Note: This is a re-post, somehow I deleted my original.
A great benefit to travelling with my kids is an open calendar. There are no soccer practices to get to, lawns to mow, or meetings to attend. We have time. Bring that to boil with a little seasoning of a personally recommended Thai cooking school, and Mia and I found ourselves with a delicious day.
A friend of ours, Jessica, an amazing chef in Bellingham and owner of Ciao Time, suggested we look up her friend Yui at “A Lot of Thai cooking School.” They weren’t the cheapest school, but Jessica’s recommendation carries some serious calories. I emailed them,but they only had space for two of us.
So, who get to go? Mia was a sure thing as one of her goals is to make Asian food for friends and family when we return. Amy was feeling a bit sick, so I drew the other lucky card. I asked Yui if they had “kids prices.” Yui responded,
“No, she is twelve, she is old enough to cook her own food.” Immediately I liked this woman.
I must say that I am a little surprised that Mia wanted to go. This was the day after “Temple Tired,” and Mia was in serious need of some downtime. But, this young woman is mentally strong, my respect for her grows by the day (another benefit of traveling – I get to observe my kids more closely!). When I suggested that she didn’t need to go, she ruminated on the choice:
“Well, I want to sleep in, but I also want to go to the cooking class. I mean, I promised Auntie Amy that I would make her a meal.” Yay, a day with my daughter, learning about one of my favorite pastimes, eating!
We were picked up by Yui and her husband Kwan in their charismatic Volkswagon bus. I have yet to see another in Southeast Asia. I asked her why they owned one. She gave the typical bus owner’s answer: A puzzled shrug of shoulders as if the answer was obvious, “We have a serious mental condition.” She went on to tell me that there is only one mechanic in town who can work on busses, and he is 70 years old. With a wink and a look over her shoulder at Kwan, she told us that she wants Kwan to buy the guy’s business (and tools). He just shook his head, probably well aware of the life of a VW mechanic.
We arrived at the school with several other vagabonds from around Chiangmai. The school is open-air, along a shaded side of their house. Each student had their own cooking station, on a “proper Thai” cooking stove: a dual-ring gas burner. Pretty smart really, the outer ring allows rapid heating (for a boil say), while the inner provides a good low-heat flame to simmer. Yui told us that successful Thai people who build their own “Western-style house” usually have a European kitchen with stove, microwave, inside. But, they cook on a “Thai kitchen” outside. Ha! Yui’s observations often were seasoned with humor.
When you learn from a chef, you learn a LOT. Maybe that’s why the school is called “A LOT of Thai.” Yui is a great teacher. She not only instructed us on how to make a dish, but she talked about the molecular nature of food, how to properly heat up a wok, how to cut food correctly, and about her curiosity and experimentation with food. For example, she told us how she consults with another restaurant. First thing, she looks at their facilities – their stove and cutlery. She tells them to make dishes that fit those. She instructed us to cut our vegetables into “woman bites.” She ranted about male chefs who implicitly cater to men by cutting their food too large. Food should be the right size to fit into a woman’s mouth, AND to fit on the eating utensil – no longer than the width of the spoon. So smart! A simple little bit of thinking about geometry to make the final eating experience more pleasurable. The entire day was filled with such little gems of wisdom and experience.
Yui began by showing us how to prepare Pad-si-ew, stir-fried noodles with vegetables. This was a simple dish, and to be honest I wasn’t all that excited about learning it – stir-fried vegetables? Sounds dull. But as we all circled her wok, she tackled a problem I have wrestled with probably a thousand times: sauteeing garlic without burning it.
“What we want,” she said, “is to get the flavors of the garlic into the oil, without burning it. Why then, do we put the garlic into the oil and continue cooking?” She suggested we get the wok and oil hot (two burners), then turn off for half a minute or so before dropping the garlic in. Turn on low heat from there. Genius! My garlic never burned. Good science: Identify the problem, research the dynamics, hypothesize a solution, test! I was so into this school and this teacher.
Yui explained the rest of the dish. The key to a good stir-fry is timing, so it was important that we prepare all the foods and sauces first. The actual cooking only took two minutes or so. Mia was struck by the frenzy of the cooking. Soy and oyster sauces into noodles to marinate, oil heats, garlic infuses, pork sizzles, noodles slide in, broccoli stems sear to translucent, greens heat to bright colors. Turn off the heat, plate and eat! Wow – stir-fry is too simple John? Think again.
Our next dish was Som Tum, or green papaya salad. Yui’s instruction focused on balancing flavors – she held up her two index fingers so the tips lined up. She wiggled the left, “this is sour,” followed by wiggling the right, “this is salt, they are even.” Then, in the air between, she drew a concave arc, like a little Asian style suspension bridge, “here is sweet.” Next the drew a concave shape, like a stone arch, and shook her head at the bulge, “never too sweet. You can always add sweet, but you can’t take it away.” Whoa, life philosophy perhaps?
Another classic bit of Yui instruction:
“If you cut the tomatoes into the same size pieces, you will fail the class. Make each bite interesting – different shape, different size, different amounts of flavor!” she instructed. She went on to explain that by changing the size of pungent tomato pieces, every bite was different and interesting. You add a different amount of flavor to every moment.
Since Mia and I had already made Som Tum a few times in Sriboya, we experimented. To reduce the strong flavors that put Mia off most good food, she used only a nip of a chili pepper (instead of two or three whole ones) and she didn’t add any dried shrimp. Hers was delicious. Mine ended up a bit too sweet, as I free-styled how much cocunut sugar to add. Yui was right, I couldn’t mask the sweet with lime or fish sauce.
The third, and last savory dish of the day was Khao Soy, sort of a red curry-like soup with soft and crispy egg noodles and chicken. It is a specialty of northern Thailand and Laos, even though it is not traditional norther Thai cooking (coconuts generally don’t grow in the cooler North). We started by deep frying a handful of egg noodles in oil to make an interesting crispy nest. Next, we prepped and cooked the sauce: Bring a couple tablespoons of red curry paste and coconut cream to a quick boil, or until the spicy-fragrance bites your nose. Add the chicken until it is just seared, then add coconut milk and boil again. Add curry powders, fish sauce, light soy sauce, sugar and a thick, dark, sweet soy sauce. Check for a rich yellow-red color dotted by dark brown splotches of sauce. Taste for all flavors but sour. Simmer to be sure the meat is finished cooking.
Boil egg noodles and shake off the water to stop cooking. Pour the sauce over, and add the crunchy nest to the top to make an appealing plate. Serve with fermented vegetables, limes and thinly sliced shallot. Wow, delicious. I almost must stop writing this to run out and get a plate. This dish must become a John-Mia Chesbrough signature.
The final dish of the day was mango sticky rice, hands-down Mia’s favorite dish to eat. Yui, in typical fashion started by talking about high quality fresh ingredients – the right rice, a good mango, and fresh coconut milk. She told stories about how her father was one of the first people in her village to buy a grinder to make coconut milk. Yui had already cooked the sticky rice – a mix of about two-thirds white grain and one-third dark grains. We mixed the rice with coconut cream, sugar and salt. Sliced mango, not too perky, not too floppy, on top. Finally drizzle a sweetened coconut milk sauce over everything. Whoa, eating it is a sensation not unlike sliding your washed body into 1,200 thread count Egyptian cotton sheets.
At the end of the day, Yui toured us through a local market, introducing us to the many foods and personalities of the aunties and uncles in there. Lots of laughs and nibbles, although most of us were pretty food coma’d out by that time. Finally, the bus dropped us off at our guest houses. Most just had memories, but since Mia doesn’t actually like eating anything too spicy, we had a bagful of food.
We reunited with Porter and Amy. Although Amy was not hungry, as we started re-telling our day, her interest perked up. She devoured the stir-fry over Mia’s gesticulating story about a wild and hot wok. Amy moved onto the Som Tum and finally the Khao Soy. “MMmmm resonated through the concrete walls of our cramped little room.” After eating all of the food, and listening to Mia, Amy basically asked us to tell her everything again. She was so lost in the flavors, she had just let the words pour over her head like a massaging water fall. A soundtrack to a lovely taste experience.
At the end of the day, we could not wipe smiles off our faces – proud, satisfied. As we shared stories and food with Amy and Porter, Mia she stated one of her favorite sayings, “One of the best feelings in the world is when something you do makes someone else happy.” The next day Amy’s sickness was basically gone. Coincidence? Can good food made with love cure someone’s ills? I think so.
More photos from the day: