It was my first morning waking up in Chiang Mai, Thailand. I had arrived the previous morning by an overnight train from Bangkok, where I had spent the first couple days of my trip to explore and acclimate. Although I had time, I wanted to waste none, therefore jumping into one of the activities I had my heart set on for this trip. I wanted to experience Thai food. Eating it, learning it, and most importantly making it. I had heard about cooking classes in this region, and luckily there was one located nearby the guesthouse I had chosen to stay. In making arrangements the prior afternoon, I had been given two options: a half day course there in the city, or a full day that would take me into the country, cooking farm-side. There was no question that I wanted to experience all that I could, therefore choosing the latter.
With a relatively early start, I grabbed a coffee Americano, and made my way to the culinary school located in town. There, I met our instructor, Palm. He spoke good English, with a great sense of humor, and had been raised nearby. A few other students had arrived visiting from France, and after a few more as well, I was the only one not speaking French. We left for the morning market, picking up more students on the way. A few English-speaking Canadians & Europeans evened out the bunch. Arriving at the market, Palm gave us a few minutes to spend some baht (currency of Thailand) on some of the many distracting food stalls that were already open for business. Here, a meal is a meal. Most everything you can find at night, is also out early day. Gnawing on our skewers of grilled meats, Palm began schooling us on many of the herbs & produce we would be seeing throughout the day. Tasting, smelling, touching these things (some recognizable, many not) was the beginning of an experience I could, before, only imagine. A late night and a rough stomach took one student out immediately, but for the most part, we were all in it for the long haul. We toured the market, asked questions, sampled ingredients, then it was time to move on. Our train awaited, and so we made our way to the station by pick-up truck. Piled in, we continued meeting one another and realizing the good fortune of having such a fun, energetic group. We boarded our train, meeting many locals, and even sitting in a car with a bunch of children on their way to school. The kids were as entertained by us as we were by them. Once we arrived to our destination station, nearly 17 km out-of-town, they continued with their farewells long after we walked out of earshot.
We strolled for a while, before arriving at a large barn. Not knowing if this was our final stop, we walked in curiously to find that this place was loaded with bicycles. We followed instructions to find a bike, and meet out front. From there, we happily cruised through the countryside. Feeling like kids, ringing the bells, and waiving to the locals furthering their curiosity of who the heck we were, Palm pointed out some of the larger homes, and how much they costed. Once conversions were done, realizing two million THB was roughly $60,000 USD, these borderline mansions were even more desirable. The look on his poor face when he converted the amounts I informed him houses sold for here in California. Things were so simple here. Here, there was just something special.
We had arrived at our location for the day. A beautiful farm connected to an elevated house, hovering over numerous cooking stations. We gathered and made our way to the garden. Wasting no time, we had determined what each of us would be making, and listed the ingredients we would need to harvest. As a group, we wandered the land receiving descriptions and uses for each of the items we’d pass. I volunteered to dig for our ginger, taking what was needed & re-covering the root with dirt so that it would continue to grow. Then making my way over to pick green papayas, trim Thai basil, and pull up some cilantro, keeping the roots intact for the source of true coriander flavor. I learned the traditional way to cut papayas for Som Tum (papaya salad). Adding it into the mortar & pestles that are used for so many Thai staples. A great batch of Tom Kha Gai (coconut & chicken soup), red curry paste made from scratch then added to our curry dish, along with traditional Pad Thai (stir fried rice noodles) rounded out the rest of the day before we savagely picked apart some fried bananas & mango sticky rice. Palm’s questioning of my desire for spice led to some intense capsicum filled bites, making the temperature and humidity outside seem a bit more even. To this day, I think my tolerance for spice has remained borderline entertaining. All in all, it was one of the most memorable days in both my culinary & travel experiences. We finished up our feast and reversed our tracks making our way back into Chiang Mai. Mixing the heat, the long day, and a desire for relaxation, we all parted ways to our guesthouses. But, rest was short-lived.. I mean, it was almost time to start the next hunt for the next snack. It’s Thailand.. One never really stops snacking. And there are enough street food vendors to make sure of this.
Eventually, I would cross paths with friends from the States, and we would venture up to a small town called Pai, three hours and 762 curves away. Which, with its street market and fresh selection of food, was so memorable on its own. But, remembering Chiang Mai, and learning the authenticity of Thai cooking among the natives, is something this chef will never forget.