A cooking class has long been on the list. I would have taken one in India, for sure, but it was off-season in Rajastan and few if any were actually open. So Chiang Mai represented the last chance, and lucky it was too for there a great many cooking schools.
The most famous is The Farm. Normally I shop around a bit, but the promise of visiting an organic farm 17 k out of the city was too enticing. Also they promised it was easy to cook vegan, even substituting mushroom sauce for fish sauce. Even though it was quite expensive–1100 baht (34 USD) we learned too late that you can save 100 baht by booking with a tour agent rather than directly with the place itself (which is the complete opposite of how it usually works.)
Was it worth it? Yes and no. To begin with, we went to a market much worse than the one we visit daily. It was filled with people from other cooking schools and had few Thais in it. This was more on us though; if you were in town for only a couple days, it would be really nice. It’s not their fault we go to the market every day.
Because of the high cost, your classmates fall more in the “tourist” class than the “traveler.” (Stupid designations, to be sure, but sometimes useful.) It was hard to talk with the other people in our class because they were rich westerners in thailand for only a week or two–our sets of shared assumptions and experiences were quite different.
And the tour of the farm, while very nice, is quite underwhelming. You get to stroll a small patch of the grounds and see all the foods growing in nature. But it’s a very small area, right next to the cooking rooms, and full of other groups that day.
Also, there are teams of assistants who wash your dishes and bring you the prearranged food. This might be a bonus for some, but it made it feel kind of simulated to me.
One of the biggest pluses was our cooking instructor. Embee was instructive, charming, helpful, and hilarious. She had us cracking up all day, and was just a very positive person.
We got to put on aprons, and as you saw wore Thai farmer hats for our 10 minutes of wandering the farm. You know you’re really cooking when you’re wearing an apron.
We cooked jasmine and sticky rice. The jasmine was just rice-cookered, but we steamed the sticky rice in a basket I’d seen in Asian grocery stores but never quite understood the use. Embee explained to us why the Thais eat white rice even though they know brown rice is healthier. (It has to do with texture.) I also got to say sticky rice in Thai, which is fun and sounds quite a bit like a meow.
The first dish was soup. You got to choose between Tom Yum, Coconut Milk, and Thai Vegetable, with meat or tofu options. I went with Coconut Milk (mainly because I erroneously thought we’d make our own.) It was quite easy, and involved nothing more than heating up coconut milk with added galangal, lemongrass, tomatoes, and kaffir lime leaves.
Next came the curry round. I had a hard time choosing, as I like green, yellow, and red all the same. (And Panang and Massamun much better, though sadly they were not options.) In the end, I chose green, kind of at random. If I were to go again, I would go with yellow–you get potatoes and use turmeric and indian curry powder.
Still, it was not a sad thing to make greeen, as I got to pick some leaves and also added a huge green chili to my paste. It was fun to use the huge mortar and pestle and gave me an appreciation for how much work it is to cook traditionally.
When she asked us how hot we wanted it, I answered pretty confidently Thai spicy. Thai spicy isn’t usually too bad, although some places do try to punish you. Most other people were Canadian, who in my experience shy away from spicy more than maybe any other country. She was pleased and gave me a whole heap of peppers.
I tried to leave 3 or 4 behind but she found me and helped me to crush them into the paste. At this point, I was genuinely worried that I wouldn’t be able to try it. Embee kept looking at me and laughing, and said she wanted to try it when it was done.
Mine doesn’t look so great, but Rach’s red looks professional, I reckon. We let our pastes sit for a while and moved on to the next round. Here we had the choice of Sweet and Sour, Cashew Nuts, or Holy Basil. It doesn’t take a genius to realize how delicious cashew nuts are, and that’s what I went with. The pineapple in the sweet and sour looked pretty cool though, and holy basil is truly delicious.
This bit was pretty much what I do for lunch and dinner every day, and in the end I like my home version of it much better. If you hadn’t cooked for a while, or didn’t have much experience with stirfry, it would be quite fun.
And then we ate our curries and stirfrys (the soups having been slurped down an hour before.) My curry was spicy, man, let me tell you. I asked Embee if she wanted a bite. She took some and winced. “This is spicier than Thai style,” she said. “I am from Issan, and this is spicier than Issan food too. It is good.”
In Portland, a friend and I tried a spicy challenge at Fire On the Mountain. This wasn’t nearly as hot as that, but otherwise was one of the spiciest things I’ve eaten. I really enjoyed it though, as the taste of fresh green pepper is one of my favorites.
We were really quite full after soup, stirfry, and curry, but there were two rounds to go!
For the dessert round, we got to choose between mango and sticky rice, bananas in coconut milk, and pumpkin in coconut milk. All good choices, to be sure.
I knew that mango and sticky rice was pretty much cut up mango on sticky rice, and so picked bananas over pumpkin for my desert. I’ve ordered this a few times and wondered at how it was made, because there were subtle flavors of the non-banana, non-coconut variety.
It turns out that you add pandan leaves, a green vanilla-esque leaf that you see everywhere. That and a scoop of cane sugar. Simmer those in coconut milk until the banana is soft and you’ve got a pretty amazing desert. I’m not sure, but you could perhaps add some agar agar and make this into a pie filling too.
The last course was take-out, as even the mightiest of appetites was satiated at this point. We were presented with another good trio of choices: Pad kee mao, Pad Thai, or steamed spring rolls. If I hadn’t been in Thailand for 6 weeks, it would have been harder, but seeing as how I cook lots of big rice noodles it was easy to choose spring rolls.
We were presented with the ingredients, which we stir fried with some mushroom sauce and soy sauce and sesame oil and then wrapped in gloopy rice noodle shells. From there, we steamed them, in a setup rather like the sticky rice.
Embee made the first and none of us quite nailed it like she did, but it was fun and the rolls came with a dipping sauce and instructions in Thai ziplock.
They drove us home after a full day of cooking. While expensive and not quite living up to their promises, my advice is that the Farm is well worth it. That, and maybe don’t go with Thai spicy.