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A Unique Cooking Experience

A Unique Cooking Experience

on Nov 11, 2013 in Blog, Food & Drink, Travel Log

Chiang Rai is a smaller, lesser known town in northern Thailand that usually gets overshadowed by the bigger town of Chiang Mai. But both Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai offer similar tourist attractions including tours to hill towns, elephant safaris, trips to the golden triangle, as well as many bicycle rides, trekking opportunities and cooking classes. The cooking classes immediately caught my attention as I love to cook. I thought it would be a great opportunity to learn more about Thai food and hopefully head home with new recipes and skills!

So, I consulted Trip Advisor for reviews and made an inquiry with the top rated cooking school in Chiang Rai. Unfortunately, my request went unanswered, so I decided to inquire with another highly rated class. The class had fewer reviews but all were very positive. This time the response to my inquiry was almost immediate and I scheduled a full-day cooking adventure—and what an adventure it would be! I’m not so sure our Thai cooking skills improved, but we definitely learned a lot about Thai culture from our high energy guide and instructor. Here’s how it all unfolded.

The Meeting

Our guide met us at our hotel. We mistook her as a tourist at first since she was taking pictures of the hotel lobby with an iPad. After finding us and introducing herself, she handed us her iPad and asked us to take her picture with the mountain view in the background! What an unexpected role reversal. Weren’t we the tourists? This was the first signal we were in for a unique day.

Apparently, she was impressed by the hotel. She explained that it was the nicest in town and locals would never have the opportunity to stay at such a nice place. She continued to inform us that a single night stay would cost the equivalent of one month’s salary for many locals! This fact definitely gave us pause and re-iterated how fortunate we are.

The Drive

We made our way to her car. I climbed in the front seat and Kevin sat in back. Our guide, small in stature, climbed in the driver’s seat with it pulled as far forward as it could so she could reach the pedals and still see over the steering wheel.

Getting Lost

We hadn’t made it a block from our hotel when our host informed us that she was lost! A bit flustered, she drove the car cautiously and bemoaned the fact that she didn’t know exactly which way to go. When we proved to be useless, she yelled out the window at a passerby and ultimately flagged down another car at an intersection to ask for directions! She eventually got her bearings and we made our way through town and towards the market to shop for some fresh ingredients.

Defining Menus

During the drive, Kevin and I were caught off guard again when our guide asked us to define the menu for the day. As Thai food novices, we had hoped to learn about Thai food from an expert and expand our palate beyond Pad Thai. We didn’t know a lot of other Thai dishes so we struggled with her simple question. It made for a few awkward moments. She continued to probe for an answer and we continued to look for some ideas from her. We ultimately agreed to simply take a trip through the market for inspiration.

Learning Thai

While Kevin swatted at the mosquitoes swarming around in the back seat, our guide encouraged us to engage and speak with the vendors at the market. We agreed and she gave us a pocketbook with money and taught us a few key Thai phrases. We jotted the phrases down to help us remember the pronunciation and were ready to hit the market with:

  • How much? (tao rai)
  • Delicious (aroi mak)
  • Not Spicy (mai phet)

The Market

Rolling through a Thai market.

Rolling through the market in Chaing Rai.

With our colorful pocketbook in hand, we followed our enthusiastic guide (and her rolling basket) into the market. She was so excited to show and tell us about everything. She stopped at stalls to point out unique foods and to ask us if we’d ever tried them. If not, she gave us the opportunity to taste them. At one point she bought banana sticky rice for us. It was tasty! However, before we could even finish the last bite, she snatched it from our hands and threw it away. It was almost comical! Perhaps she was just too excited to show us the next stall. At times it was almost like watching a bull in a China shop…or perhaps a hurricane. She swept through the narrow alleys and wound her way through the people even rolling over a few toes with her basket.

Despite being somewhat oblivious in the market, our guide definitely gave us a lot of cultural insights. In previous market visits, we had observed many live animals for sale including birds, turtles, and eels. The caged birds were rather sad. We even discussed buying some at one point  just to free them from their tiny little cages! Our guide shared with us that Thais actually buy these live animals so they can set them free! Each animal represents something different and by purchasing and releasing it they gain that animal’s attribute. For example: a turtle represents longevity. Thus when a person buys and releases a turtle they believe it will bring them a longer life. That made us feel a little better about the little birds. Hopefully someone would buy them soon!

Caged birds ready to be set free!

Caged birds ready to be set free!

We also learned a lot about the food. We saw the various varieties of curry, chili peppers and rice as well as the different kinds of shrimp. At the shrimp stall, we learned that the head is a delicacy in the Thai culture. Our guide as well as the gentleman selling the shrimp confirmed it to be the tastiest part. Our guide was constantly pushing the envelope. At one point she picked up a piece of bamboo from a stall, removed the leaf cap and dumped the contents into Kevin’s hand. They were live bamboo worms! However, these weren’t for setting free…these were for eating.

The market was almost like a stage for our host. She was the director and we were her actors. She constantly wanted us to jump behind the stands to pose for a photo. She was actually snapping photos the entire day on her iPad…that is, when she could figure out how to get to the camera. It was actually a very genuine and sweet gesture to make sure we had photos of our time in Thailand.

Posing as a vendor at one of the veggie stalls.

Posing as a vendor at one of the veggie stalls.

Our journey through the market was a whirlwind and we slowly collected ingredients for our day of cooking. It was nice to know a few Thai words and interact directly with the vendors! Our guide coached us along the way and some vendors were amused but others were noticeably annoyed by her antics. Nonetheless, we were able to purchase fresh coconut milk (which, by the way, will only stay good for 3 hours!), sprouts, curry paste, mushrooms, a tuna-like fish (in banana leaves), mushrooms, green mangoes and even the bamboo worms! Our guide loved the fact that we (it really was only Kevin) were willing to try them.

Holding bamboo worms that we'd later fry into crispy snacks.

Holding bamboo worms that we’d later fry into crispy snacks.

But the worms weren’t the most squeamish part for me. On our way back to the car, we stopped at the stalls where people store the coconuts used to make the fresh coconut milk.  To my horror, we saw LOTS of large cockroaches running around the area. I did my best to not react, however, when a cockroach made its way towards my foot, I was very quick to jump, let out a little squeak and run away! Our guide was quick to remind us this was an authentic Thai market, not a western-style grocery store. True. Very true.

The Kitchen

From the market we headed about 30 minutes outside of the city to our guide’s home. She was very warm and welcoming. Following Thai tradition, we slipped off our shoes on the porch and made our way into her simple, open and airy kitchen. She had us select fun aprons to wear as we enjoyed  fresh coconut water. She then took us out into her garden to pick some additional items to round out our cooking ingredients. She  instructed us to select LOTS of flowers. We thought these were to include within the dishes, but we would soon find out they were to be used as decorations instead.

Kevin in the garden with his pretty puppy apron.

Kevin in the garden with his pretty puppy apron.

After spending some time in her beautiful garden, we made our way back into the kitchen to start the food preparations. She assigned each of us a task or two. I was to peel and slice the mangoes (my Pampered Chef mango peeler would have come in handy here!). Kevin was to cut the chicken breasts into smaller pieces. But after Kevin sliced the chicken, that’s when my phobias started to kick in! Our host proceeded to use the same knife used on the chicken to slice some fresh fruit for us to eat. I think I went white as a ghost! The last thing I wanted was to get sick from raw chicken! Kevin saw me cringe and took the knife and cutting board to the sink to prevent it from being used any further.

Next, as we started to prepare the food, our host frequently dipped a spoon into the pan to taste the sauce. She would often ask our opinion of the sauce. Instead of handing us a clean spoon to taste, she would pass over the used spoon. Again, my phobias stopped me in my tracks. Re-using a single spoon for everyone to taste is a “no-no” in my book. Let’s just say that I started to lose my appetite!

The cooking continued and we became observers more than hands-on participants. Instead of cooking, I was tasked with place mat decoration! I was to use the flowers we picked in the garden to make beautiful photos of the food. We observed as our host added a bit of oyster saunce to this and a bit of coconut milk to that. It did not seem like there were any pre-defined recipes for any of the dishes. We soon learned that cooking was actually a new hobby for our guide! She admitted she had no idea how to cook until she starting the business! What?!

At the end of the day, even though we spent several hours in the kitchen, I felt no more educated about cooking Thai food. My general shock and anxiety around what I was witnessing as well as my decorating task didn’t help.

The Meal

Once completed, the meal consisted of four courses, plus some fresh fruit for dessert:

  • Fried Bamboo Worms
  • Grilled Fish in Banana Leaf
  • Red Chicken Curry
  • Pad Thai With Shrimp (including their heads)
  • Chilled & Freshly Sliced Green Mango

Our host handed her iPad to us and told us to take pictures of our freshly prepared food. After that, we sat down on the porch to enjoy the food. However, our host quickly realized that she forgot to push the button on the rice cooker! So there was no steamed rice ready to enjoy with the meal. We agreed to wait for the rice to cook, but by that time the food was already cold. It didn’t really matter. My appetite was already seriously dampened, not to mention that Kevin had agreed to try the fried worms, of which I never planned to participate! We attempted to enjoy the meal but I couldn’t help but lament over the crazy I signed up for.

As we were finishing our meal our host’s husband joined us on the patio and engaged us in conversation while our host proceeded to clean up. During that time we learned a bit more about what it was like to live in Thailand. As an ex-pat, he was able to share details about working in Thailand, the cost of living and the differences in the pace of life. We found it interesting and it gave us a new perspective on life in Thailand.

The Extras

Our host was extremely genuine and passionate. She was more than eager to share her home, Thai culture, and the natural beauty of Chiang Rai with us. That part of the day was impressive. When the cooking was over, she insisted sharing even more with us. More hilarity ensured.

Paper Lantern Lesson

Lighting paper lanterns is a common practice in Thailand. By lighting them and sending them into the sky, they’re able to send the bad parts of their life away. And November is prime time to light lanterns. That’s when Thai people celebrate two separate festivals: Loi Krathong and Yi Peng. It’s the Yi Peng festival where paper lanterns are cast into the night sky for luck and to give thanks to Buddha.

Watching our lantern rise slowly.

Watching our lantern rise slowly.

In honor of the upcoming local celebrations, our host provided a paper lantern for us and showed us how to light and launch it into the sky. This experience was a nice touch and actually would come in handy about a week later when we attended the Yi Peng  celebrations in Chiang Mai.

Livestock

Our guide constantly shared fascinating tidbits about life in the hills and rural parts of Thailand. After lighting our lantern, she wanted to show us the neighboring farms and the river where locals fish. We reluctantly followed her and of course, she wanted to take a picture of us by the river. We obliged.

Then, at the neighbor’s farm, she tried to wrangled a young cow and insisted that we take a picture with it. We politely declined. She started to pat the cow on the head while continuing to coax us into the photo opportunity. We continued to decline. At this point, the cow wasn’t too interested in the photo opp either and started to nudge our host out of the way. She didn’t seem to catch the hint. Finally, the cow had enough of the harassment, lowered his head, and gave a strong nudge that lifted our host off her feet and sent her tumbling to the ground—exactly why we wanted to avoid the photo opportunity! We helped our embarrassed host back to her feet and dusted her off. Her concern was mostly for her iPad which took a tumble too. After confirming the iPad still worked, she proceeded to smack the cow and swore she was going to eat it for dinner!

Tea Plantation

After the cow incident, we made our way from the farm back to her house where we packed up and set off  towards town. It had been a full day and both Kevin and I were exhausted and ready to call it a day. As we left her property, our host saw a ripe papaya hanging from one of her trees. As her final kind gesture, she insisted we take it back to our hotel to enjoy that evening and jumped out of the car to cut it from the tree.

She also insisted that we stop at the local tea plantation for some photos. The plantation was beautiful, especially at sunset but we were emotionally wiped out and at this point just going through the motions. After visiting multiple view points and posing for more photos—and even taking a few more of her jumping—we were more than ready to call it a day.

Mixed Feelings

We made it back to the hotel, exhausted. At first, we were disappointed about our day of “Thai cooking”. After all, our expectations were to learn how to cook. However, after looking back on it we realized that the day was not so much about learning to cook Thai food. Instead, we began to look at it as a unique opportunity to learn about Thai culture from an eccentric, enthusiastic and authentic native. Had the tour been labeled as such, we probably would’t have signed up. But, perhaps it’s more interesting that way. It was a completely unique and unexpected experience that we’ll never forget.


We wouldn’t necessarily recommend the class for cooking, but if you’re looking for a unique perspective on Thai culture, this tour will deliver all you can handle and then some. We’ve chosen to omit names from this post, but if you’re interested, contact us and we’ll gladly point you in the right direction.

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