Thailand II: Livelihood, Sourcing, Making, Eating

I don’t know about you, but the thought of Thailand instantly conjures up images of food, food, and food. We’re talking about the mouth-watering curries, strong flavours, fragrant herbs, coconut milk-everything, and the works. So when I was doing my own research about this wonderful country, you can be sure that looking up various restaurants and delicacies to try were not left out.

However, although I was looking forward to introducing my palate to all the wonderful flavours of readily-made foods at street vendors and shops, I knew from the start that I wanted to learn some Thai cooking myself. I absolutely love cooking back home, so getting the opportunity to cook with a Thai local and being introduced to a new cuisine of ingredients was something I knew I couldn’t pass up on.

From reading about other people’s travels, I learned that Thai cooking classes were readily available, quite affordable, and a very popular thing to do in the country, with endless options to choose from.

Because there are so many Thai cooking classes available, especially in Chiang Mai where we stayed, I decided on some things that were a high priority to me in order to narrow down the options.

  1. They bring you to a local market to buy your groceries instead of a crowded tourist-y one in Old City.
  2. It’s an outdoor cooking environment, so not only are you more connected to the earth, but any smokes/fumes from cooking don’t get trapped inside on a humid day.
  3. It takes place on an organic farm where you can pick your own herbs. Another great contender for cooking schools was the well-reviewed Thai Farm Cooking School, but the one I ended up going for appealed to me more because you can actually go into an organic farm homegrown by the local people and pick your own herbs that you will use in your dishes! I think there’s something so special about eating a dish knowing where and how the ingredients was sourced.
  4. You’re able to make 5 different dishes, with each dish having several food choices to choose from.  You’re able to make 5 different dishes, with different options for each to choose from. I went with my brother and we decided to each pick completely different dishes to cook, so that we ended up being able to try 10 separate dishes altogether.

By meeting all these criteria, Thai Secret Cooking School was the obvious winner for me and in retrospect, I can say it was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. Being surrounded by so much food literally all day (our time with them ran from 8am-3:30pm) is what dreams are made of.

And with that, let’s begin the food chronicles of this glorious day.

8AM: the cooking school came and picked us up from our hotel and drove us to a local Thai market to buy the groceries we would need to start cooking. Here, we met May (our cooking instructor for the day, born and raised in Chiang Mai). May was quite possibly one of the sweetest and funniest people I’ve ever met and you can tell she has such a vast pride in her Thai heritage and an immense passion for sharing her love of Thai food with others.

She brought us around the market and taught us about some unique ingredients we would be using that we may not have necessarily come across back home, such as kaffir lime leaves, Thai eggplant, and tamarind sauce. Even better, she showed us many different herbs and let us hold them to sample their strong fragrant smells, including lemongrass, 3 kinds of basil, chili peppers, and more.

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Afterwards, we were given some time to walk around the market and explore. Honestly, I could have walked around this market for hours and just ended my day right there. The never-ending colours of the produce and fruits, the distinct smells of fish and durian, the loud voices of merchants talking with their friends and selling their food…it was the most wonderful sensory overload I experienced. I’ve always loved grocery shopping, but getting to walk around this local market and learn about the Thai culture through the lens of food was an absolute privilege.

Livelihood

Walking around this market, I was able to see the local merchants set up their stalls, take care in cooking and placing their foods on display, and then sell the food to support their own self. In a loud setting always in movement, I caught a glimpse of the livelihoods of the Thai people who work here for a living.

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Sourcing

9AM: After buying the different produce and meats from the local market, we headed over to May’s home, which was located right beside her home-grown, organic garden that she and her husband tend to themselves. Things that I normally would buy in plastic packaging in my grocery store back home like basil, chives, eggplant, and cilantro could be found right there still growing in the ground. It was a surreal experience getting to learn how to pick them from the soil and collecting them into baskets to be used in our dishes later. There’s something about using your own hands to harvest food that makes me feel so much more connected to our earth, teaching me a much greater appreciation for the food I eat.

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Making

10AM: And commence the cooking! As I mentioned earlier, I love love loved that our cooking stations were practically outside, overlooking the organic garden with the fresh air wafting in as we cooked our hearts out. I also appreciated that our cooking stations were close together, so that we could all talk, make conversation as a group and laugh (especially when we made mistakes!), like when May laughed when she saw me add in only 1 chili pepper and said Thai people add a minimum of at least 10 chili peppers to their dishes or else it has no flavour to them haha

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Here are the 5 dishes I chose to cook. Even though my cooking skills veer on the side of being amateur, these dishes I cooked under May’s guidance ended up being downright delicious and mouthwatering (aside from a few almost-disastrous mistakes, where I may have almost accidentally dumped a whole cup of fish sauce into my pad thai when only a teaspoon was required!).

Tom yum soup

Pad thai

Papaya salad

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Red curry

1:45PM: I’m just going to add in right here that although making red curry paste from scratch was a great learning experience, it also happened to be a full-fledged arm workout. May made us work hard in pounding the spices down until they were the perfect consistency, which took at least 15 minutes of non-stop pounding. It paid off in the end with the final end product, but it’s safe to say that I will now never take it for granted the next time I eat a curry dish!

Mango sticky rice

2:30PM: The real question is -did you even go to Thailand if you didn’t eat mango sticky rice? When this was one of the options we could pick for our dessert dish, I didn’t even take a second to think about it. Being able to eat ripe, sweet mangoes homegrown in the mother of all countries and learning how to make it step-by-step was a no-brainer.  I thought this was going to be a rather easy dish to make because the only ingredients are literally mangoes, sticky rice, and coconut milk. However, I was completely surprised when instead of handing us a can of coconut milk, May simply handed us a coconut. Yes, we were going to learn how to make coconut milk from scratch. 

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This ended up being one of the best cooking experiences of the day because you had to use your hands extensively to work the coconut in each step. First, we had to use a machete (my first time using one! Did you see how large it was?!) to shave off the “hair” from the coconut. Then, we used the machete to split it open in one single, strong swoop.

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After it was split in half, we used a blade-like tool (can’t be seen clearly, but it was attached to the stool I was sitting on) to scrape the white meat out of the coconut.

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All the coconut flesh is put into a cheesecloth and hot water is run through it, producing a smooth, silky coconut milk. We then prepared the sticky rice by soaking it first in water, then steaming it.

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When we picked different herbs from May’s organic garden in the morning, we also picked some blue and pink flowers, which we used to dye the sticky rice into beautiful vibrant colours. I loved how things we didn’t usually associate as food, such as the flowers, could be used practically beyond their expected function to add even more depth to the dishes we made.

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Cooking food all day was a definite highlight of my entire trip to Thailand, but something that added a little extra to this day was May’s warmth and humour. Cooking so many dishes using ingredients you’ve never used before in one day can be daunting especially for cooking amateurs, but May gave each of us lots of guided attention and stopped to crack several jokes along the way to keep the cooking atmosphere fun and everyone laughing.

I was also surprised at how open she was in sharing details about her own life throughout the day -how she grew up following or going against Thai norms and values, family life, and how she first started working in a restaurant but decided to open this cooking school one day. I asked her whether it was hard work having to teach cooking every day from early morning to the end of the day 7 days a week and she replied,

“It may be hard work at times, but I love what I’m doing. And opening my own cooking school lets me be closer to my family and spend time with my [newly-born] son.”

When she shared her story, I felt like I was talking to a friend and was so moved by the struggles she endured while aiming to stay positive with a radiant smile on her face. How she decided to take life into her own hands by starting her own business so she could follow her passions, be truly happy, and share her love for food with others stopping by.

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When we eat food at home, we often dread the cooking and wish food was already cooked and prepared right in front of us, ready to eat. I don’t know about you, but I so frequently see food as just food, good-tasting sustenance to help me get through the day. Spending the day with May at her home, visiting the bustling local market, watching herbs grow in the soil and then harvested, making food using raw, unprocessed ingredients with our own hands..it all makes me view food with a fresh angle, in that behind all this food are actually stories.

Stories of people growing and exchanging food -literally making their living, each merchant’s food a little different from the neighbouring one, the livelihoods that depend on the exchange of such food, the pride and work that go into transforming separate ingredients into a harmonious dish, and the love of family and good food helping to bring kind souls like May into my time in Chiang Mai, and making it one of my most enduring, treasured memories.

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