With nearly all fun-in-the-sun guides touting the beauty and benefits of Thailand's postcard shaming scenery south of Bangkok, it is no surprise that many visitors in their rush to the beaches absently neglect the benefits of Northern Thailand.
Rumours of elephant treks, Hill Tribe villages, bamboo rafting and less humidity than sweaty Bangkok, a 10 hour bus ride wasn't going to stand in my way of getting to the capital of the north - Chiang Mai - and seeing what it had to offer.
Upon arrival I quickly learned that though still a bustling metropolis and Thailand's second largest city, Chiang Mai offers a cooler feel, in both temperature and attitude, than busy Bangkok and also contains some excellently unique alternatives to what the more southerly destinations can extend to travellers.
Best known as the launch point for two things, trekking through the dense forests of Northern Thailand and trips to the infamous Golden Triangle, it was not either of these that captured my admittedly short attention upon a visit to the city's tourist information centre. Oddly enough, it was the comparatively safe cooking that piqued my interest.
Though common throughout the country, Chiang Mai seems to be a mecca for Thai cooking schools, and for a modest sum of Thai baht you can take home more than just a few pictures and a tan from your vacation.
I decided to investigate a well-designed brochure that caught my gaze by announcing small, intimate classes (no more than eight at a time) and free pickup. And so it was that I found myself crawling into a bright blue van with Chef Yui, her husband (and driver), their small boy and two other farangs (the affectionate, if not technical, Thai term for foreigners).
Started in 2001 after she left teaching at one of city's prominent cookery schools, Yui's school is built off her house on the outskirts of Chiang Mai. The covered outdoor atmosphere (and near perpetually great weather) give a rustic yet comely feel to her classroom. As a second-generation chef, there is no questioning Yui's culinary skills, but it is her teaching approach that made my day-long course top-notch. Quick to smile and fun to be around, Yui started by laying out the day's menu - a selection of some of Thailand's most popular dishes.
When asked how she chose what dishes to teach she told me, "First we researched the top ten most popular dishes abroad. Next are the dishes that I love to cook and think are interesting to suggest to those that have never tried them." She has also added further dishes got from relatives, adapting them to suit the class.
A novice in the kitchen, I am the first to admit that my desire to cook vastly outweighs my ability, and I was a bit nervous that perhaps the class would be the final proof I needed to hang up my apron, drawer my chef's knife and depend on drive-thru for the rest of my years. Much to my rejoice, Yui was quick to point out that no anterior skill is needed for her class.
"Previous knowledge of cooking is not necessary; because I teach so simply it is easy for everybody. I have had many kinds of students, from professional chefs to those whom never cook." Insistent her classes never exceed more than eight students to maintain a level of quality and intimacy lost in larger groups, she went on to explain that she teaches using basic logic, such as firmer vegetables take longer to cook, larger portions are cooked at higher temperatures, etc., and that cooking should be fun and isn't just about measurements.
Our first dish, pad Thai, is a staple across Thailand and has made its way to more than a few menus here in Canada. In fact, it was the one Thai dish that I had made previously - though my recipe called for a dodgy combination of ketchup and peanut butter, and was never made again out of fear of consequence from all that had been exposed.
Demonstrating the dish first, Yui illustrated just how easy Thai cooking can be. With a few simple steps she had sliced, diced and stir-fried her way to making us a wonderfully tasty little sample so we could see how ours should turn out. I had wrongly assumed that the taste would leave my dish seeming a bit mediocre by comparison, but was pleasantly surprised when a few minutes later I had in front of me a plate of some of the most mouth-watering pad Thai I had ever eaten - and I made it myself!
With new-found confidence, my classmates and I tackled the slightly more complex Tom Yum Kung (hot and sour prawn soup) and spring rolls to much the same gastronomic enjoyment.
Not content to just show us how to combine ingredients in a wok, Yui announced to her now glutted trio of students that it was time for the tour of the local market. It is hard to spend any amount of time in Thailand and not end up in a food market, surrounded by numerous things that not only could you not imagine eating, but just generally give you the willies. Stalls of large roasted locusts, grubs, beetles, dried translucent squid and a plethora of other creatures constellate Thai markets, under the assumption that they are used in various traditional dishes. However, not once in my two months of travelling the country did I ever see anyone but fellow farangs eating them, and only on dares at that; an observation that has lent itself to my theory that their presences is but an inside joke among Thais poking some sanuk (fun) at the tourists.
Yui ushered us from merchant to merchant explaining to us what the different vegetables were, how they are used in Thai cooking and what common substitutions could be used in their place if these could not be found back home. Needing to pick up some things for the second half of course, she left us to wander the market alone. We didn't make it much further than an old Thai woman seated on a stool surrounded by buckets of various gilled fauna. In seconds she had them decapitated, gutted, scaled and on their way with a customer, who for some reason seemed completely oblivious to the brutal skill this woman possessed. Returning, and seeing our wide-eyed fascination, Yui grinned and told us it was time to go cook some more.
Getting back to her home, we again donned our aprons and dove into more delicious Thai cooking. Despite the fish slaughter, the trip to the market worked up a bit of an appetite, which was rewarded with our final three dishes - green curry, stir-fried pork with cashews and the delectable sweet sticky rice with mangos. Again we feasted on our creations while sharing travel stories and advice.
It was with heavy hearts and even heavier stomachs that we were dropped off at our respective guesthouses at the end of the day. In the months since the course I've impressed not just fellow Canadians with my Thai cooking abilities, but some Thai friends in Bangkok as well - who were admittedly skeptical that a farang could make a dish to please their palate. The best part, however, is that now armed with the skills I learned at Yui's school, and the complimentary Thai cookbook, I can remind myself of my culinary adventure and Thailand at large any time I wish with a simple trip to the kitchen.
To learn more about Yui's school and Thai cooking, check out www.alotofthai.com or e-mail email@example.com. And for a quick taste of Thai, try the following simple dish:
2 tbsp canola oil
1-2 chicken breasts - cubed
1/2 medium cooking onion - sliced
1 cup of vegetables (combo of red/yellow peppers, mushrooms, etc. - really whatever you fancy or have available) - sliced to 1" lengths*
1-2 chili (sun-dried or fresh) - finely chopped
1 clove garlic - finely chopped
1 tbsp sugar
1.5 tbsp fish sauce
1.5 tbsp light soy sauce
2 tbsp oyster sauce
_ cup chicken bouillon
_ cup scallions or green onion - chopped to 1" lengths*
1 handful cashews
* an important key to Thai cooking is the combination of flavours in each bite - so, prepare vegetables so as they'll fit comfortably on a spoon and don't fear modifying any quantities to suit your own, or your guests', tastes.
- Heat oil in wok or deep frying pan over medium heat. Add garlic and brown (do not burn!). Once lightly browned, add chili and chicken. Cook for about 2 min. and add onion, cook for 1 more minute.
- Combine sauce ingredients (sugar, fish sauce, soy sauce and oyster sauce) in small bowl
- Add vegetables and stir-fry for a couple minutes. Do not overcook, soggy veggies are gross.
- Add sauce and mix until all is well coated. Add chicken bouillon and scallions. Bring contents to a boil.
- Stir in cashews and remove from heat.
- Serve over jasmine rice.
Ryan McLaughlin can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.