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A cooking class in Thailand offers an education in eating

CHIANG MAI, Thailand -- To say I'm not a cook would be to ignore well-honed skills of calibrating a microwave to prepare ready-made dinners and bringing water to a boil, often for the purpose of preparing pasta.

 

But I was unprepared for my foray into, as the attractive brochure promised, "learning to prepare the fine cuisine of Thailand" (www.alotofthai.com).

I decided to take a cooking class here in northern Thailand last fall, in the country's second-largest city and what my guidebook calls its "cultural heart," because it seemed a way of eating well for the night. The brochure promised free transportation, which came at the appointed hour one afternoon in the form of my 30-year-old teacher, Yui, who met me on a dusty corner of the city in her lime-green Mazda, a car that looked much older than she did.

"Are you ready to cook?" she asked in English.

I smiled. "I'm ready to eat."

We drove through a maze of narrow streets, between the motorized rickshaws and ubiquitous red trucks that serve as local taxis, to her small home on the city's outskirts. Her husband, children, and other relatives were waiting on the patio. A table and frying pans were set up, and I learned, to my delight, I'd be her only student.

First up was the staple of any dining experience in Thailand: pad Thai. The fried noodles, served often with chicken, pork, or shrimp, are available almost anywhere in this nation of 60 million people -- from sidewalk stalls to jungle villages.

I've actually made pad Thai before, at least the packaged version from Trader Joe's. In quick order, and making it look as simple as tying her shoes, Yui showed me the eight or so steps, and her secret signature. "Now it's your turn," she said. But before the good stuff went cold, I had to taste it. One bite of the oil-coated noodles was enough to know I hadn't made a mistake taking this class.

I reached for a chunk of tofu and began dicing it. I did the same with Chinese chives. I chopped away, satisfying myself I was making progress, and she watched as I drew perilously close to my fingers on the other side of the large knife. "Stop!" she commanded, and then gently explained, without making me feel like a complete dolt, the proper way of using a knife -- that is, holding it close to the blade and keeping at least one finger on the side, for control.

With shallots and turnips peeled and chopped, it was time to fire up the wok and pour in canola oil. (Sunflower oil works as well, Yui said.) Then, in quick succession, I dropped in the tofu, browned it, then the shallots, and 20 seconds or so later, slivers of chicken breast. When they turned white and firm, I added water and dried rice noodles.

It was time for the secret elements: fish sauce and soy sauce, a squeeze of lime, brown sugar, and tamarind puree.

Then came chives and bean sprouts, an egg (as Yui instructed, I let the yolk ooze unevenly by tilting the wok), and the final touch: roasted, ground peanuts.

It didn't look as tempting as Yui's. The noodles and eggs seemed overcooked. But when she dropped a small purple flower on top, I smiled.

With our first meal complete, we hopped on Yui's scooter. I held on for life as she weaved through a patchwork of potholes and a barrage of old, carbon-spewing cars to get to her neighborhood market.

There, over cement floors, brightly lit stalls featured every fruit, meat, and fish imaginable (some still alive). We sipped coconut smoothies from plastic bags and looked at cantaloupe-sized watermelons, frogs, grasshoppers, and dried worms. "Would you like some?" she asked.

With the sun now beyond the horizon and a stash of produce in hand, we made the perilous ride home (without streetlights -- or helmets, for that matter). Yui's assistant had set aside the ingredients for the next two dishes: green curry with chicken (gang-keow wan-gai) and chicken in hot and sour soup (tom-ka gai).

After consuming some six meals in six hours, I felt like a mirthful Buddha -- proud most of all of my bulging belly.

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com.

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