Today was a dream come true for me.
I got to learn Thai cooking, in Thailand. I cooked in a beautiful open-air kitchen nestled on a farm in the countryside. I was surrounded by fellow travelers and foodies, sharing past travel experiences and stories of exotic adventures. AND-and and and- I got use a mortar and pestle.Alyssa and I signed up for a day-long cooking course at Thai Farm Cooking School on our third day in Chiang Mai. (Side note : There are SO many cooking courses in CM – but our guesthouse recommended that one- 1100 baht). Our instructor Embee was seriously awesome – a wildly excited / mildly crazy Thai woman who rivaled Alyssa in her enthusiasm for life…Embee led a group of 9 of us – first on a tour of the local market in the city, then out to their farm / cooking school 17 km outside the city. It was gorgeous and lush and green and a super welcome change to the concrete cities we’d been touring.Before the cooking began, we were given a much-appreciated overview of the primary Thai ingredients. Several primary ingredients serve as the base of almost all their dishes: fish sauce, coconut, ginger root (galangal), chili pepper, oyster sauce, salt, sugar, lemongrass, lime, basil and garlic.Thais value simplicity in their cooking – simplicity in ingredients and technique, but consequently quite rich in flavor. Rice, their “potato” and the accompaniment of every Thai meal, is to be cooked without seasoning- not even salt is added! Rice provides a necessary contrast to the depth of spices and herbs that flavor their main dishes.
There are two types of rice- sticky and jasmine.Jasmine is free of gluten, more translucent in color, and has a longer shelf life. Sticky rice is glutinous, only keeps for 6 months, and must be soaked up to 4 hours prior to using. Sticky rice is ideally steamed in a bamboo basket to cook, while jasmine rice is best cooked in a rice cooker. And yes – Thais DO actually use rice cookers! Every Thai home has one. Good to know that they cheat too- not just us lazy Americans…Balance seems to be the key to understanding Thai cooking. It’s all about the blended contrast between spicy, sweet, earthy, tangy, hot and cold. No dish exemplifies this more than a simple curry, in my opinion. Hot and full of herbs, but sweet and coconut-y, this was my first favorite Thai dish when i was introduced to the cuisine in college – so I figure it’d be a good one to share.There are three types of Thai curry: red, yellow and green. Red curry is the most spicy, yellow the least (while green falls somewhere in between).The key to a good curry dish lies in the paste, and a good paste can be distinguished by its consistency. Curry paste is all about texture- you really have to grind the ingredients with your mortar and pestle to get them to release their flavors and blend together.
A RECIPE FOR THAI RED CURRY serves 1 (courtesy of Thai farm school!)
//ingredients for red curry paste:
- red dried chillies, 2-4 depending on your tolerance for heat. I used two. “Baby food” as Embee called it.
- 1 shallot, chopped
- 1 tbsp chopped galangal (ginger root)
- 1 large clove garlic, chopped
- 1 tbsp chopped lemongrass
- 1 tbsp chopped Thai ginseng (use dried if you can’t find fresh- which I don’t think we can in the states)
- 1/4 tsp toasted coriander seeds
- 1/4 tsp toasted cumin seeds
- 1/4 tsp salt
//additional curry ingredients:
- 1 slice of pumpkin
- 2″ chunk of firm tofu
- 1/2 chopped eggplant (preferably bitter)
- 1/4 cup sliced onion
- 2 stems thai basil
- 3 kaffir lime leaves
- slice of lime
- 1 tsp sugar
- 1 tbsp fish sauce (can sub soy sauce)
- 1 cup coconut milk
- 1 cup of water
- grind ingredients for curry paste together with a mortar and pestle, until bright in color and a soft paste has formed. if you don’t have a mortar and pestle, a blender would work as well.
- heat oil in small saucepan, and add the curry paste. simmer until fragrant.
- add coconut milk & water, then return to a simmer.
- add pumpkin, tofu, lime leaves, eggplant & sugar to the pot. stir to combine, and simmer for 8 or so minutes.
- add fish sauce & adjust to taste. (more sugar if needs sweetness, fish/soy sauce for salt)
- transfer to bowl and top with lime and basil. serve with rice.
Although the red curry was delicious, I think the yellow (which Alyssa made) was my favorite. For yellow curry, you simply add less chili pepper than you would in the recipe for red above, and include turmeric, which lends the broth that beautiful almost-gold hue. Turmeric also provides an added warmth and earthiness- plus reminds me of Indian curries.
Also, evidently the proper Thai way to eat sticky rice is to roll it up into a small ball and dip it into your curry. Good, but sorta messy. Alyssa demonstrates above! Ha.
The full menu we cooked today:
+Tom yam soup with shrimp
+Curry with tofu
+Chicken with basil
+Pad thai with tofu
+Sticky rice with mango (post to come!)
We decided that today was a wonderful inspiration to cook more- but also, more adventurously – and with new ingredients.
I now need to buy myself a mortar and pestle. And make a big trip to Super 88 when I’m home.
Want to end with a final reference to Thai Farm Cooking School – must-do if you’re ever in Chiang Mai!