Thai Cooking Class

After elephants and Loi Krathong (coming up in a post soon!), our week and a half in Chiang Mai was topped off with a day long Thai cooking course at a local organic farm with John and our new friend Yuki from Shanghai. The class was one of my favorite food activities on our trip and gave me the long awaited opportunity to ask someone who actually understands Thai cooking the nagging questions that have been problematizing my pad thais and cursing my curries for years. This post will be more about learning about Thai food rather than reviewing it, but dooooon't worry (because I knew you would) - I'll do a big roundup of Thailand's mouthwatering street food before we leave the country. Eat your heart out What I Did For Dinner.


The most outstanding feature of Thai food is its emphasis on balance between four basic flavors: sweet, spicy, sour, and salty. We began our cooking class by harvesting the following ingredients, which form the backbone of the Thai flavor profile, from the farm's garden.

Kaffir limes look like regular limes with bumpy skin. Their leaves are used whole to flavor soups and curry broth but are not eaten directly, similarly to bay leaves in American cuisine. Kaffir lime peel is used in making curry paste but the fruit, which is bitter, is not consumed.

John harvesting lemongrass. It looks like a large green onion but more yellow in color. However, the stalk is very fiberous and cannot be eaten directly unless finely grated. For soups and curries, the bottom 1/3 of the stalk is chopped into 1" pieces that are not eaten. For curry paste, the stalk is finely chopped and then ground with a mortar and pestle. 

Fresh tumeric root looks like ginger but is bright orange on the inside. It's tumeric that gives yellow curry its distinctive color. In Thai food, it is peeled and then ground for curry pastes.

Thai chilies come in both red and green. A good rule of thumb for chilies is the smaller they are, the hotter they are. We used one chili in most of our dishes, but Andrew likes two. 

Andrew picking garlic chives, also known as Chinese chives to add savory flavor to our dishes.

Galangal is in the same family as ginger, but used more frequently in Thai cuisine. Both galangal and ginger are fiberous rhizomes that, when left whole in a dish, are not eaten. 

Thai Curry

While there are many flavors of curry in Thai food, they are all made from the same basic recipe: make curry paste, heat it, add coconut milk, add other flavors, add veggies and meat, and cook at a medium simmer until done. It is actually better to grind curry paste manually rather than use a food processor (bummer, I know) because it helps to release the flavor oils from the food more effectively. For that same reason, we toasted the cumin and coriander seeds, which were the first two ingredients that we ground for our paste. Home made curry paste lasts 3-5 weeks, but if you add extra salt it can last 3-5 months in the fridge.

In our class, we learned to make red, yellow, and green curry. The color and flavor of red curry comes from chilies, while yellow curry's is from turmeric and green curry's is from herbs like cilantro and basil. 

It takes muscle and patience to pound out a good curry paste!

Voila! Finished curry with added Thai basil for garnish.

Pad Thai

Oh man I've made some bad pad thais. Usually its a creative and ungodly blend of dried shrimp, soy sauce, peanut butter, sugar, lime juice.... plus lots of things that don't even belong in pad thai. Then I get flustered and cook it to death until its soggy mush that I force on whatever poor friend or parent I happen to have volunteered to cook for. Well NO MORE!

Getting the ingredients ready. 

We learned to make pad thai sauce with tamarind paste (sour), palm sugar (sweet), fish sauce (salty), molasses (sweet), and oyster sauce (savory). We also learned to cut our ingredients extra thin so that the whole dish cooked easily in 5 minutes. The final results were some of the best pad thai I've had so far in Thailand! 

Other Fun Facts

  • Thai people use chopsticks to eat noodles and Chinese dishes and use a fork and spoon for rice and most everything else. 
  • The difference between coconut cream and coconut milk is similar to the difference between extra virgin and regular olive oil in that its the liquid that results from the first press of the fruit. To make coconut milk from coconut cream, just add water. 
  • Fish sauce goes bad after a couple of months and must therefore be replaced regularly. Who knew that fermented fish water actually goes bad? If you're vegetarian, substitute with soy sauce to provide the "salty" element to your Thai food. Otherwise, look for fish sauce with a caramel tint rather than a dark brown color. 
  • Mango sticky rice will change your life. Seriously guys. 'Nuff said.

Farewells with our talented instructor, Benny.