It’s really hard to find bad Thai food. Our first meal in Thailand was on the train. We weren’t expecting much, to be honest. But I once read (in Barbara Kingsolver’s book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle) that wherever you go in Italy, if that establishment serves food, the food is the point. Train food, airplane food, museum food- in America they’re all pretty inedible. The Thais, on the other hand, are much more like the Italians. They don’t abide bad food. My meal of green curry chicken and Bob’s meal of red curry with duck were not just edible, they were very good. Wherever we went, we found really good food.
Actually, one of my main reasons for wanting to go to Thailand was to eat the food, and also to learn how to cook it myself. I spent four days in Chiang Mai under the tutelage of Vannee and Meo at Classic Home Cooking School. This school was fantastic. Rather than pre-selecting the menu for her students, Vannee lets everyone choose individually what they would like to make. Her list of dishes to choose from was quite long (more than 50!) and since I was coming for more than one day, she allowed me to choose dishes that were not on the list.
Every day before class started, we took a trip to a local market near Vannee’s home. She shops there every morning, buying ingredients for her class as well as her own groceries. In class, we pounded our own curry paste every day (using mortar and pestle,) but for the lazy, you can buy curry paste at the market:
You can also pick up some coconut cream or milk. One of my classmates referred to this as the “coconut cow.” The vendor cuts off the brown shell and grinds up the coconut into tiny pieces. Then she pours the shavings into this machine, along with some water; the machine presses out the moisture. The first pressing results in coconut cream and the second in coconut milk.
Finally we got to see some more unusual ingredients… for example, this local delicacy:
Chiang Mai is in northern Thailand, and the cooking styles and ingredients are a bit different there. The Burmese and Indian influence is more strongly felt than in the south. I tried to take photos of everything I made, but unfortunately some of it was so delicious that I forgot to take a picture before digging in. My favorite Thai dishes:
Tom yam gung soup: this was actually pretty difficult to make. First, I had to prepare a chili paste, similar to red curry paste or green curry paste. I used a pestle and mortar to pound it till it was completely smooth. Trust me, that is not easy when you’re working with ingredients like lemongrass or galangal (a tough Chinese ginger.) After that, I brought some chicken stock to a boil, added my chili paste, then some vegetables (tomato and onion) and finally, the shrimp. It’s garnished with cilantro.
Jungle curry: Every day before preparing our curry pastes, Vannee would ask if we wanted our pastes mild, medium, or hot, and adjust the number of chili peppers accordingly. On the day I made jungle curry, she said I had no choice; I had to make it hot. Unlike other Thai curries, the broth is not thinned with coconut cream or milk. To tell the truth, I was scared. But it actually wasn’t that hot. The ingredients for the broth (curry paste, lime juice, sugar) were so perfectly balanced that I found it easy to eat. The other ingredients were chicken, spring onion, baby corn, and straw mushrooms. It’s garnished with fresh green peppercorns.
Mango with sticky rice and coconut cream: This was my favorite thing that I made. I made it on my third day, and I seriously considered making it on my fourth day as well, just so I could eat it again. And it was surprisingly easy to make. The sticky rice is cooked in a steamer for 10 minutes (the steamer is lined with cheesecloth so the grains don’t fall through.) After it’s cooked, sugar and coconut milk are added to the rice. The coconut cream, on top of the rice, has cornflour added to it (for thickening) and salt (to offset the sweetness of the rice and mango.) The mango doesn’t need anything- it’s just a perfect, ripe, delicious Thai mango. I thought the addition of the salt was weird, but eaten together with the rice and fruit, the entire dish was perfect. And I know I said “perfect” three times. I can’t think of any better way to describe this dish.