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.

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.

We spent the next few hours preparing one meal at a time and setting it aside to be cooked later.

We pounded hot peppers, sweet basil, lemon grass, and shrimp paste into curry paste using the mortar and pestle. Then we chopped chicken for pad Thai and sliced mangoes for sticky rice.

Kanjana looked over our shoulders as we worked, adjusting the angle of our knives and telling us to chop the ingredients into smaller bits. "You do good job; you No. 1 chef," she said as we attempted to follow her lead.

Eventually we finished chopping, pounding, and mixing - and began cooking. Heating oil in the wok on the gas stove, Kanjana showed us how to cook our dishes. "You do fast, just get hot, and then stop," she instructed.

We did what she said, searing each dish for a few minutes until she told us, "Enough."

One by one, the sticky rice with mango, glass noodle salad, green curry, Pad Ki Mow, and Tom Ka were dished up in clay pots and placed on the table for us to eat. We moved from one dish to the next, taking small bites.

Kanjana left us to finish the food we had spent most of the day making. When she returned a few minutes later, she handed us a cookbook and said, "Now you make at home."

The next morning we left Chiang Mai and made our way to Ko Samet, an island in the Gulf of Thailand. On our first evening, we ate at a restaurant overlooking the water, where I ordered Tom Ka. Every spoonful was a perfect mix of lemon grass, coconut milk, chilies, and lime leaves.

But I knew Tom Ka would never taste as delicious as it did on the afternoon in Chiang Mai when I stood in Kanjana's kitchen and she called me her No. 1 chef.

Tom Ka

1 can (14 ounces) coconut milk
1-1/4 cups chicken broth
1 tablespoon fresh ginger, peeled and chopped
2 pieces lemon grass, 2 to 3 inches long
1 bunch lime leaves (about 3 to 4 leaves), torn into pieces [See note below]
1 pound chicken breasts, cut into bite-size pieces
3 tablespoons straw mushrooms (fresh or canned)
1/4 head cauliflower, or less, chopped into bite-size pieces
1 shallot, chopped
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 to 5 small Thai green hot peppers, to taste, crushed
3 tablespoons lime juice

Prepare lemon grass stalks by peeling off outer husks and placing on a cutting board. Bruise the stalks with the back of a heavy knife. Wrap stalks in a piece of cheesecloth and tie with white thread.

Stir together coconut milk and chicken broth in a medium saucepan and place over medium heat. Add ginger, lemon grass, and lime leaves, and cook for 2 minutes. Add chicken, mushrooms, and cauliflower, and bring to a boil. Cook for 10 minutes, until chicken is cooked.

Add shallot and fish sauce, and cook for 3 more minutes. Remove pan from heat. Stir in peppers and lime juice. Remove lemon grass and discard. Serve soup immediately.

Serves 3 to 4 as a main course soup or up to 6 as an appetizer. NOTE: Look for lime leaves in the fresh herb section of the produce department, or at Asian markets.

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