Since we have been to Chiang Mai several times, we have visited the major tourist attractions already. We have seen many, many beautiful temples, and yet each block we wander down seems to hold another! We have heard European tours called “ABC” tours – another beautiful cathedral. I guess you could call Chiang Mai “ABW” – another beautiful wat!
Even though we are not visiting as tourists this time, I decided to take another Thai cooking class. Despite having taken two on previous visits, I have definitely not mastered the art of Thai cooking! I love to cook, and I love to eat Thai food, so I have been practicing at home and have improved. I selected Thai Akha Cooking School this time based on its many 5-star reviews as well as the added bonus of learning to cook several Akha dishes. Akha is one of the hill tribes in northern Thailand; we visited an Akha village the last time we were here and so I was intrigued by the possibility about learning more about their culture and food. The website for the cooking school (https://www.thaiakhakitchen.com/) promised that we would cook (and eat) eleven dishes. Count me in!
Traditionally, Thai cooking classes give you options within several categories – appetizer, soup, stir-fry, curry, and dessert. The day starts with a visit to a local fruit and vegetable market, followed by a half-day of cooking. I was picked up in a modified tuk-tuk by Nikon (pronounced nee-con; spelled like the camera but pronounced differently!). He had already picked up Remy, a classmate from France. We drove to the Chiang Mai fruit and vegetable market which coincidentally is where I shop for fruit every couple of days (it is only blocks from our apartment). He dropped us off by a lovely, white wat and told us that the others from the class would be joining us shortly. I chatted with Remy and took a few pictures while we waited.
Four more classmates joined us. All looked to be in their twenties (I was the senior citizen in the group). There was a couple from England, a young woman from Poland (who lives in England), and a young man from Estonia. Being terrible with names, I don’t remember any of them! Another couple would be joining us at the kitchen; they were from the United States.
Nikon did a wonderful job of showing us the unique fruits and vegetables for sale at the market. He also had us taste-test a yummy coconut cream treat. They were baked in what looked like an aebleskiver pan and had chives cooked into them. I will be returning to the market to buy some. If I were walking through the market and saw them, I would not give them a second look. But, thanks to Nikon, I now have a new delicacy to enjoy while we are here.
I really enjoyed Nikon’s explanations. This is the third market tour I have done, but the most entertaining and educational.
After the tour, we climbed into the back of a songthaew and headed to the kitchen. I loved the colors and décor; the setting was incredibly beautiful. We were given a few minutes to relax and have coffee, tea, or water before the fun began.
Nikon created some of the dishes; we created the majority. We started with papaya salad and deep-fried spring rolls. Nikon made the filling for the spring rolls; we each attempted to roll the filling in a wrapper. Fortunately, we were given tongs to hold them together while they fried, or most would have come apart in the oil! We took turns frying, counting, “one elephant, two, elephant,…,five elephant before flipping the egg roll and counting to five again. Then, we were told to let the egg rolls swim until they were cooked to our satisfaction. We drained them, cut them in half, and plated them with our salad. Then, it was time to eat!
Nikon cooked the next dish, pumpkin in coconut milk. It was a dessert dish, but in Thailand, they don’t save dessert for the end of the meal; it is consumed during and after. Smart people, those Thai.
He also showed us how to steam sticky rice for the mango sticky rice that we would have at the end of the meal. He made the three Akha dishes – Akha soup (Fuk Kiow…just like you would think it would be pronounced), Akha salad (cucumber and tomato), and Akha chili dipping sauce (Sapi Thong).
Each person had pre-selected a curry paste to make. I chose green curry; most chose red, and a couple did massaman. Nikon provided the ingredients for the curry; we used lots of elbow grease to pulverize the spices using a mortar and pestle. When we were at the market, Nikon introduced us to a woman that sold pre-made curry paste. I believe that I would much prefer to buy from her than to make my own! The advantage of creating your own paste is being able to control the heat. As most people know, Thai food is famous for its heat. I like a bit of kick to my food, but nowhere near five-star chili level! We each tasted our pastes to determine if they were the right level of heat. Then we created the curry. Just a couple more dishes to cook!
Our soup choices were Tom Kha Gai (chicken in coconut milk; my fav), Hot and Sour Prawn Soup, and Clear Soup with Egg Tofu. The Hot and Sour Prawn sounded intriguing, but I cannot resist Tom Kha Gai.
The final course was the stir fry. At home, I have been working on perfecting my pad thai, so chose that as my dish. I have learned that although technique is important, it’s really all about having the right ingredients. In the US, I use tamarind paste; here they use tamarind juice. Palm sugar is a key ingredient; it’s hard to find at home. Nikon said that in Akha cooking, they use soy sauce rather than fish sauce, but I used half and half because I think using pure soy would really change the flavor of the dish. The pad thai turned out good, but I think I prefer the recipe I use at home. The other choices for stir fry were cashew chicken (my husband’s favorite), sweet and sour chicken (not the Chinese restaurant variety), or chicken with holy basil. Since we were given a recipe book with all of the recipes, I felt like I could easily make any of the stir-fry dishes at home.
At the market, Nikon had purchased a “century egg”, which is an egg that has been preserved in tea for at least a month. The eggshells are dyed pink so that people purchasing them know that they are century eggs rather than regular eggs. He sliced the egg into slivers and showed us how to wrap the sliver in a small piece of cabbage, add some vegetable slices, then add Sapi Thong (Akha chili sauce) to it. I was a bit hesitant to eat it, but it was actually pretty good!
We sat down to complete our final course. Nikon talked to us about the Akha people and how they differ from Thai. When Thais greet each other, they wai (bow), with their hands placed on different levels to denote the level of respect they are showing the other person. Akha shake hands. Akha is an entirely different language (and culture) than Thai. Nikon told us he spoke Akha, Thai, Lanna, and “Tinglish”, though we assured him that his English was excellent.
What made this cooking class so special compared to the others I have taken? Mainly, it was due to the personality of the teacher, Nikon. He was knowledgeable, polite, funny, and made us all feel at ease. Another positive was my fellow classmates. Though we were of completely different generations, they were all friendly and made me feel like one of the group. I enjoyed every minute of the day and was dropped off at my apartment happy and full.
Thai Akha Cooking School definitely earned a 5-star review from me!