I had been planning to do some cooking classes in Chiang Mai since before we left England, but as time wore on and the more I researched it the less I became interested in doing one. As every school I looked at had exactly the same schedule. Day 1 - Goto market, buy ingredients, go back to school, cook same dishes as everyone else. Day 2 - Repeat as day one. Same same, days 3,4 and 5. Plus you are one of up to 25 plus in every class.
So after a while I gave up looking. Then oddly in Laos I heard of Baan Thai School, they had the basic classes as everyone else, but they also had an intensive class which they had from only 2 - 8 people. Plus the dishes were different from the others. Not just green curry and fish cakes.
So when we arrived in Chiang Mai, I popped along to the school. It's set in a family house, which gives it a nice feel to it. They had both good news and bad news for me. Yes the class could run the next day, the bad news was that it would be the only one that week, and I was going to be the only student. As the teacher was heading back home because of Buddha day. Just my luck. Hey ho, it was meant to be, but as I was here, why not. So I signed up for the following day.
I got to the school at 9.30am, and met my teacher for the day, Boon. She said as I was the only student I could choose 6 dishes from the weeks schedule. So after much deliberation I chose, a Chiang Mai Curry, Mussaman Curry, Chicken in Pandam Leaves, Pork Satay and Peanut Sauce, Spicy Seafood Soup and a Spicy Salmon Salad, but as the salmon needs to be brought from a supermarket not the local market, I opted instead for a plain old Papaya Salad. Always wanted to make one.
So with basket in hand, we wandered through the quiet back streets of the old part of Chiang Mai to the local market. As we passed a tree or a bush, Boon would tell me this is a ginger plant, or this is a kaffir lime tree. Amazing to think these things we sometimes have to hunt high and low back home for are growing in peoples back gardens.
The market itself was a pretty small affair, but there were already about 5 other schools there with at least 10 - 20 students each. I felt special just having a teacher to myself. Most of the vegetables they were selling I already knew as I cooked a bit of Thai and Asian food back in London. Only a few things came as a surprise, like the oversized bright green and knobbly cucumber. Which Boon said you can stuff with minced pork and spices and cook it in a soup. So we brought all the ingredients we needed, some chicken, some pork belly and fillet, some seafood like crab, prawns, cockles and squid. Gonna love that soup.
When we got back to the school I was put to work straight away, chopping ingredients to make the Chiang Mai curry paste and the Mussaman curry paste. Then came the hard work, no easy class this. I was plonked on a small elephant stool, heavy stone pestle and mortar in front of me, and ingredients in the bowl, pounding away whilst Boon added the different components bit by bit, until all were added. This pounding took about 15 minutes, but it is a great stress reliever. I used to enjoy making curry pastes back in London, as I used to release a lot of pent up anger pounding my stresses away. Worked wonders on my days off.
The interesting mix was for the Mussaman curry. I had to dry roast all the ingredients in batches, the dry spices together, then the fresh ingredients and finally the shrimp paste that wrapped in a banana leaf. I had never dry roasted fresh ingredients before. My mind was buzzing with how this would make the final curry taste like. Then more pounding came. Boy was I relaxed after this. I had to marinate the pork for the satay, pork belly for the Chiang Mai curry and the chicken for the mussaman and for the pandam leaves before she would let me start the salad. By this time I was I getting really hungry.
I had always wanted to make a Papaya salad, as I had seen it made countless times in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos from women in the street. So with clay mortar and a wooden pestle (I think it is that way around). I began to pound the chilli's, small shrimps, onions together. Just to break up not to pulverise to a paste. I did not opt for Thai style salad, as Boon popped 10 small chilli's in there. I popped 3 fresh ones, plus a dried chilli for effect. Then came the shredding of the green papaya and carrot. Thankfully Boon was not going to get me to shred these by my knife, as I had so often seen people doing this in the street. I used to wince thinking that they were going to cut off a finger or two in the process. Luckily for us, everyone now uses a simply hand held shredder, much like a peeler. I made easy work of the papaya and carrot. We added a handful of these, and with the pestle in one hand and a large spoon in the other came the difficult process of pounding and mixing in rhythm. It's not as easy as it looks or sounds. It's a knack that I imagine comes with time. But I think I did a pretty good job. Once thoroughly mixed and the papaya and carrot softened a little. It's time to taste and add last minute seasoning. I felt mine needed a bit more lemon and fish sauce. Then tossed once more to let it come together. Then popped it all on a dish and we sat down to eat. Mine was nice and sour but not to spicy. It could of done with maybe one or two more chilli's. Boon's on the other hand was certainly Thai style, as it had a powerful kick right away, the chilli just kept moving to the back of my throat, but the other ingredients mellowed the chilli hit and they all seemed to work together. They were both really nice but totally different. I preferred hers, as mine lacked that slap in the face I love so much. Sucka for punishment.
Next we cooked the spicy seafood soup. This started off the same as most soups in Thailand. It all needs like all soups is a good base. Ours had lemongrass, young ginger, galangal and some of the chiang mai curry paste and some chicken stock. We first added some clams, when they started to open we popped in the bashed crab claws. After a little while in went the prawns and sliced squid. In moments it was finished. Served as prettily as I could get it into a bowl. This we both tucked into pretty fast. The crab meat was the highlight. It was sweet and succulent. The soup also had a great sea taste to it. T'was a yummy dish.
Then came the messy job of threading the pork fillet onto a lot of small wooden skewers. Quite an easy task and made plain sailing of it. Boon had already turned on the electric grill. I suppose a charcoal grill would have been asking to much. They were put on the grill whilst we whipped together the peanut sauce. Heated some coconut milk until the oil separated then added some of the Chiang Mai curry paste I had left over. Gave that a quick stir, then added some ground peanuts, sugar and salt. Stirred for a few minutes, so it would not stick to the wok. During all this I was turning the pork skewers over and mopping them with a badly made banana leaf brush I made. Boon's was much better so I stole hers. Really good idea. We turned the sauce onto a plate so we could cover the pork skewers with the sauce. The pork was a little over done and a bit chewy, but the sauce was awesome. Never again will I use peanut butter to make a satay sauce.
We popped the Chiang Mai curry onto cook before we both took a well earned rest. As it contains pork belly it takes over an hour to cook, so the fat can become very tender. It's coked in the normal manner of any Thai curry. Covered and topped up with water or stock every once in a while so it would not dry out. I ventured outside, really quite shattered after a mornings hard cooking and eating.
After our break we began the cooking of the Mussaman curry. For this we had two woks on the go. One to cook the curry in and the other to fry off the chicken pieces to crisp up the skin. This I would have done in a shallow pan to render off any fat from the skin, but as in Thailand its easier to deep fry them. I had cooked Mussaman curry before and it always amazes me how this starts off as a white liquid and by the end it has transformed to this muddy brown colour. It looks amazing as the oil separates out, this for me only adds to it. It gives it a great look, that no photo can recapture.
Whilst they were cooking it came time to insert the chicken pieces into the pandam leaves. Boon made it look so easy, to fold it twice to make a small pocket, then fold and fold over on itself to create a small triangle. This I could not do, but practice makes perfect, as the last few were pretty good. These are deep fried. I didn't really like these as they were too greasy for me. I seem to have grown to dislike deep fat fried food. Really not liking this at all. No more fish n chips for me back home.
The last addition of seasoning to the Chiang Mai curry really brought it to life. The pickled garlic and tamarind really bursts through and adds that sour note you need with the fattiness of the pork. Really really good.
When it came time to eat everything. There was just me. I now saw why it made sense to do the classes for 2 people or more, as there was a mountain of food to eat. We had to bag some of the satay sticks and the curry for Lina, as there was enough to feed about 3 people.
In a way I was sad that I only got to do one day, but also happy that I enjoyed it so much, and I really want to do this as a job when we finish this trip. So looking forward to Colombia. So exciting. The freakiest thing of the day was that I had to cook and use knives in bare feet. It's a weird feeling, but by the end I got used to it. I can not imagine Gordon Ramsey allowing his chefs to work in bare feet. He should, it's liberating, but weird.
Baan Thai Cookery School