When I cook them at home, my green and red curries are indistinguishable, my Pad Thai tastes nothing like its takeaway counterpart and my papaya salad is just okay. But these are wrongs I aim to right in Chiang Mai, with the Asia Scenic Cooking Class.
Thailand’s cultural capital, Chiang Mai is laden with cooking classes, with some 30 schools for tourists peppered around the city. However, unlike many food schools in the area, Asia Scenic is family-owned and operated – that is, by sisters Gay and Moon. While Moon keeps the books, Gay is the face of the operation, a bubbly character that clearly has a love of food, and for sharing that passion. As well as being a very capable cook, Gay is also an art history graduate, and as such is learned on more than just what’s on a plate, which helps when it comes to sharing the origin of dishes, their stories, and Thai culture more broadly.
Although the school has a kitchen and small garden in Chiang Mai city, we’re heading to Asia Scenic’s main premises, located a short drive outside of the northern Thai town. On the way, we drop by the Talad Sod Mae market, where we learn about the main components to be used in this afternoon’s dishes, from fat and flat noodles to the herbs and spices like galangal and kaffir limes that make Thai dishes sing.
Shopping with Gay is like hitting the markets with a friend who not only knows how to cook, but also how to get the best stuff at the best price.
She tells us that sticky rice should be soaked overnight, and to pick the large red chilis for red curry as the tiny ones are too hot (small green chilis though are fine for a green curry). Mid-lecture, she sorts through bags of Tom Yum ingredients that cost just five baht (19 cents)!
When we arrive at the open-air school, which is set amidst lush forest, we're greeted with some refreshing, ice-cold lemongrass tea – and a promise that beyond the student/teacher relationship we forge today, more importantly, we’ll be cooking up a bond of friendship. They do say the way to someone’s heart is via their stomach…
First up, a quick tour of the school takes us through the property’s amazing edible gardens, which produce everything from ginger and turmeric to enormous squash and eggplant, lemongrass, rice and soybeans.
Upon returning to the kitchen, plates of vegetables, garlic, palm sugar, and oyster, fish and dark soy sauces await as well as the secret to many a Thai dish: tamarind juice. Next to them, the utensil Gay says Thai women are born with: the mortar and pestle.
In today’s half-day class (an abbreviated take on the full-day lesson), we’ll be preparing five ‘courses’, three from which we’ll have a choice of dish. Most of the dishes we prepare I recognize: Pad See Ew, hot basil stir fry (the local’s preference over a Pad Thai, Gay says), spring rolls and curry pastes, from which we make our red, green and Massaman curries.
But the local specialty in Chiang Mai is Khao Soi, a rich coconut curry noodle soup dish. Into our freshly made red curry paste, we add a homemade curry powder, and after heating up our woks on the gas stoves, we’re on our way to Khao Soi heaven. As the aroma of coconut milk, galangal, garlic and crushed chillis penetrates my nostrils, and that first bite alights my taste buds, I know I’ve succeeded with the dish (and certainly choice of tour).
For dessert, the popular selection is the deep fried banana, which is one of Thailand’s favourite street foods – and the fried banana we create turns out to be some of the best I’ve had. But simple ladyfinger bananas cooked in coconut milk, palm sugar and sprinkled with sesame seeds are equally good.
“We cook with emotion,” Gay says proudly. And its results clearly elicit emotions – mostly joy – in its visitors. Anyone with a taste for Thai food will love this tour. So I’d say that’s pretty much everyone.