March 7, 2013
Because the guide books recommend Chiang Mai as the best place for a Thai cooking course, Christof registered us for one at the Thai Cooking Farm.At 8:30 a songtaew stops in front of our guesthouse and Suchin, our cooking teacher, hops out to introduce herself, spreading such good cheer and ridiculous jokes that she has us roaring with laughter before we even get into the truck in which four people are sitting: a young Swedish couple who just finished high school and plan to bum around Southeast Asia for the next 4 months, and a married French couple taking a brief respite from family life,(their two small children are at home in Bordeaux with their parents). At the next stop another Frenchman and a Russian woman living in Germany join us.
Suchin gives each person a list of possible meals to choice from. After deliberating and coordinating our choices with those of our partners, we return them to her so she can do the necessary shopping. We stop in front of the local market, a large open warehouse sheltered only by a corrugated roof and housing countless aisles of fruits, vegetables, meat, poultry, seafood and grain. One long aisle contains nothing but bins of rice: brown, black, yellow, saffron, white, colored and speckled. The dark rices, she explains, don’t last well in Thailand’s warm, humid climate and are far too expensive for everyday use. Thais, who eat rice a few times a day, favor jasmine and sticky rice. When something wet sprays my back I turn around to see an old woman clobbering a wet fish to death with a hammer.
The course takes place at an organic farm 17 kilometers outside of the Chang Mai. At the end of a long dirt road surrounded by dry dusty fields, a few simple buildings large enough to accommodate two cooking classes have been erected. Suchin takes us on a tour of the garden to harvest the additional ingredients necessary for the course and to introduce us to some unknown Thai foods: bitter eggplant, long beans, Thai ginseng, lemongrass, khaa, holy basil and many others. She laughs when red ants swarm all over our bare feet and legs because we didn’t watch our step.
After starting up two separate pots of rice – sticky and jasmine – we get to work on the soups, sitting down at the picnic table to sample them the minute they’re finished. We agree that although the broth is delicious, the pieces of vegetables and herbs floating around in it are too hard to be edible and could have benefited from cooking longer.
Each person makes about six different dishes, following the recipes printed out on individual pieces of paper and conveniently listing each step of the process. Suchin keeps tabs on our progress, making sure that the women in the back kitchen prepare and deliver the necessary ingredients to our work stations.
In Asian cuisine most of the work is the preparatory chopping of vegetables and proteins and the mixing of fresh curry pastes, which we make ourselves using a mortar and pestle to grind freshly harvested spices and herbs. The intoxicating fragrance rising from the mortar during the grinding process is overpowering and in no way comparable to the odorless dry mixes usually found in Western supermarkets. The meals, cooked in woks over the high flames of a gas cooker, are invariably finished in less than 5 minutes. We make vegetable, chicken, seafood and curry dishes and for dessert, the classical favorite: mango with sticky rice.
Suchin keeps us entertained while we cook, cutting up and raising her voice to a high falsetto every time she passes out a piece of ginseng,
– Good for your maa-an, a joke she repeats so often, prompting Christof to finally counter,
– And what is good for a womaa-an?
– Nothing aside from diamonds, she shoots back quickly, giving us a wink, right girls?
Because nobody, with the exception of the Frenchman, can finish all the dishes we’ve cooked, Suchin puts the left-overs in doggie bags and gives them to us, together with a cook book containing all the course recipes.
By the end of the class I can barely stay on my feet and have to lean up against the wall for support. At the guest house, ill and shaky, I hop into bed, happy to be able to just lie there and stare at the wall.