then that's just one more reason to hop on a plane and visit Thailand.