After a few days of meandering through Chiang Mai’s old town, I decided to see what fun activities were available around the city. Predominantly I found packaged tours offering hiking, biking, kayaking and even cooking to those who are willing to join a group and pay the high price tag. While I tend to avoid most package tours, I do feel that in some cases, they offer a unique experience. When I discovered that cooking classes are a quintessential part of the Chiang Mai experience and I could visit an organic farm in the process, I chose to signed up for Sammy’s Organic Thai Cooking Class.
As a brief aside, throughout South East Asia (SEA), elephant riding tours are constantly for sale and I would be remiss if I didn’t speak out against them. As a strong advocate for responsible tourism, I am adamantly against riding elephants and I’d recommend reading the hard truth about riding elephants from a responsible elephant tourism expert.
An Organic Thai Cooking Class
Back to lovely things like coconut curries! On the day of my Thai cooking class, I was picked up directly from my guesthouse at 8:30am by a songthaew, a red truck commonly used in Chiang Mai as public transportation. I met two Germans and a Belgian, all solo travellers like me, and we quickly fell into a good conversations swapping travel tales and tips for Thailand. I was remind of another reason why tours can be great, they give you the opportunity to meet new people!
Learning About Coconut Milk & Rice
A short distance later, we arrived to a small market on the outskirts of the city. Another truck joined us making our group a total of eleven. From first glance, I could tell that this was an authentic market where residents did their food shopping. I immediately wanted to dash off to explore and take photos, but our tour guide had other plans and I grudgingly followed along. We were given a list of dishes divided into 5 categories: curry, appetizer, soup, wok-made, and dessert. Under each heading were listed 2-3 items from which we had to selected what we would be learning to cook. For my dishes I chose Kaeng Phet (red curry), Som Tum (papaya salad), Tom Yum (sour seafood soup), Pad Thai (fried noodles) and Kluay Buad Chee (stewed bananas in coconut milk).
With our dishes decided, we started our tour of the market with a visit to the rice stall and I was rewarded for my patience. Our very funny and knowledgeable guide, Sammy, explained that rice is a vital part of Thai culture and economy. Showing us examples, he told us about the various kinds of rice (long grain, sticky, jasmine) grown in different regions of Thailand. Sticky rice is much more common in the north while jasmine rice is more common in the south, a distinguishing feature in the cooking styles of these two distinct regions. He tells us that the average Thai man will consume up to 6 cups of cooked rice a day as it is a major component of all meals including breakfast.
Following this we were lead to a booth which produced fresh coconut milk and cream to order. I was very impressed as I watched a team of young men first crack open the hard green shells, and then remove the soft, fresh white meat. They fed the coconut meat through a grinder to shredded it and then through a juicer to remove the liquid. What came out first is a thick, rich coconut cream. The still damp shredded coconut can be put through the juicer a second time to produce coconut milk. After the second pressing, the shredded coconut is completely dry and devoid of taste. Joking, Sammy said this is what they use to make the canned coconut milk we get in Canada, and after tasting the real thing, I have my suspicions he might be right.
At last we were given a few minutes to explore and I was free to roam. It was the type of market I adore, not a knickknack in sight, and I felt privileged to see people going about their business on a regular weekday morning. There was plenty of fresh, delicious fruit, vegetables and meat for sale and some prepared food dishes as well.
Learning About Thai Herbs
All too soon we were piling back into the trucks and driving off. Arriving at the farm, I knew I’d picked the right thai cooking class among the dozens on offer. Sammy’s land is a working farm surrounded by rice fields on all sides. He grows fruit trees, dozens of kinds of herbs, and cultivates rice. We entered through the teaching kitchen which is a lofty, breezy space surrounded by lush greenery. It was cool and welcoming. As we settled in, we munched on bananas straight from the trees and were introduced to Sammy’s famously beautiful toilet. Oh yes, you heard that correctly. The toilet, of which Sammy is delightfully proud, is surrounded by leafy green plants, colourful orchids, and provides a view over the nearby rice fields!
Sammy soon lead us over to a covered garden where a selection of herbs are grown. Lemongrass, Thai ginger, holy basil, Thai basil, kaffir lime leaves and turmeric were all passed around to see and smell while we learn their common uses. Sammy was charming and informative without being overwhelming. Truthfully, I would have loved to have taken a tour of the fields and learn more about the farm operations, but I’d venture a guess that participants without such as keen interest in food production might not have enjoyed it as much as I.
Laughingly Sammy reminds us that in Thai cooking the herbs are often left in the dish when served and that, with the exception of the basil, they are not to be eaten. Having seen travellers attempting to chew and swallow a lemongrass stalk in the past I think his advice is worth sharing! Next up we would be cooking curry with these farm fresh herbs.
At last we headed to the kitchen to prepare our meals. To begin, we made the curry paste of our choosing. As a full-fledged green curry addict, my choice of red curry was surprising even to myself. I’d had learn to make green curry from scratch on my bucket list for years and when the perfect opportunity presented itself, I balked and chose red curry. Perhaps to my own detriment, when two thirds of the group selected green curry, my instinct to be unique simply took over and I had to choose the less popular option. Alas, I ended up loving making my red curry, I got to watch plenty of green curries being made and I have a book full of all the recipes for the future!
How To: Cooking Curry with Farm Fresh Herbs
My major motivation for taking this particular class was the opportunity to visit a working Thai farm and learn about the cultivation of local ingredients. As such I was delighted when we got to cook using herbs fresh from the farm. Part of the beauty of this type of cooking class is that the prep work is done by Sammy and his amazing team. We were given the ingredients we needed, all ready to go. Below is the How To Prepare Red Curry Paste but the general steps apply to any curry, you simply have to include alternate ingredients.
Step 1: Roughly chop ingredients. For red curry these include shallots, garlic, galangal (Thai ginger), a lemongrass stalk, the peel of a kaffir lime, red pepper, and of course hot chillies to taste. If you are making this recipe outside of Southeast Asia, it may be hard to find fresh ingredients, but most should be available dried or frozen at your local Asian market.
Step 2: Place ingredients in a mortar and mash with the pestle. Make sure you keep your hand over the top of the motor to prevent the inhalation of spices. Mash until contents has a creamy texture of ice cream and my curry paste was done. It took about 10 minutes to reach this phase. You could also use a food processor should you have one.
Step 3: To cook the curry, add the paste directly into a pan of hot oil and fry until fragrant. Add chopped chicken, vegetables, Thai herbs and some water. As this stage, the curry can be referred to as a Jungle Red Curry with a thick consistency and a high level of spice.
Step 4: Should you like your curries sweeter, creamier and slightly less spicy add a splash of coconut milk at the end of the cooking time. You now have a Coconut Red Curry!
Which is your favourite curry: Red, green, yellow, panang, massaman, or something else entirely?
Now It’s Your Turn! To visit Sammy’s Organic Thai Cooking School, I’d recommend booking through your guesthouse but you can also call him directly. Not visiting Chiang Mai in the future? You’d be surprised how many cities offer cooking classes where you can learn how local food is made and take home the best souvenir – recipes!