Before our trip to Thailand, I had no idea what galangal was, what to do with the lemongrass that I have been growing in my garden for years or what the difference was between Thai Basil and Holy Basil (nor did I know the wonder of life that is fresh coconut milk).
We loaded into the back of a songthaew and went out of Chiang Mai into the beautiful countryside of Northern Thailand. A quick stop in a local market for some fresh coconut milk and some other essential Thai sauces and ingredients and we were on our way!
We drove past rice fields, past farms and houses, and onto a dirt road. The farm came into view, looking like a peaceful haven, a world away from the city of Chiang Mai where we had just come from.
We had been transported to the magical land of the Chiang Mai Thai Farm Cooking School, where we discovered the amazing wonder of fresh galangal (a root that is somewhat like ginger and very distinctive) and of fresh tumeric and we were able to pick fresh keffir limes right from the trees.
Our teacher gave us a tour of the garden where many of the unique Thai herbs and spices that we would be using in our cooking would be coming from, then she herded us into the open air kitchen to start cooking. We each got to choose our own dishes, and it was amazing to me to see how many Thai dishes can be made from roughly the same formula with minor changes made to it, making Thai cooking relatively easy to learn.
Our first cooking lesson was about the proper way to cook rice. I learned how to properly make sticky rice and jasmine rice, and about the roles that each type of rice play in the daily lives of Thai families (jasmine rice is for every day an sticky rice is only for special occasions and they are very rarely both eaten during the same meal)
While the cooking was wonderful and super simple to learn, the eating was heaven on earth. Jasmine and stick rice, chicken with basil, pad thai, spring rolls, mango and sticky rice…all I can say is “yum” (and that I am salivating now).
Our cooking class cleared up a couple long held misconceptions about Thai cuisine…first that curry is always REALLY spicy. We customized our curry paste to our taste for spiciness and mine was definitely warm but tolerable and delicious.
The other misconception that I had was about coconut milk. I generally have thought that I hate coconut. In the past, though, my only reference for coconut was coconut flavored drinks and those dried coconut flakes that are usually put on all of the wrong things. Real coconut is nothing like that, and I discovered first that I love it and second that it can be used for a variety of cooking purposes.
Of course we had been eating Thai food during our trip, but our cooking experience was what really brought the cuisine of this amazingly diverse country alive to me, infusing its spicy essence deep into my soul like when you get the oil from your chili peppers onto your hands and just can’t quite get it to wash off. I’m stuck on Thai food and can’t wait to get my next fix!