CHIANG MAI, Thailand – It’s only the first hour of class, and already Rungphit Saisombat is taunting us. “Here, come and taste my curry. I am still the best,” she says, almost straight-faced. But the corners of her mouth and her impish, flashing eyes let students know that she’s not entirely serious about showing us who’s boss.
One by one, we meekly approach her wok with our spoons and take a dip. Of course, her curry is better: I’ve been cooking Thai dishes like tom kha gai since only about 5 o’clock.
At 30, “Roong,” our playful teacher at the Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School, has years of experience. For a native Thai like her, the tantalizing colours and odours of ingredients like chilli peppers, curry paste, and coconut milk, and the sizzling sounds they make as they alchemize in a fiery pan, are second nature. To us, they’re as exotic as an elephant ride through a rice paddy at sunrise.
“Don’t forget to smiling,” Roong reminds us. “If you not smiling, it’s not delicious!” Immediately after we had arrived in Chiang Mai, my wife, Isabelle, and I had fallen in love with the inexpensive, inescapable local cuisine – and not only the fancier food from restaurants, but also the informal noodle shops with plastic tables spilling onto the sidewalk, and the endless snacks sold from carts and mobile stands on every street corner.
Chiang Mai, population 250,000 about 90 miles from the Burmese border, is known as the runner-up city for Thai cuisine, with the added benefit of being easier to negotiate than the sprawling and frenzied Bangkok. With few high-rises, this northern crossroads maintains a small-town feel and has rapidly become a popular hub for more adventuresome tourists shunning the crowded southern beaches. But after a few days of wandering the city’s Ping River banks, gawking at orange-clad monks and only half understanding what we saw inside the warren of alleyways, gates, canals, and thronging market streets of this 13th-century walled city, we felt too much like observers and not enough like participants in our vacation home.
On principle, my travel philosophy is to cultivate curiosity through knowledge and involvement. I don’t feel proud when the extent of my interaction with a destination includes purchasing ceramic knickknacks and snapping photos on a first class breeze-through of A-list sites, leaving the locals behind in a cloud of dust. So, instead of taking a luxury air-conditioned tourist bus out of Chiang Mai into the mountain valley towns of Mae Hong Son and Pai, where hiking and mountain biking trails lead to hill tribe villages and rivers ideal for rafting, we tried the rickety local transportation swirling up and up, and were greatly rewarded. Like, for instance, that sleepy pit-stop village at the road’s zenith that sold incredible steamed dumplings stuffed with chicken and mushrooms or peanuts and taro root.
In between exploring the countryside, Westerners often hole up in Chiang Mai to take yoga, massage, and cooking classes. How better to understand the soul of Thailand than through its cuisine? With a lifelong love of food, but no professional training as cooks, we were signed on as students of a master chef. Established in 1993 by Sompon and Elizabeth Nabnian, the Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School was the city’s first. Classes are held on the back terrace of The Wok restaurant; the couple opened the school at the urging of their satisfied customers.
The oddity is that the evening we tie on our aprons and stand behind our individual cooking stations we discover four of our eight classmates are gourmands from Paris. One, Francoise Meunier, is a food lover well known for giving French cuisine classes to tourists. There are no other Americans. So here we are, 12 “farang” (Thai for “foreigners”) bent over our gas cookers, mortars-and-pestles, and chopping blocks, speaking French with one another, and English with Roong. None of us knows any Thai beyond “ hello,” “ how much?” “ thank you,” and a particularly useful phrase to show your pleasure after eating well: “ aroi maak maak” (very delicious). Another necessary expression is “mai pet,” which means not spicy, though a Thai’s interpretation of “not” may still make you swelter.
“If you like really mild,” Roong says, “ask for ‘farang spicy.””
‘Small but dangerous’
Our course includes a tour of the Sompet Market, not far from the cooking school on the east side of the old city. We take a “songthaew” (one of the red pickup trucks that serve as communal taxis) and pile out like Western produce arriving at the market. Here we are introduced to the building blocks of Thai cooking: lemongrass, coriander, kaffir lime and leaf, garlic (two varieties), basil (three), palm sugar, fermented fish and shrimp pastes, and galangal (Siamese ginger).
“Kaffir lime, for soups,” Roong begins, then delivers the punchline, “or for making dandruff shampoo!”
Roong leads us to her favourite vendors, such as the workshop that smashes and grinds whole coconuts to make cream and lower-grade coconut milk. As we wander from stall to stall in the dim, creaky, and low-ceilinged interior teeming with noises, strange cargo, and unidentifiable fishy smells, I imagine I’m a stowaway inside a ramshackle ship on a trading mission to a distant land.
How do we know if a snake-headed fish is fresh, Roong asks us, as the class crowds around the fishmonger and his trays of scaly flesh, severed heads, and whole fish still alive and swirling. “Push a finger into the filet. If it springs back, it’s good,” she pronounces.
We learn to differentiate jasmine rice from sticky rice, purple basil from sweet basil, and Thai from Burmese garlic. Roong shows us jars of pickled whole crab, stacks of dried fish, piles of mushrooms, bags of dried spices, vats of tofu, bottles of fish sauce. Made from roasted dried spices and fresh ingredients, red, green, and yellow curry pastes have been pulverized and cured in hot oil to preserve them. We role-play “shopper-merchant” and touch, taste, rip, and pinch the various elements of the six dishes on tonight’s syllabus.
“We call this one ‘burn eye chilli,”” Roong says, holding up a little red pepper. “Small but dangerous.” We wait for the punchline. “Like me.” ‘More for good luck!’
Chiang Mai is the old capital of the Lanna empire – “the land of a million rice fields” – a region whose architecture, art, dress, dialect, and cooking is more closely allied with Burma and the mountain hill tribes than with the rest of Thailand. But much of what we cook are classic Thai curries, soups, and stir-fries. These are meals that do not simmer all day over low heat. They are made to order and flash-fried in woks in 15 minutes, making them ideally suited for the kitchen classroom.
We’re back at the cooking HQ, armed with our knives and struggling to follow Roong’s preparation of red curry with fish (gaeng phed plaa), which involves our friend from the market, old snake-head. We look over our bowls of vegetables, meats, and spices, and try to individually replicate the process as she circulates, offering advice on the fly.
“Okay, just one chilli. Leave out seeds for less spicy,” Roong instructs one student. “Just a pinch – Thai pinch. Farang pinch salty!” She peers over at Isabelle’s simmering broth. “OK, it’s ready. Take it off.”
Roong isn’t a stickler for precise measurements, which seems subversive to students like me who treat cookbooks like holy texts. She dumps some coconut cream into one of her concoctions, exclaims “and a little more for good luck!” and adds a second blob. For Roong, as for most Thais, the concept of sanuk, or “fun,” is paramount, and should infiltrate every activity.
“If you not sure how hot oil, put in finger,” Roong jokes. But I’m gullible enough that I begin moving my hand toward my wok before Isabelle slaps it away. When the last student has slid the final chicken in coconut milk (tom kha gai) out of the wok into a bowl, the group dines together. Roong brings out our steamed banana cakes (khanom kluay) plus trays of Asian fruits to try, including a sliced durian, spiky like a hedgehog on the outside, smelly butter-almond flesh within, and several red and hairy rambutans, which would be as at home on a coral reef as on a fruit tree.
“Yellow inside, good for eating. White inside, good for salad som tam,” Roong says, pointing at a sliced papaya. “Peel your banana in four peels. If you peel three, you’re a monkey.”
At meal’s end, it’s 9 o’clock. We take the obligatory group photo, some students exchange e-mail addresses, and Roong hands out copies of the school’s cookbook, detailing every recipe should we dare try this at home.
Having learned more about local flavours and tried our hands behind the wok, we feel better equipped to sample what had tempted us in our early exploring around Chiang Mai. It’s not hard to get hungry: We soon learn that an afternoon of haggling with songthaew drivers and visiting “wats” (Buddhist temple complexes) can work up an appetite. But like in a lot of far-flung destinations, in Chiang Mai it’s easy to see the segregation between the farang and local hangouts. Inauthentic dining experiences abound, especially at places with menus in English, Japanese, German, and French that cater specifically to tourists. Fortunately, most of what you see for sale on the street, where the average Thai eats, is perfectly safe for Western stomachs. Whether you’d want to pop some of these snacks in your mouth for a late-afternoon pick-me-up is another issue.
THE CHEAPEST WAY TO GET TO THAILAND:
Keflavík to London: 2,500-7,200 ISK.
11,000 to 15,000 ISK roundtrip.
London to Chiang Mai:
$1500 through British Airways.
London to Bangkok: $600 through Aeroflot to $728 through Alitalia.