I intend to write a number of posts about the fantastic things I've done so far in my 70 days of traveling — and I feel like I'm way behind on the earlier stuff — but yesterday I experienced something that I need to write about now.
It was that good.
Welcome to the Chiang Mai Thai Farm Cooking School in northern Thailand.
The Thai Farm taxi picked me up from my guesthouse at 9 a.m. and, along with several other hungry travelers, we headed to Ruamchook Market to learn a bit about the staples of Thai cooking.
Our instructor, who used to be a vendor at this market, showed us several different types of rice and explained what they're used for. She also introduced us to ingredients we would be using a lot, like fish sauce and oyster sauce, and showed us examples of the red, green and yellow curry paste we'd be making from scratch.
We then had about 10 minutes to explore the market on our own, and I mysteriously found myself staring at mango sticky rice heaven. I had to restrain myself from diving face-first into this luscious pile of fruit!
I should note here that I've developed a sweet vice in each country I've visited so far:
New Zealand: Nutella
Australia: Tim Tams
Singapore and Malaysia: Chocolate milkshakes (refreshing on hot days!)
Thailand: Mango sticky rice
At least my current vice involves fruit...?
Our group finished up at the market and drove about 25 minutes to the Thai Farm Cooking School, which was such a lovely getaway from the busier heart of Chiang Mai. Our instructor began by showing us how to prepare regular rice (in a rice cooker) and sticky rice (steamed in a bamboo basket).
We then took a wonderful tour of the organic farm and picked herbs that we would later cook with, like Thai parsley, coriander and spring onion.
Our first project was to make a curry paste of our choice (I went with yellow) using garlic, shallots, lemongrass, ginger, lime rind, chillies and herbs.
After finely chopping all of the ingredients and pounding the hell out of them with a mortar and pestle, I wound up with my lovely yellow curry paste.
Now, time to get cooking! We each had our own spacious work station in a bright, airy little building. For each course, we had a choice of three dishes, and the ingredients for our chosen dish were neatly laid out for us on a pretty platter. This totally made me feel like I was on a cooking show, where everything is perfectly prepped in advance.
Here was my setup for making Tom Yam soup with shrimp (although the yellow curry paste was saved for later).
Even though various people were making different soups, our instructor seamlessly led us through the process for each one. I did all my chopping, combining, boiling and stirring, ending up with this beautiful soup.
I've never been blown away by soup before, but this was amazing — so flavorful and delicious. I'll definitely be making it again!
The yellow curry with chicken was next, and it was bit spicy for me (I'm a total wimp), but still tasty and the most stunning, rich color. I wound up taking some of this back to my guesthouse and polishing it off at 2 a.m. : )
The next course was a stir-fry, and we had a choice between fried chicken with basil, fried chicken with cashews and sweet-and-sour chicken.
I chose the sweet-and-sour chicken, which actually left me gobsmacked. Between each bite, I kept saying, "I can't believe how good this is. Wow, I can't believe how good this is..."
I will definitely be making this over and over again once I get home. Here's the recipe — try it!
My fellow cooking students enjoyed their dishes as well, and we all shared bites. We also took a break from cooking and eating to make more room for the final two courses, and you can tell just how full everyone felt!
My final main-course dish was one I've been eating like it's my job since I arrived in Thailand: Pad Thai.
I've eaten a lot of it, but this was by far the best version — so fresh, so flavorful, so drool-worthy. I was surprised by how simple and healthy this dish actually is (if you minimize the oil you use). I made the mistake of ordering Pad Thai today for lunch and it fell way short due to the lack of sauce; the key to greatness yesterday included fish sauce, oyster sauce, ketchup and molasses.
The instructor also showed us how to make a lovely tomato-rose garnish!
This was her effort, not mine, but I now know how to do this if I really want to impress someone.
Are you feeling full just looking at all this food? Hang on — the grand finale is worth making room for!
It's really, really bad that I now know how to make mango sticky rice. (And now you do, too.) Of course, the problem back home will be finding mangoes that are even one-tenth as incredible as the mangoes in Thailand... and that's why I plan to enjoy mango sticky rice as much as possible while I'm here.
Five courses. Seven hours. 1,000 baht (about $32 USD). One full and happy tummy. And countless gorgeous details that made this day unforgettable.
As if it weren't obvious, I cannot recommend the Chiang Mai Thai Farm Cooking School enough. You can do one full-day course like I did, or even spring for a two- or three-day course if you just can't get enough. Everyone walked away with a wonderful recipe book packed full of everything we learned, and some of the recipes are also available here. Plus, our instructor was happy to modify each recipe to fit vegetarian and vegan diets.
Cooking schools seem like they're a dime a dozen in Chiang Mai, but I think the Thai Farm is really something special.
Quite simply, I think it's cooking heaven.