Chiang Mai is known for its terrific cooking schools, so we signed up for a class at the shiny, cheerful Baan Thai Cookery School. It was a sensory experience from start to finish.
At the local market, we held and sniffed lemon grass and different varieties of limes, basil, ginger and other herbs and spices, and learned that the smaller varieties of garlic and chilies pack a bigger punch than the larger ones (with the teensy ‘Mouse Poop Chili’ – พริกขี้หนู – being the hottest). We also learned that soy and mushroom sauce make fine vegetarian substitutes for fish and oyster sauce.
We were given some time to explore the market on our own. I happily bought some lychees and tiny bananas, while poor Elise kept staring at the ground after almost having stepped on a cockroach.
We saw lots of durian for sale. In Kuala Lumpur, I had a tiny nibble of durian ice cream and was shocked at how bad it tasted. It has such a strong, putrid odor that it’s banned in many hotels and public places. It’s a riot to see a row of signs with a red X through cigarettes, weapons…and a fruit.
The course offered a choice of different appetizers, stir-fries, soups, and curries, Elise decided to go for classic Thai dishes: spring rolls, Pad Thai, Tom Yam soup, and green curry, while I chose papaya salad, cashew stir-fry, coconut milk soup, and Koa Soi, a spicy noodle curry.
And at every turn we were treated to a new heavenly scent – the fresh zest of a cut lime, the commingling of spices in a hot wok, the tanginess of a crushed garlic/chili/sugar/lime dressing. Even the implements – thick, round, wooden cutting boards and tall, clay mortars and wooden pestles – were satisfying to the senses.
It was also a feast for the eyes, from the colorful raw ingredients arranged on platters and glistening curry paste in tiny bowls, to the bubbling bright red or milky green curries on the stove top, to the finished dishes sprinkled with crispy noodles or nuts and garnished with cilantro.
We got to eat each dish as soon as we finished preparing it. My favorite ended up being the coconut milk soup, and Elise’s were the spring rolls and green curry soup. Some variation of these dishes will likely end up in the travel cookbook we plan to create!
Afterwards, we tackled some math homework and then went for what we’d hoped would be a leisurely swim, but monsoon rains appeared out of nowhere and drove us back indoors. It wasn’t quite the perfect ending to a perfect day that I’d hoped for, but the soothing sound of the rain pounding all surfaces was a fine consolation prize.