Mastering the Art of Thai Cooking

One of the reasons I wanted to go to Thailand was that I’ve always been enchanted by the food. Thai food is a delicate blend of tangy coconut milk, sweet palm sugar, sharp kaffir lime leaves, gently cooked fresh vegetables, and the hot ‘pow’ of chili pepper. The right chicken satay or spicy green curry will change your life. Needless to say, I found it perfectly appropriate to plan a vacation based on what I’d like to eat most; so, our trip to Thailand was born. (Psssst – that means another trip to the deep South is next. You didn’t think I’d lose all this weight and then not gain it back, right?! Kidding… kidding!)

Pad See Ew - Wide noodles with egg, chicken, carrots, chinese Kale, broccoli and chili.

Pad See Ew – Wide noodles with egg, chicken, carrots, chinese Kale, broccoli and chili.

I knew that I absolutely had to take a cooking class while in Thailand, and even contemplated a thai cooking retreat, where I’d spend three or four days studying under a master chef. (Yes, my fantasy of being on Iron Chef might have something to do with this.) We decided a one day course was much more reasonable, and ended up with Ann at Asia Scenic Cooking School in Chiang Mai, Thailand. We opted to do the Organic Farm tour for several reasons – I love knowing where my food comes from, I’m a big nerd for gardening, and I was totally down to gorge myself on tasty thai while relaxing around a beautiful farm.

Vegetables in a Thai market

Vegetables in a Thai market

We started out with a trip to a local market, where Ann showed us common Thai ingredients and how to choose the right amount, type and texture. I loved seeing the rows and rows of vegetables stacked high and the giant bins of rice, from kinds marked “broken” that the Thai feed their pets, to expensive and exotic black grain rice. One of my favorite details was seeing a wild dog sneak up on the meat vendor and try to grab a piece of tripe off the table. The vendor responded (with experience, I’m sure) by flinging a handful of ice cubes at the dog’s back. It wasn’t cruel, but more of one of those, “Oh, just another day at the market” type things that gave me a laugh.

A running jewess and a double chin walk into a bar...

A running jewess and a double chin walk into a bar…

While we listened to Ann talk about Galangal, the Thai pink ginger, I felt a tap on my shoulder. Assuming it was my husband, I swiveled around into a familiar face. “I love your blog!” she said. My mouth dropped open. What? Blog? Thailand? Huh? A stream of discombobulated thoughts ran through my head and then I put it together – it was Michelle from the Running Jewess, whom I had met at Fitbloggin’ several months earlier! The world is truly a small, small place. When Matt and I backpacked Europe straight out of high school, we ran into two of our friends at Stonehenge, and then again at the Louvre. The fact that I ran into Michelle at a tiny, local market in some random part of Thailand blows my mind. We met up later for dinner and drinks and had a grand time discussing the great idiosyncracies of Thai culture.

Thai Long Gourd

Thai Long Gourd

After the market, we headed to the farm where we learned about which plants grow well in Thailand and how to harvest them. One of my favorites was the thai long gourd, which is almost like a type of cucumber. Can you imagine growing these suckers? I think I’d make the neighborhood kids play baseball with them!

After the farm tour, it was time to cook! We suited up on our stylin’ pink aprons and got to work. I chose to make spring rolls, tom ka gha (coconut soup), green curry, pad see ew, and banana in coconut milk. Coconut soup has always been my unicorn of thai cooking – something mystical and mysterious. But, I think I can safely say I’ve mastered it, and the secret is something some Americans might not like – fish sauce. That’s right – stinky, salty fish sauce – essentially anchovy juice. YUM! But hey – it tastes delicious.

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It was fun deep frying the spring rolls because anytime you mix Americans and explosives, things get wild. As the pans bubbled with oil, you could hear the hoots around the table as we all watched our spring rolls bloom from bloated burritos to crispy, golden rolls of goodness. They were actually really simple to make, once you get the hang of folding them. (Think envelope, not burrito!)

We rocked the spring roll frying.

We rocked the spring roll frying.

The item that I had the most difficulty making was green curry. Green curry is the spiciest of all thai curries, because it uses fresh and not dried chilies. We made our own curry paste by pounding chili, coriander, pepper, turmeric and galangal in a mortar and pestle. You have to really pound the pestle up and down to get everything smooth – it’s quite a bit of energy. Our funny teacher Ann asked the class why a thai wife who can make curry paste well is a good wife. Can you figure out why? (Not surprisingly, I was the first person to blurt out the answer. Aren’t you proud, Mom?) Not only was the chili paste a pain to make, but getting the ratio of coconut milk to fish sauce was tough, as there’s no “exact” measurement for either. It all relies on taste, and as someone who prefers my fish red and gummy, I was scared to go all trout-y on my curry. I proceeded with caution and was rewarded with a “delicious!” by the teacher, who then winked and said I was a “good Thai wife.” (PS – The Thai say, “more spicy, more sexy.” So if you want to learn to be a good Thai wife too, just eat some curry.)

Pounding chilies. Image borrowed from eHow.com.

We sampled our meals as we went, and by the time we deep fried our spring rolls, my belly was protesting. We saved the last three courses for the grand feast and eventually sat down with curry, coconut soup and dessert. I wasn’t crazy about the dessert I made, stewed bananas in coconut milk, but Matt rocked my world with homemade mango sticky rice. It was delicccccious. This was one of my favorite days in Thailand, because it combined tons of things I love – food, cooking, gardening, nature, shopping, my husband and lots of chatting. We met people from Britain, Switzerland, Italy and Australia, and by the time we got to the “good wife” jokes, everyone was feeling relaxed and in vacay bliss.

A happy and full Asia Scenic cooking class

A happy and full Asia Scenic cooking class

Now! It wouldn’t be fair to share this experience without sharing it with some of you. I came armed from Thailand with an Asia Scenic cook book, so I’m going to share one of the recipes with you. Please vote for which recipe you’d like to learn, and I’ll re-create it on the blog next week, even with substitution ingredients if you can’t find certain things in your local market. Have an amazing weekend – and let’s get cookin’!

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10 thoughts on “Mastering the Art of Thai Cooking

  1. Sounds like it was such a fun day full of yumminess! I tried cooking with fish sauce twice, I think I used too much. It was just overwhelming. I use soy sauce instead in recipes that call for it.

  2. More spicy, more sexxxxxxy! hehehehe. I’m going to tell that to Matt when I see him later.

    Can’t wait to try your food this weekend!

  3. My issue with Thai cooking is that the ingredients are not easy to find in L.A. You basically have to drive to Thai Town in East Hollywood and just hope you know how to spot what you’re looking for. Any tips on this would be appreciated!

  4. What a fun day! I am so glad that you have this day to remember. And how cool that you ran into The Running Jewess there. I can’t wait to see how the votes turn out. (I’m hoping for green curry, but mango sticky rice sounds good, too).

  5. Pingback: Of scorpions and tigers « The Running Jewess

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