A transformation moment came to this blog when someone from my hike once asked me about the Filipino cuisine. She knows that I have been to hiking in many places in the Philippines.
“So what’s the distinctive taste about Filipino food?”
I tried my best to recall the type of food I had during my travels, and I realized that almost all the time, after a hike, I will be so deadbeat in my hotel room that I couldn’t remember what I’d eaten. The choice of food would be mostly limited to hotel room service at best or Jollibee, which is the Philippines’ fast food answer to McDonalds.
I couldn’t answer my hiker friend’s question and that conversation bothered me for quite a while.
“When you eat, you travel.” Mina Holland wrote in her award-winning book The World on a Plate.
I have to agree. You can experience another dimension of travel when tasting a new flavour, walking through a colourful market, and learning about the culinary culture of a country.
Walk into any tour operating companies in Chiang Mai and you will find stacks of advertisements from different cooking schools offering Thai cooking classes. A quick check through Trip Advisor will give you an estimate of 30 such cooking schools in Chiang Mai itself!
Now it is simple to step inside into any one of these schools, follow the coach’s instruction, throw a few ingredient into the wok and whip up a dish where you earn the bragging right of your own cooked dish. But to understand the rich culture and history of Thai food, you will have to check out Grandma’s Thai Recipes operated by Chanisa (or affectionately known as Jib).
Having grown up in her family’s restaurant, Jib offers her students an in-depth education of not just whipping up a few Thai dishes, but an authentic experience of learning about Thai culture in a small group, family setting.
Thai Food/ Street Food
Thai cuisine values texture, color, taste and the use of ingredients with medicinal properties. Thai chefs are very in tune to not only the taste of a dish but also its presentation and the way it smells. Dishes are lighter, strongly aromatic and have spicy properties. It is also characterized by its distinct taste range that incorporates sweet, sour, spicy, bitter and salty.
Although the country is relatively small, it falls into four distinct categories based on region. As Thailand borders many countries, its modern cuisine has been derived from the influences of Burma, Malaysia, China, Laos, and even Vietnam.
Thai street food is also hugely popular, and many dishes can only be found out there on the street. Common ingredients that give the dishes their flavor profile includes kaffir lime leaves, sweet basil, coconut milk, galangal, and crushed red chili peppers.
Marketing at Ton Lam Yai market. Unlike other cooking schools where ingredients are prepared for the students, Jib brings her students to a local market to purchase raw meat and ingredients where food preparation starts from scratch.
Classroom for the day is a street side stall in Don Keow, Mae Rim district. The usual classroom at Grandma Restaurant was closed for the day. This joint is owned by Jib’s cousin, Thong, who used to work as a master chef in a 5-star hotel. He had to leave his job due to family reasons. Their home is just next to the stall.
The preparation of ingredients. Jib’s cooking class starts from ground zero. This includes peeling of shallots and onions and cutting of chilies, garlic, and others. It is a uniquely soothing experience to prepare ingredients to create a new dish.
These fishy snacks are also referred as Thot man pla and are popular in Thailand and all over the world. They are made by first mashing the fish together with fresh cilantro, yardlong beans, kaffir lime leaves, fish sauce, egg, and red curry paste. It is then deep fried and served alongside a sweet chili sauce for dipping.
Fishcakes are typically found fried up from stalls around the streets of Thailand and are best eaten right out of the oil while they are still hot and crispy. In addition to the sweet chili sauce, adding a handful of chopped cucumber, fresh cilantro, and a squeeze of lime juice makes them taste even better.
The fish used in these cakes are typically Haddock or White fish, and oily varieties are less preferred.
Tom Yum Soup
This clear soup is characterized by its sour and spicy flavor profile and is extremely popular in Thailand and neighboring countries. In Thai, the name refers to both the boiling process and the Thai spicy and sour salad dish. Tom Yum broth is made from stock, lime juice, kaffir lime leaves, galangal, lemongrass, fish sauce, and chili peppers.
Although Tom Yum paste is commercially sold, it often tastes slightly different from the homemade variety. Adding protein to the soup is not unusual in Thailand and it is most commonly chicken, shrimp, beef , or pork.
As it has been adopted and changed throughout neighboring countries and regions of Thailand, the soup itself has also taken on various profiles. Tom Yam Kung is most popular amongst tourists visiting Thailand and is made with shrimp while Tom Yam Pla is a clear soup that is made with fish and served with rice. Tom Yum Gai is made with chicken, Tom Yam Thale is made with mixed seafood such as shrimp, fish, clams and squid, while Tom Yam Nam Khon is always made with shrimp and with coconut milk added in the broth.
Tom Yam Kung Maphrao is made with shrimp, coconut milk, and coconut meat. Tom Yam Kha Mu is made with pork leg.
Mango and Sticky Rice
This dish is served for dessert and consists of glutinous rice, fresh mango, and coconut milk. It is traditionally eaten with the hands by rolling the sticky rice between the fingers and using it to scoop up the mango slices. Unlike many desserts, it is served at room temperature or even warm.
Besides its main components, the dish is also made with palm sugar, salt, and sometimes brown sugar. The best kind of mangoes to use are the Namdokmai and Ok-rong species. The dish is prepared by first soaking the rice in water and then cooking it by steaming while the coconut milk is heated to a point just before boiling. The sugar and salt must be then added to the warm coconut milk until completely dissolved.
After the rice has cooked, it is to be mixed with the coconut milk and let sit until it has all absorbed into the rice. Peel and slice the mangoes to be put on the side of the plate, scoop the rice next to the pieces and drizzle any remaining coconut milk on top.
Jib insists in keeping her class small groups so the participants know each other and won’t be over conscious. This makes it easy to learn and interact in a non-threatening atmosphere. For a newbie like me, this was extremely important!
After we had prepared our dishes, we sat down by the table and chit-chatted as old friends with Jib and her cousin, Thong. Thong even brought out his own special tonic Thai wine and served us. He is also an avid hiker who has trekked almost all of the mountains in northern Thailand. He plays the guitar and even belts out a great tune as well! 100% satisfaction achieved from this cooking session.
How is this for a complete family style cooking lesson at Grandma’s Thai Recipe?
There is such beauty in the simple things. As with any journey in life, we can create a tremendous amount of confusion with our culinary journey by trying to do too much. Sometimes the best path is the simple path. Finding the authentic flavours of a dish, accompanied by such great company, was something that I’ll never forget.
What are some of your favorite Thai dishes? Please feel free to share some of your recipes with us here if you wish.
Grandma’s Thai Recipe is situated at 265 Mu 3 Don Geow, Mae Rim, Chiang Mai. For more information about their cooking classes, please visit their website
Read more stories from our culinary journeys at Travelling Wok