Northern Thai Cooking School
Spicy. Sour. Sweet. Salty. Bitter.
The five tenets of Thai food... and really any delicious meal.
As most of you know, I absolutely love everything about food. Making it, eating it, picking new restaurants, trying new flavor combinations. But I have to admit, no amount of delicious street food or scoping out dozens of markets can actually teach you how to cook a foreign cuisine. In this case, the barrier to entry isn't lack of skill, but lack on knowledge. I don't know what most of the food I see is until I ask- even the mangoes, which I've eaten enough of to practically become one myself, are smaller and yellow unlike the large tropical green of the fruit back home.
That's why I was absolutely elated to take a cooking class in Chiang Mai, an all-day affair where they take you around a local market, show you around their organic farm, and spend the rest of the day teaching you how to cook a variety of northern Thai dishes. There are many companies that will do a similar tour, but we were with Jay of Asia Scenic Cooking.
We drove about a half hour outside of the city to a small market not unlike the many other markets around Chiang Mai. Jay went from stall to stall showing us ingredients like ginseng, different kinds of ginger, kaffir lime, and bitter eggplant, and their uses in different dishes. For example, we learned which chilies are used in stir fries or curries versus soups and salads. It was like a veil had been lifted: I saw the market through new, knowledgeable eyes. Instead of seeing lumps of green, I saw Thai coriander and Thai kale. I'm far from recognizing everything in the market but I now know my way around and hopefully look a little less confounded by the multitude of ingredients.
Just a little ways up the road sat the farm. It's surrounded by beautiful outdoor cooking stations, hammocks, and both modern homes and relics from the old days of farming. The gardens themselves are beautifully groomed and provide an even deeper education as to where Thai food comes from. The sticky rice paddies, both flooded and dried out in the post-season slump, neighbor rows of chive, spring onion, turmeric, ginger, garlic, banana, and papaya. Orchid trees dot the landscape.
From the menu, I decided to make Tom Yum soup, papaya salad, Pad Thai noodles, Khao Soi curry, spring rolls, and mango with coconut sticky rice. A tall order- I certainly did not leave hungry!
Sparing you the step-by-step details of each dish, here are the basics we learned about cooking Thai food. Put in the most powerful flavors first- the lemongrass, the smashed chilies, garlic, ginger. Never skimp on the sugar and oyster sauce, and no dish is complete without salty and savory fish sauce.
My favorite dishes of the day were the Tom Yum soup and the papaya salad, both recipes I'll share below courtesy of the cooking school.
- 1-3 small chilies
- long bean, cut into 1-inch pieces
- 2 cloves garlic
- 1/4 tomato, sliced
- 1 tbsp roasted peanuts
- 2 cups shredded green papaya
- 1 tsp palm sugar
- 2 tbsp fish sauce
- 1/2 lime
- Muddle the chilies, long bean, and garlic together.
- Add tomato, palm sugar, and fish sauce. Squeeze in the lime, and toss it into the bowl. Mix together.
- Add shredded papaya and peanuts. Toss to combine and serve.
Tom Yum Koong Soup
- 2 cups water
- 1 stalk lemongrass
- 1 slice galangal (Thai ginger)
- 1 kaffir lime leaves
- 2-3 small chilies
- 1/4 tomato
- 2 oyster mushrooms
- 1/4 onion
- 3 prawns
- 1 tsp sugar
- 2 tsp fish sauce
- 1 tbsp lime juice
- 1 tsp chili jam- made for Tom Yum soups
- Chopped coriander and spring onion to garnish
- Smash lemongrass and chop in half. Tear lime leaves, smash chilies. Cut tomatoes, onion, and mushroom into bit-sized pieces.
- Heat water in a pot over high heat until boiling. Add lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, and chilies. Cook for 3 minutes.
- Add tomato, onion, and mushroom. Cook for 30 seconds.
- Lower heat and add sugar, fish sauce, lime juice, and chili jam.
- Add prawns and leave soup until prawns cook, about 2 minutes.
- Remove from heat and garnish with coriander and spring onion.