Learn to Cook Thai Food — in Thailand!

For decades, Chiang Mai was known as the quiet northern cousin to Thailand’s roaring southern capitol, Bangkok. It was the “backdoor” gateway to Thailand. Backpackers settled in to restock, revamp and relax in one of the tiny guesthouse nestled between the city’s protective walls and moats. Students of Buddhism came to meditate in one of the three hundred temples. Christian missionaries ministered to the poor hill tribes growing poppies in the surrounding mountains, back before the plantations were turned into exotic plant nurseries.

While this northern capitol still retains a reputation for tradition and culture, Chiang Mai has evolved into a cosmopolitan city – complete with hoards of tourists. Like Bangkok, Chiang Mai is bursting with opportunities for the eager traveler. Nearly every building faÃ?§ade boasts trekking excursions, cooking classes, yoga and meditation seminars, Muy Thai boxing matches and elephant rides.

However, Chiang Mai possesses a charm that Bangkok lacks. Size is one factor. You could walk the city’s walls in an hour, making it easier to explore without getting lost and overwhelmed. The view is another. Beyond the city gates lie a border of green-carpeted mountains capped by sky that is by turns sizzling blue in the tropical sunshine or thick with charcoal rain clouds. And hidden amongst the tourist traps, Chiang Mai is full of gems that afford travelers the chance to learn, interact and evenâÂ?¦ have fun!

Thai Cooking School
On a second visit to Chiang Mai, I swallowed my reluctance to do the “tourist thing” and signed up for a five-day cooking class at the Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School. Web junkie that I am, I discovered the school via Internet and compared it with a number of others before booking.

Reportedly the first of its kind, the Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School has been in business eleven years and offers classes at two facilities – The Wok restaurant, in the heart of the city, or the home of Elizabeth and Sompon, the school’s owners and founders. Students who choose the home facility are picked up at The Wok in a private van.

I elected to stay at The Wok, which was easy walking distance from the White House, the laidback guesthouse where my partner, Paul, and I were staying. Knowing that we would be in Chiang Mai more than five days, I negotiated a 10 percent price discount with the guesthouse proprietor and paid cash up front. Our total for six nights with hot water and a private bathroom was 1620 baht (about $40).

Once we arrived in Chiang Mai, I called to confirm the online booking I had made a few weeks earlier. At the main office near the city’s western gate, I checked in and paid up for all five classes, a total of 4200 baht (about $105). The price included a full-color cookbook, a guided market tour, and six courses worth of food that students would cook and each day – assuming our efforts were edible. Individual classes are 900 baht ($22.50), so there is a small discount for taking all five.
Since I consider myself a pretty decent cook, Paul signed up for two classes to see how amateur-friendly the courses were. His greatest culinary accomplishment had previously been baked chicken breasts marinated in beer (not bad, actually) but by the end of day one, his Panang Curry outshone my own – proof that skill had nothing to do with success, or so I kept telling myself. Our classmates were a dozen other travelers from around the world, and the greatest talent for Thai cooking that any of us possessed was enthusiasm.

Our Thai instructors, Gahn and Roong, were friendly, fluent in English and so skilled that, throughout the demonstrations, they kept up a running commentary peppered by jokes and suggestions for substituting ingredients and avoiding mistakes in cooking and love.

Some of their suggestions were as follows:
Only stir in one direction, or the soup will get confused and not taste good.
Always smile when you cook, but never sing – you will end up with an old spouse.
The best thing about garlic is when you smash it. You can imagine that it is the face of someone you hate.
Wash your hands directly after chopping chili peppers, and before you go to the bathroom – if you get chili juice on your special places, no one can help you.

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