||LESLIE MCNAB, Contributor
Any foodie will tell you the best way to experience foreign travel is through the taste buds. On a trip to Thailand a few years ago I happily forsook the beaches of Railay and traveled north to Chiang Mai, where I immersed myself in the joy of Thai cooking.
Ingredients for Thai green curry. Photo Credit: WordRidden @ Flickr
Cookery schools are a thriving cottage industry in Chiang Mai — there are literally dozens to choose from.
Somehow the backpacker word-of-mouth network led me to Permpoon Nabnian, a self-described “culinary evangelist” and classically trained chef who runs The Best Thai Cookery School in Chiang Mai (and is seemingly as passionate about conspicuous marketing tactics as he is the subtle mysteries of his homeland’s cuisine).
Eager to learn the balanced nuances of spicy-sweet-salty-sour Thai cuisine, I enrolled in a one-day class along with five other visiting foodies. We met at 9 a.m. sharp the morning of our lesson, stomachs empty and expectations full.
Where chilies rule
Nabnian conducts classes on the covered backyard patio of his home. Lessons begin, however, with a trip to the nearby morning market to purchase fresh ingredients.
“Call me Perm, like the hairstyle,” he joked as he led us into the shaded cool of the market. Striding up to a table heaped with bright green and red chilies, Perm reached into the pile and pulled out a handful. He showed off the pinky-sized peppers with a dramatic flourish and said, “Lesson number one: No chilies, no Thai cooking!”
A large bag of the chilies in tow, Perm moved purposefully through the rest of the market. He stopped often to touch, taste or smell anything that caught his eye and spoke to us passionately about the importance of fresh ingredients.
We followed him from stall to stall, straining to hear every tidbit: The smaller the chili, the hotter it is; a sealed container of curry paste keeps for a year; palm sugar is sweeter than cane sugar; coconut cream comes from the first pressing of fresh coconut meat whereas coconut milk is made by adding water to the second pressing.
At a stall overflowing with fresh herbs, Perm paused to snap off leaves from various bunches. He crushed each one to release its aroma before passing it around for us to sniff. Basil, coriander, lemongrass, kaffir lime — the mingled scents made my stomach growl audibly.
Ingredients for pad thai. Photo Credit: adactio @ Flickr
Wok this way
Back at our shady patio classroom we donned aprons and helped ourselves to cool drinks before gathering around Perm’s workstation. There he showed us proper chopping technique as he prepped lemongrass, ginger, kaffir lime, tomatoes and fresh prawns for the first dish of the day: tom yam soup.
Next up was padang curry, a mild Thai curry made with coconut cream. Perm showed us how to boil the coconut cream over medium heat to separate the oil then stir in the curry paste, garlic, ginger, lemongrass and shallot to simmer, before adding chicken (or tofu) and vegetables.
The simple vegetable stir-fry he showed us next provided the most dramatic visual of the day. First, Perm heated up oil and garlic in his wok. Then he dumped a plateful of water-soaked vegetables into the pan, causing a foot-high burst of flame. All of us ooed and ahhed, then got behind our individual workstations to get busy with our own creations.
We watched Perm demonstrate making classic pad thai — garlic, chilies, peanuts, green onions, bean sprouts, tofu and thin rice noodles, stir-fried in oil, flavoured with fish sauce and palm sugar.
Perm added his own twist — instead of stirring in egg at the last minute as per tradition, he pushed the pad thai ingredients to one side, poured a thin layer of beaten egg into the wok, then folded it into an omelette around the pad thai. Finally, he garnished it with long, curly strands of green onion.
Then it was our turn.
Rice noodle epiphany
Pad thai had frustrated me many times in the past — I found my noodles always stuck together in a gluey mess. Watching Perm, I discovered why: they were overcooked. Rice noodles don’t need to be boiled! They only require about 10 minutes of soaking in cold water to make them soft enough to stir-fry.
We all managed some semblance of the pad thai omelette. And though my effort was much less photogenic than Perm’s, I was ecstatic with the result. It tasted perfect and my noodles weren’t gluey.
Even better, Perm gave each of us a book of his recipes to practice our Thai cooking skills at home. Kop-khun-ka, chef!
For information about cooking classes with The Best Thai Cookery School in Chiang Mai, contact Permpoon Nabnian at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Leslie McNab is a travel buff and foodie who lives and works in Toronto.
Date Added: July 6, 2012 | Comments (0)
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