Master Chef Chiang Mai... Asia Scenic Thai Cooking School, Warawat Market & Last Dinner

Phew, took more than 2 hours to finish this post

From Lisa Simpson's diary

Remember those precocious kids in class? The sort who would complete the teacher's sentences before finished, raise their hands before the question was asked, get all the answers right and jump up when they got a nod of appreciation? The type you would throw spitballs at, want to give wedgies to and in whose lunch you would spit into? Well, I must confess that I played this Lisa Simpson role to perfection recently at Asia Scenic's Thai Cooking Class at Chiang Mai a few day's back.

I took the half day cooking course and they picked us up from the hotel. It cost about 700 baht which should be roughly around 1000 Rs. We met our instructor, the very effusive, bubbly and rather thin for a chef, young lady, Mam (as in wham). She apologised for her English which was actually pretty good. Thailand has the best travel guides, etc amongst the three Oriental countries that I have been to. Our group was a motley gang of folks from Australia, Canada, San Francisco (interestingly not 'USA'), Ireland, Israel, France and of course me from aamchi Mumbai.

We started off with Mam showing us various herbs and roots in the little garden, 'organic', at the venue. I, of course, played me role of teacher's pet by identifying all the herbs - coriander, lemon grass, basil, galangal - cracking jokes about how tough it is to slice galangal and then baby-talking to a fellow student who confused tamarind with turmeric. I am surprised noone slapped me.

We then walked to a local market. It was rather empty. I asked Mam, who told me that locals do come here and that apparently it was not just for tourists. Think of any local Indian market - Gariahat, Bansdroni, Dadar or Khar and you will get an idea of the place. Shops selling rice, vegetables, fish and condiments, small scale though. Mam gave us a lecture on the varieties of rice and about how they mixed brown and jasmine when they cooked rice. I learnt the difference between eggplant (small and used in curries) versus brinjals. That the little Thai Brinjals, pieces of lemon grass or kaffir limes in Thai food are not meant to be chewed. She pointed me to a small shop where I picked up local shrimp paste for my lunch mate at Fort, Mumbai Central.

We came back to a snack of Meang Kum, betel nuts and condiments which I first came across at the Thai restaurant at Calcutta, Benjarong. And then off we went to cook. Had to choose starters first so I went in for pad thai which Pravin, the most sporting vegetarian in the world, lived on at Bangkok. The cooking method was similar to how I cook hakka noodles. The condiments, oyster sauce and fish sauce different from the soy sauce and vinegar in my Hakka. The cooking method of sauteing the chicken and tofu and pushing it to a corner of the wok and then cracking an egg and then adding the noodles was interesting. As was adding water to the fresh noodles to soften them versus preboiling preserved noodles that we do at home. "Veggies at the end", Mam said. Just as I had learnt from my mother who learnt from my father who, if memory serves me right, learnt from a Chinese patient of his in the UK.

The kitchen by the garden was a bit like a set in Master Chef. We donned our leather aprons and formed a horse shoe with individual cooking stations - woks (not non stick), industrial burner, ladles, sauces, our chopping boards. I must say that I was rather relieved to get my dish right at one go.

We headed to our tables to eat what we made. Luckily mine was cooked a by a great chef and I quite enjoyed my mid morning snack. The one thing that struck me as I dug into the creamy egg, the soft noodles, the zesty chicken, the rather muscular fried tofu and the crunchy carrots, spring onions and beans sprouts was the fact that most Thai food seems to be a harmonious balance of different textures, food groups and colours. The end result is a dish full of life and soul. The only Indian dish that I can think matching this would perhaps be papdi chaat. Correct me if you think otherwise but I feel that most Indian dishes are dominated by one or two themes in the dish unlike in the more multi faceted dishes of the Orient.

Starter done, it was back to our chopping stations. I really missed Banu, my sous chef cum cook cum maid back home, as I sliced through mounds of shallots, herbs and vegetables and smashed, peeled and chopped garlic with the menacing looking cleaver that they gave us.  I chose to make red curry as it is rather difficult to get a good red curry at Mumbai. We learnt that the core method of cooking curries are the same. The difference lies in the use of green versus red chillies and peanuts for Massaman. I realised that my own little inspired vegetarian 'green curry' was quite off the mark.

Then the time came to pound away. Grand mortar and pestles in which we had to make chilli pastes for the curries. This is where Bengali cunning and laziness came to the rescue as I sat back and let my neighbour from the 'sporty nation' of Australia take over. Soon the aroma of freshly ground red and green chillies, galangal and turmeric wafted through bringing alive memories of my grandmothers' kitchens from the 70's and 80s. From a world well before that of packaged, soul-less, branded spice powder.

I cooked sweet and sour chicken, red curry with chicken (lot thinner than what we get at Mumbai, only Candies gets the consistency right) and tom yum soup with shrimps. How did it turn out? Well Mam came to our stations and tasted the soup. She sipped mine and said 'very good'. Went to the others and asked some to add more fish sauce, others more lemon grass and to some more palm sugar. Though in hindsight I perhaps shouldn't have made smug, smirk, gloating faces as she corrected my fellow students.

We finally sat down to eat our own creations. One of my best meals at Thailand (there did I loose three more readers with my smugness?). If you want the recipes then click here for the link on the Asia Scenic site.

On the way out I met the petite and charming Gay Ray who owns and runs the school. I was later going through her bio where among other things she wrote about how she wanted to prove that women in Thailand can run successful businesses even 'without rich boyfriends'. 

Our teacher Mam at the spice garden
Never saw anyone get so excited over tofu
Meang Kum or Thai Paan
btw they upload pics on their site too

chop chop where's Banu?

Master Chef Chiang Mai
pad thai noodles
No wonder they won the Commonwealth Games
Practising my acting skills
red chilli paste
green chilli paste

My Red Thai curry
Lisa Simpson?
The 'perfect' Tom Yum soup
What a feast
Class of November 8, 2010
'Thai women can run businesses without rich boy friends'. Gary Ray, the owner, in black and our teacher, Mam.

I love shopping

At the end of the cooking class I was convinced that I had to get myself a mortar and pestle and a cleaver. Gay told me that I could get these at Warawat market which was actually very close to my hotel, The Small Hotel. She gave me the indicative prices for these.

I went to Warawat after a quick shower. Walked down the main market centre where they were selling preserved fruits, preserved nuts, preserved fish, pastes...past a food court where they were selling sausages and curries and preserved buffalo...down an alley where I initially spotted plastic utensils then knives and then my mortar and pestle. I found what I wanted. Some good natured bargaining with a little Thai girl and her father and then I moved on searching for a better price.

I crossed the road, said hi to Mama Huong's friends and walked into the Tom Yan Lin (or so I think) market...more preserved fruits (finally got candied pineapples for Cloudcutter), preserved nuts, preserved fish...another narrow market lane and a utensil shop with a little chubby Thai girl with rosy cheeks. I HAD to buy my things from her. She looked too cherubic to say no to. I got myself my dream mortar and pestle and meat cleaver for 500 (400 + 100) baht after a bit of giggly haggling.

I walked back to the hotel with my booty... mortar and pestle, cleaver, sausages, candied fruits, herbs and pastes. Stopped at a handmade cappuccino cart and sipped on the hot and sweet brew as I chatted with a Brit who had fallen in love with Chiang Mai and who marvelled at the high prices of Mumbai's real estate. Some more unscheduled stops to nibble on Chiang Mai sausages at the market and then sip on the incredibly sweet fresh Thai coconut water on the way to hotel ... and to think that I give K such a tough time when she shops during our holidays.

Must thank Gay of Asia Scenic for sending me here.

candied fruits, fish, insects
Cappuccino stall by the gold shop

She was waiting for me with my mortar and pestle
This beauty is now in our kitchen at Bandra
Pickled Chiang Mai sausages. Got some back
I think they were quite amused to see this man from 'veggie land' munch away on sausages
Thai coconut water...sip them while you can

Casablanca... last dinner at Chiang Mai

Even Orhan Pamuk is no match to my melancholy on the last day of a holiday. And Chiang Mai knew that. The city square seemed deserted on Monday unlike on market night on Sunday. I was the only customer at Starbucks and they remembered my order, 'short cappuccino'. The famous curry shop Aroon Rai, was empty and I gave it a miss. Strolled into George's book shop, 'Backstreet Books'. Chatted about how he settled at Chiang Main 19 years back. Of how the Irishman went to my Calcutta every year to buy books at College Street. Of his one trip to Mumbai. On hearing that K loved books by Chuck Palhanouk, he said, 'I would be wary if my wife liked his stuff, he is crazy".

Stopped at a Chinese shop and had fried sausages and morning glory with sticky rice. A forty year old shop run by a gentleman who was half Chinese and half Thai. I marvelled at how I picked the sausages with chopsticks without thinking twice. Had I finally gone native?

The price of 75 baht in the humble shop in the road beside The Small Hotel seemed a 'farang' or foreigner price. But for a fellow brown skin?

I couldn't end the trip without another Khow Sui so I went to Aroon Rai which was shut by then (10 PM). I walked back to Ratana's Kitchen. Woke the sleepy ladies up and had a creamy Khow Soi (50 baht). It was nourishing but lacked the zest of the khow soi at the cart at the Sunday market. One of the Mamas giggled at my bumbling chopstick attempts and sent a fork and spoon for my. I smiled and continued to blunder my way with the chopsticks.

A banana and chocolate pancake freshly made by the gorgeous grandma and her Pakistani husband at their cart to close the night and I went back to my hotel room and slept like a baby.

George of Backstreet Books

Fried morning glory...I actually asked for a vegetarian dish...liked it

Going native...picked up the chopsticks without a second thought
75 baht? Seriously?
My last Khow Soi
I think I am in love with her

Good night Chiang Mai


Sassy Fork said…
You had such a fun trip and a fun cooking class!
Guess what...I actually saw Morning Glory being served at Ling's today and was planning to have it next time!
Kirti said…
Roll over Bourdain, Jimmy Chin, Floyd and Bagchi. Our own Kalyan rules!
Unknown said…
What a beautiful post. I love your enthusiasm and passion. Rare to find. So heart your experience at the cooking class you were at. So much fun to be that clever boy in class. Your teacher Mam looks so beautiful.
Anonymous said…
Awesome :) Loved all the pics... was imagining how rocking the cooking class would have been.
Unknown said…
this is serious fun.. awesome post. great pics..i was with you on the ride as i read it... fantastic.
Kalyan Karmakar said…
@Sassy Fork, Let's try it together. I can compare notes

@Kirti, joi ho Chief Foodie...hope you are making biriyani for Saturday night and stocking up on Old Monk

@Pree, I was just enjoying myself, Mam was very sweet indeed

@greyindecision, that it was :)

@Curry Spice, that was some ride :)

@Kruzon, Chef Knives, thanks :)