The day I became a No. 1 chef
When you fall in love with Thai food, you want to learn to cook at least one dish authentically.
It did not take long for us to fall in love with Thailand. The ornate temples with spires reaching toward the sky, the rhythmic chanting of Buddhist monks, and the colorful street markets captured our hearts on Day 1. But our true love was Thai food.Skip to next paragraph
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My husband, Jeff, and I spent two weeks eating our way through Thailand, tasting everything from traditional dishes such as pad Thai and green curry to local favorites like fried grasshoppers and custard apples.
Seduced by the scents, we ate several meals a day, choosing skewers from street carts, curry at small, out-of-the-way restaurants, and multicourse meals in fine hotels.
During lunch at an open-air restaurant at Chatuchak, an outdoor market in the heart of Bangkok, we tried to pick out each ingredient in our Tom Ka in the hopes of replicating the sweet-and-sour soup at home. We tried to create a mental shopping list - shrimp, basil, coconut milk, and perhaps lemon grass - and finally decided we should spend an afternoon learning the right way to make Tom Ka (and other Thai specialties) at a cooking school.
Chiang Mai, a city in northern Thailand, is reputed to have some of the best cooking schools in the country. After our arrival, we began wandering through the narrow streets trying to find a class. We walked past dozens of cooking schools with signs that promised an authentic cooking experience. A quick peek in the windows revealed stainless-steel cooking stations piled high with state-of-the-art appliances, shiny knives, and measuring cups. These classrooms looked more like the set of an American television show than an authentic Thai kitchen.
On the way back to our guesthouse, we noticed a handwritten sign above the counter in a local restaurant: "Cooking classes 900 baht." The restaurant was tucked into a tiny alley with a dozen small tables covered in worn plastic tablecloths.
We pointed to the sign and asked about the classes. A few minutes later, a Thai woman came into the restaurant wearing an old floral housedress and flip-flops. She looked at us, pointed at the sign, and said, "You want to cook?"
We told her we did.
"Come, I show you school," she said.
We followed her as she walked out of the restaurant, across a tiny yard, and into a small cement structure. The large square room held a long table fashioned from plywood, a collection of mortars and pestles, cutting boards fashioned from tree trunks, two woks, and an ancient gas stove.
She introduced herself as Kanjana and told us that for 900 baht each (about $25), she would teach us to make five items from the restaurant menu.
We looked over the menu, chose our dishes - sticky rice with mango, glass noodle salad, green curry, Pad Ki Mow, and, of course, Tom Ka - and agreed to meet Kanjana at 8 the next morning.
When we arrived, she had set up two stations with knives, a mortar and pestle, a wok, and a collection of ingredients.
She began by explaining that she had modified the recipes slightly. "Tourists no like too spicy," she said. "For you, we use two chili pepper; Thai person use 10. We like spicy."
The five dishes contained variations of the same ingredients, each chopped into bite-size pieces and mixed in different ratios to create different flavors.