Song of the day: Let it Go – that one off the Disney film Frozen. It’s a banging tune and Pern, our cooking instructor, kept throwing bits of herb into the garden and singing it.
Today we passed into legend as the greatest ever Farang to have cooked Thai food. As we returned to Chiang Mai the traffic parted, scooter drivers dismounted and bowed to us, and street food vendors wept in the street in solemn homage to the perfection of Hollie’s spring rolls.
Alright, you’ve got me – I’m exaggerating – but only a little bit.
We met our teacher for the day, Pern, at a minibus round the corner from our hostel. We were ferried to a rustic rural location about an hour out of Chiang Mai. Along the way we saw buffalo grazing untethered at the side of the road – sometimes in the road – and I recall thinking that I was glad that we’re in a minibus and not trundling along past them on a low-powered scooter. The Thai Farm Cooking School is one of the better known cooking schools operating in Chiang Mai, and I’m not surprised that they’ve built up such an excellent reputation. Their premises is an organic farm on which pretty much all of the ingredients that are used in the cooking are grown. With about three or four classes of ten people cooking five courses a day, it must pay to grow your own ingredients.
After the usual United Nations-like meet and greet in which all of the class introduced themselves, we went for a tour of the allotments, in which Pern showed us what various herbs and vegetables look like on the plant. The highlight of this tour for me was the kaffir lime tree and the holy basil plants. Kaffir lime is a fruit that looks like a nobblier version of the one that we are accustomed to. The rind and juice, as well as the plant’s leaves are used in cooking, and one smell of the fragrance of the leaf immediately puts you in mind of a traditional Thai green curry. Holy basil is a herb which is native to the Indian Subcontinent – it is sacred in Hinduism and now to me as well, as I love the stuff. I wouldn’t compare the smell or taste to the kind of basil widely used in Europe, but it does provide a distinctive yet unobtrusive flavour to a dish. Pern said that she believed stir-fried holy basil had more of a claim to being Thailand’s national dish than Pad Thai – as the herb grows in such abundance it is much cheaper to source than the tamarind and other ingredients used in Pad Thai. I’ve had a quick google and it looks as if we’re going to struggle to get either of these ingredients fresh in England, so I’m going to have to fill my face with dishes containing them as much as possible until we come home. Also of interest were tiny, toddler-sized trees containing a single baby pineapple each – we had never seen young pineapple trees before and some day these will grow up to be the tall, swaying symbols of exotic locations that we usually see only on postcards in Britain.
Our first culinary task was to create a proper paste to form the basis of our curry. Hollie had picked red and me green, with both of us erring on the side of caution when it came to chillies. I’ve got a taste for hotter dishes than Hollie but I’ve already made the macho mistake during this trip of taking on more spice than I can handle when I ate a panang curry in Ayutthaya – my face resembled a baboon’s arse by the time I’d polished it off. I won’t go fully into the details of what ingredients go into making the perfect curry paste – who knows, maybe we’ll cook for you some time when we open our string of Thai restaurants in England and you can sample it for yourself. What is essential is that all ingredients that go in are chopped as finely as possible, and then smashed into a very fine paste using a pestle and mortar. Pern stood at the head of the table, banging her fist and shouting at us like some mad General. “Harder! Louder! Faster!” as we pulverised a variety of exotic ingredients. I was way ahead of the game at this point, enjoying smashing the hell out of the contents of my bowl. At one point Pern leaned over and whispered “You are too loud and too fast” as I threatened to split the table in two. Naturally, she used my curry paste as an example to the rest fo the class. “When your paste is finished it will look like Tom’s.” I winked at Hollie smugly and awarded myself an imaginary medal.
In the neanderthal task of hitting things I was top of the class, but as the day wore on I slipped down the rankings, with Hollie rising up the other way. In fact, after establishing we were a couple Pern kept saying to Hollie “Look after Tom” and “I teach you and you teach him later.” By the time we got to spring rolls Hollie was star pupil, wrapping her parcels of vegetable so neatly that she drew a round of applause from the rest of the class. Hollie usually wraps all my Christmas presents as if I do my own they tend to look like a dog has attacked them, and I think she applied the same physics to pastry sheets that she does to gift-wrapping. Hollie may also be credited in the near future with inventing a new Thai curry known as the “White Curry”, or perhaps even, the “Fallang”. She used less than half a chilli in her paste, and as a consequence her dish didn’t have the usual pigment. Nonetheless, it was almost as delicious as my green curry! The thing that strikes me about Thai cooking is the speed with which meals are cooked. The term “fast food” is always associated with burgers and chips and other unhealthy stuff, but Thai food is faster and, on the whole, healthier. If Pern’s stove was on for more than a minute and a half for any of each the meals she cooked I’d be surprised. When cooking Pad Thai she pumped up the gas and the flames rose high above her head, and with skill and precision she ensured that the chicken, vegeatable and noodles were cooked to perfection. Obviously our own attempts at cooking were slowed down from her examples, but with practice I think it would be possible to cook a lot of Thai meals in under two minutes, meat and all – as with a lot of cooking, the preparation of ingredients is the time-consuming part.
The above images were taken when Hollie “accidentally” set the camera to take timed images of my face as I tasted my food…
Over the course of the day Hollie cooked: Tom Yam Soup with shrimps, Red Curry, Spring Rolls, Sweet and Sour chicken and Mango with Sticky Rice. I cooked Tom Ka coconut soup, Green Curry, Pad Thai, Chicken with Holy Basil and Banana in Coconut Milk. We’d not given Thai desserts much of a sampling so far, but both puds were absolutely delicious, and possibly healthier than most othe desserts, in spite of the palm sugar and creamed coconut content. By the end of the day our hearts and stomachs were full.
We returned to Chiang Mai and after slipping into a food induced coma for an hour or so, we went out to grace the reggae bar with our presence one last time. From what we have witnessed, live music is huge in Thailand and many restaurants we visited had a live band playing. Having played in bands in England I like to think I’ve got an ear for a tune, and although pretty much everything we’ve heard has been covers of classic songs I can tell you that the standard of musicianship is amazing. We got ourselves a drink and sat down to watch a three-piece group, the singer of which looked strikingly like John Lennon – he obviously knew it as well because he was sporting a pair of round-lensed glasses and a similar haircut. About halfway through their set a big, muscly meathead with greasy blonde hair poking out from underneath a baseball cap sat down right in front of them and begged to be allowed to play “Just one song!” He was an English lad and the band onstage gracefully gave way and allowed him to play his one song. Upon being allowed to play he immediately beckoned to about five of his mates who were sat outside. They came in and sat down without buying a drink, and proceeded to shout and whoop whilst he whined his way through a cover of a Jason Mraz song. The Thai band stood politely and watched, applauding at the end, then got back on stage. The Lennon lookalike tried to take his guitar back but the English lad wrenched it away and begged “Just one more!” He then announced through the mic to a bemused audience “I should be getting paid for this.” Hollie had to distract me through the next ten minutes to prevent me from going up there and belting him. I’m of the opinion that unless it’s an open mic night, you don’t ask a band if you can play before their set is finished. Even if they’re gracious enough to let you have one song, you don’t push it. This lad went through a medley of four pop songs, singing in a well-polished X Factor warble whilst making announcements like “This one’s for the ladies” between songs. After his last song, the Lennon-alike had to more or less yank the guitar out of this tosspot’s hand! Before leaving, the English lad picked up his beer in one hand and the mic in the other and announced “Thanks for letting me play, although you lot were shocking. I even bought a beer.” before swanning off into the night with his mates, who still hadn’t bought a drink. Hollie and me were embarassed to be from the same little island as this utter wally, and as we popped 100 baht into the band’s tipbox I couldn’t help hoping that he and his mates had an even closer encounter with the python that we had spotted on Friday night.
We headed back to the hostel to pack. Chiang Mai has been really good to us, but tomorrow it will be time to move on – there’s so much more to fit in!
Love Tom and Hollie x