A LOT of Thai cooking school (re-post)

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!

img_0071We 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.

Mia at her cooking station

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 putting the finishing touches on pad-si-ew.

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.

Mia’s Khao Soy

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.

Mmmmm, mango sticky rice

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.

A getting well Amy devouring Mia’s Som Tum.

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:

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Temple tired

Amy and I have had this plan for mental health on our trip.  Every week or so (every seventh day?), we would plunk down somewhere happy and fun for recovery and rest.  Maybe find a place with a swimming pool.  But in Chiang Mai, our budget was limiting us to small rooms without much space to lounge.  With a need to slow down, but no appealing place to be slow in, we compromised to a short outing – just a small wander to the Chiang Mai University gift shop.  That was the plan.  But I think I was feeling claustrophobic, a little stir-crazy, like Josie two days after her last run.  That’s my excuse anyway for why I hijacked our family’s weekly Sabbath.

I Google-found a blogpost about a trail leaving from near the university, called the Monk’s Trail.  The blogger suggested an hour-long walk up to one temple, followed by a second, steeper journey up to the “spectacular” mountain-top temple of Doi Suthep.  Perfect, I thought.  We’ll stretch our legs, get a tich of exercise, breath-in some nature, then return to the guest house to lounge the afternoon away.  I proposed the idea to the kids, “Come on, it’s just a one hour walk, it will feel good!”  They both responded with squinty eyes and raised hackles, sensing an intruder into their peaceful domain.

Mistake #1.  I bull-dogged my agenda.

Mia at the meditation retreat, this picture is foreshadowing?

We got a late start, around noon, and we flagged a tuk-tuk from our guest house.  I insisted we eat a proper lunch to prevent hangry kids and mom.  Turns out that was about my only correct decision of the day.  We explored the university; it was open and green, filled with enthusiastic and chatty college students.  Mia asked a couple helpful Thai girls for directions, and we soon found her shopping spot.  The birds were chirping and the sun was shining, a lovely day.

Then, as the afternoon wore on, I veered us towards the Monk’s Trail.  After about 1 km walking in the afternoon heat, we were on a nearly deserted road, and I first realized my second mistake of the day.

Mistake #2.  We had no more water.

Porter, never a fan of a boring walk without bike, scooter or skis, started dragging.

He lamented, “Uh, it’s so hot.  I’m so tired.  I’m so thirsty.  How far do we have to go?  This is a terrible day…”

I retorted with a perky carrot, “Just think how delicious the ice cream will be after we’ve had a bit of exercise!”

Amy sensed the precariousness of our situation, and brandished the stick, “You always hate hiking at the outset, then you have fun.  If you walk the whole way without complaining, we will get ice cream.  If you complain, tomorrow you and I are going to tour museums all day long.”

Laughter from Mia.  Porter retreated, and marched on in silence.

Correct decision # -5,285.  I married Amy.

We reached the trailhead after nearly an hour walking, both kids moving well.  The trail was quite nice, in the shade.  We reached a trail junction: one route offered a few more points of interest than the other.  The kids did not waver in their campaign to recapture the day, “Which one is shorter??”

We pushed on, reached a false summit, kept going.



Mistake #3.  I read every sign.  I explored the crumbled remains of an ancient temple. I lingered in jungle cricket noises.

We reached the first temple.  Actually, it was a meditation center, set on a hillside, in the forest.  It was lovely and serene.  The kids must have been relieved.  They had basically agreed to the hijacker’s terms.  We enjoyed the view over Chiangmai and found a stall selling thai ice tea and water.  Amy and I asked the vendor about further route options.  She suggested there no easy way to flag a taxi, the mountain-top temple was still 45 minutes to an hour further, the way was steep, but the view at the end was spectacular.  The blogpost I had read also suggested that the second part of the hike would be 70 to 80 minutes.


Mistake #4.  I said to Amy something like, “Probably just Thai time, they don’t realize that we are hikers.  I’ll bet it’s fifteen minutes, tops.”

Mistake #5.  I repeated the thought to the kids, verbatim.

In the air between my mouth and their ears, my words took shape, hardening from malleable conjecture into the hard promise of parent to child.  Mia and Porter leaned in, recognizing the day for what it was – a coup.   Like good soldiers captured by General Sherman, they just plodded on.

After 15 minutes following steep stairs chopped into the hard soil, we admitted the meditation center lady’s route description was probably correct.  By this time, the afternoon Sun was low.  Maybe not quite as low as Mia’s attitude, but close.  To her credit, Mia doggedly climbed on, losing water through sweat and tears.  A sobbing, frustrated, tired kid.  I dared not say anything, but Amy hung back.

“What’s wrong sweetie?”  Usually those kind of words are the kiss of death, especially the sweetie part.  But, I think Mia was too worn out to be mad.

“I’m hot, I’m tired, I’m thirsty, there’s a bug in my water, I miss Josie, this has not been a good Valentine’s Day.”  She sobbed.  But she kept walking, such a trooper.

Porter, was scampering up the hill, embodying his inner Josie.  He was tired, but mostly mad.  He just stared at me and said flat out, “You lied to us.”

Correct decision #2.  I kept my mouth shut.

We finally reached the top of the trail around the late afternoon, but unfortunately the end was just a bend in the very steep paved road.  The final half-kilometer of walking was on road.  A Thai traveler from Bangkok was taking a smoke break, and kindly offered our kids some fragrant oil to rejuvenate them.  After looking at their faces a bit closer, he just gave us the entire bottle.

We trudged up further, getting passed by fossil-fueled ease of modern transport – tuk-tuks and busses filled with sedated tourists.  Finally, we reached the parking lots and accompanying gawkers and hawkers.  I bought some water and offered to buy the kids any drink they wished.  Both kids refused to be bought off so easily; they would not allow me to buy forgiveness.  Finally, I just bought a couple Sprites and stuck them in their hands, this was survival now.  The final climb to the temple was a mockery – a steep, 100+ stairs of dragon staircase, crawling with tourists, like a ripe piece of mango made inedible by a swarm of ants.


100+ stairs leading up to Doi Suthep.  Mia had charged up so fast the first time, I didn’t get a chance for a photo.

Porter tried to wrest some control back, “Ok, let’s catch a bus and go down.  They are probably going to charge us to go in, and there are like a million tourists.  I don’t want to go up there.”  Porter was using a subtle art of persuasion – appealing to Amy’s thriftiness, and our dislike of overly popular tourist destinations.  I must admit to feeling some solidarity, both kids by now recognize the difference between meaningful moments and touristy visits.  But, I was going to see the damn temple.

“Seriously?” I protested.  “After all that effort, with the end nearly in sight, you are just going to turn back?”

Unfortunately for Porter, at my words, Mia resigned any remaining protest, and she just charged up the steps, powered by huff.  Porter moaned, but followed.

The temple was nice, but we were templed out.  However, the sugar from the Sprite was kicking into our blood and the tourists crowds were thinning out.  We admired the many gold-enshrouded Buddhas and other spiritual symbols.  To me, the more ornate a temple is, the less interested I become.  I sort of like the old, crumbly structures more.  Doi Suthep  is elegant, but very gold.  Mia and Porter fell into a laughing fit about lighting some candles and trying to take pictures of the flame.

Then, at 6 pm, a row of monks appeared.  They asked all tourists to be silent, and to kneel with them before the great steeple in the center of the temple.  The sun was low, the light was soft and all grew quiet.  An older monk lit incense, then led the others in bowing and chanting.   Mia and Porter had transitioned into tired hysterical mode, and couldn’t stop cracking each other up.  They finally clamped hands over mouths and scampered out of the area to enjoy their chuckles in peace.  The monks rose and moved into another chamber for more chanting.  We were invited to participate.  We kneeled until my body’s perseverance ran out – foot cramps, the bane of my spirituality.  I’d make a lousy monk.

We reunited with Mia and Porter, it was nearly dark by this point.  They had somehow flipped their attitudes from revolt to reveling, and we caught a tuk-tuk back down the mountain.  We had a great shopping experience with a woman selling meditation bowls.  Despite being the physics teacher, I am the worst at producing a resonant sound in the metal dish.  We met a very interesting couple from the US, Rob and Cailey, traveling for a bit before heading to Nepal for a 3-month research project into high altitude sickness.  We ate expensive pizza for dinner, and Thai pancake for dessert.  Yum.

A second goal in our trip was to be challenged out of our comfort zones.  This day certainly accomplished that.  We will see if there are lasting effects over the next couple weeks.

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