Is There Ever Too Much of a Good Thing?

Trip Start Dec 31, 2004
Trip End Apr 22, 2005

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Tuesday, February 8, 2005

It's been 39 days since I've enjoyed a western meal save the occasional pastry here and there. Once I had some fake Oreos in Lao and several Scandinavian and French desserts from the local bakeries. In Phnom Penh I knoshed on baguettes for breakfast and brownies in Siem Reap and in Bangkok I ate something they called a cake but that's not what I called it. As far as savory dishes I've had zero desire for anything occidental and have gorged myself on some of the best Lao, Khmer and Thai food I've ever had in my life.

I have yet to encounter a Southeast Asian cuisine that I didn't love. I vividly remember my first taste of Vietnamese food on Peachtree Road in Atlanta. In Chicago I had my first taste of Thai food at a place called Bangkok on Halstead. It wasn't until I was in Cambodia and Lao that I tried their respective cuisines and I was duly impressed, as well. When I heard about Thai cooking classes being offered here in Chiang Mai I signed up right away.

The travel agent that booked the class for me said to come with an empty stomach and that we'd be eating all day long. She was not kidding. The van came to pick me up an hour late at 10:00 but she had a good excuse. "I'm so sorry" she explained, "I was sleeping". Well, my Lord how could you possibly be upset with an excuse like that?

When we arrived I waved at Daniel from the elephant trekking tour yesterday who was in the other classroom. Later I saw him at the market and I told him that his class looked stupid -- he hit me with a basket. It's amazing how one will constantly run into the same people over and over and there's something very reassuring about that.

Our instructor told us her name and then told us to call her by her nickname, Boom (Dimples in Thai). I was reluctant to call a human being "Boom" but she was delightful and I consented. After a brief and charming introductory speech Boom passed out wicker baskets for each of us and took us to the market to buy our ingredients. After she showed us several vegetables and spices that I'd never seen or heard of before she let us roam around and discover the market on our own. Mangosteens, Thai apples that looked like plum tomatoes, and a Thai ginger called Galangal were just some of the exotic offerings we sampled. My new favourite fruit by the way is the mangosteen that has pods of fleshy white creamy citrus fruit inside. Nothing disappointed and everything was interesting at least to try.

We learned about different rices and how to cook them and the basic four elements that are present in every Thai dish: sweet, salty, sour and spicy. It was all very informative and then we got to taste snacks like a rolled bettlenut leaf filled with hot chilies, ground cashews, lime pith and herbs that was dipped in peanut sauce. It was amazing how all the elements hit the palette in succession. It was as simple as it was complex and very easy to make.

We made five main dishes. I ate every bite. I burnt my garlic on the first one because my flame would not set to 7:00 and seemed to prefer somewhere more around 11:30. No worries because even when I started over without it my Cashew Chicken dish was my favourite of the day. Then again it was also my first and I was hungry. By the time our fifth dish rolled around at 4ish I was about ready to pass out from exhaustion and gluttony.

One of the main things that I learned was that fish sauce is in everything and so is sugar. Everything. The oddest aspect is that once you know that they're there you can taste them slightly. It's a bit like peeling back layers and seeing what's underneath and though I knew it was delicious I can now taste the various ingredients separately as well as the whole flavor.

Later we were divided into two groups to make out own red curry paste. There was a huge mortar and pestle and one person had to smash things up and the other four had to cut the spices and chilies. I smashed them up. I didn't realize that I'd signed up for the hardest and lengthiest of tasks but by God I thought this was a competition and I was up for it. When I was done I put our team's beautiful paste in a bowl and sculpted it into a ball and then carved it in a swirl to look like a peony and then placed a chive across it and presented it to the instructor. She loved my presentation and said so but it wasn't a competition and I was crestfallen. Had there been one however I'd have been the victor I assure you.

We made Chicken with Coconut Milk Soup and ate that with our Spicy Glass Noodle Chicken Salad. Again all the elements were there; the squeezed lime, the chilies, the sugar the fish sauce. Then we made Fried Fish Cakes with our mild red curry paste I'd done such a damn fine job on mind you. Our last dish was a Red Thai Curry with Chicken that I think needed more chilies but was delicious nonetheless. Green Thai Curry with Chicken has become my new favourite Thai dish by the way because it's spicier than the red curry.

One of the most important things I think I took away from the course is that there's no need to be afraid to cook Asian food. I now have the confidence to at least attempt simple Thai dishes and with the recipe book we got with the course I can't loose. Another important thing I learned is that buying your Thai chili paste from the supermarket is not such a bad idea. It is certainly a hell of a lot easier and I think just as good if not better than wasting 30 minutes of your life on the floor beating the crap out of herbs with a fifty pound stone mortal and pestle. Trust me, some things made from scratch are just not worth it. That said however I'm glad to know what all goes into making it and now I can buy my own and doctor it up.

We all rolled out of our charming little cooking school around 4:30 and I swear looking at people eating in restaurants on the way back home was making me sick. I seriously cannot remember the last time I ate so much food in one day at such a steady relentless pace. It would have been disgusting were it not that I was tasting the fruits of my labour. It was the equivalent more or less of two Thai Thanksgivings without the break.

I got back to my hotel, showered, changed and headed out to walk off the roughly 30 pounds of food that I'd consumed. I was strolling down to the night market to find a place to have a cocktail and finally write my first batch of postcards when my night took a spin in another direction.

Just as I'd spun around to head back to another street I heard a familiar voice a few paces away, "Hey I know you!" It was Chris the American ex-pat whom I met at my hotel in the Pham Ngu Lao section of Saigon last year. Chris and I had gone out and had an amazingly swanky dinner at one of the best restaurants in Saigon then and several nights thereafter we knocked back copious gin and tonics at my favourite watering hole, The Allez Boo.

We found a bar and had a couple of cocktails and rehashed how much we loved Saigon and how amazing it was that we had run into each other again. He asked if I had plans tomorrow night and I told him I hadn't any so we decided to hook up for dinner.

"Great, how about Italian? I know a great restaurant by my apartment. Is 8:00 good for you?"


NOTE: If you're interested in taking cooking classes at Baan Thai you can check out their website at It was a very enjoyable way to spend a day. Also in 3 to 4 weeks they'll be posting photos of our group on their website so remember the day this entry is dated and check it out if you like.
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