Getting Our Aprons On

Above is a bowl of Tom Kaa Gai (chicken in coconut milk soup - left) and a bowl of Tom Yum Kung (hot and sour prawn soup - right). Where'd we find them? From a pile of raw fresh ingredients at our cooking class at Baan Thai just over a week ago.

Food has proven, as we sort of expected, to be one of the really interesting, exciting, challenging, fun, delicious, strange, and worthwhile sub-adventures during our travels these last months. We've only really featured it for a couple countries in our posts, but in all honesty, we probably could have done one for every place we've been - some just make themselves a little more memorable when it comes to writing about them. In that sense, Thailand has been an exceptional case. The flavors in Thai cooking were some of our favorites before leaving Boston and we've been looking forward to tasting it as authentically as possible since the day we left. We'd also heard and read about the myriad cooking schools around the country so that, too, was on our to-do list until we got to cross it off at Baan Thai under the tutelage of our ever cheerful instructor, Oun.

We started out with an informative (and entertaining and eye-opening) visit to the market with Oun patiently naming all of the unknown fruits and vegetables to our entirely western, ten person group. The seven hour class then worked like this: choose one item in each of six categories (stir-fry, appetizer, soup, curry, curry paste, and dessert) that we will then make and eat. They had warned us when registering not to eat breakfast before our half-credit, we only half-listened. Casey and I, naturally, split up our dishes so that between the two of us we came away with twelve dishes under our belts, both figuratively and literally. Our lists included: tofu pad thai, fried spring rolls, green papaya salad, green curry with chicken, fried cashew nut with chicken, the chiang mai specialty khao soi, deep fried-bananas, and one of my new all time favorite desserts, mango with sticky rice. Donning our mandatory aprons and flower print hair bandanas, we dug in.

It turns out that cooking Thai style isn't really all that different than cooking any other style (save for the profoundly adept wok handling we've witnessed). The real magic of the flavors and cooking here is in knowing the ingredients and, much like any other distinguishable cuisine, how they specifically work and interact with one another. Fish sauce, oyster sauce, crushed peanuts, Thai garlic (the small kind that goes in skin and all), Kaffir lime, galanga ginger, Thai basil, sugar, shrimp paste (which we've smelled wafting through the streets on multiple occasions), tamarind, and of course chili peppers. These are the things, fresh and local, that bring Thai food to life and lift rice noodles and broth to something unique, wonderful and delicious.

When we sat down for a light breakfast before the class started we were anticipating tasting plates of each dish. After working through the snack/fruit tasting plate they put in front of us and the first couple courses (stir fried noodle/rice dishes, appetizers, soups) we started to regret even eating dinner the night before. The beauty in really letting us cook each dish is that in doing, we learned. That said, eating six full courses of food by 3PM is not something I can recommend, no matter how good it is. In addition, the fact that we've both grown into fans of sticky rice didn't help matters, binding up our already full stomachs with its chewy, curry soaked goodness.

Fun fact number one: dry sticky rice is an opaque white but turns more translucent as it is cooked while jasmine and the other white rices operate in reverse, going from translucent to more opaque. Fun fact number two: sticky rice is only soaked and steamed - not boiled.

Before anyone goes asking us to whip up a Thai feast we'll have to do some practicing (as well as figuring out how to grow or acquire fresh Thai basil, mango, Kaffir limes, and galanga in a northern U.S. climate) but in a country where eating out is so commonplace that cooking options are slim to nil, it was a treat getting to make ourselves something delicious that we'll have at least a starter idea of how to recreate in the future.

Location:Chiang Mai, Thailand