Chiang Mai, Thailand: Thai Farm Cooking School

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I’m actually not a huge fan of Thai food, or Asian food in general, mainly because my diet is mostly based around bread, cheese, and pasta, and I don’t really like rice.  However, I love cooking, so I was happy to go along to a Thai cooking class on a farm outside of Chiang Mai.  The course cost 1100 baht per person, which is around 22 pounds, but included all the food, and transport to and from our hotel, so was really pretty reasonable.  The “Thai Farm” provided transport out to the farm in the form of a pick up truck with covered benches installed in the back (it was hot back there!); after everyone had been picked up, we were instructed to choose the dishes we wanted to cook – we had a choice of three different dishes for each of the five courses, all of which had a vegetarian/vegan option available.  Once our selections had been made, we proceeded to a market to pick up some of the ingredients for the recipes; all the produce would come from their organic farm.

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We were given a brief tour around the market, and received an explanation of some of the ingredients, and then given a little time to wander.  The market shared the interesting smells of the West Side Market, but because it was in an open sided building, there were a lot more bugs (also the meat section was kind of scary, not in terms of the animals they were selling, but sanitation wise)!  Some of the fruit looked amazing, and there was a stand selling crepes filled with your choice of sweets that seemed awfully tempting, but I figured we’d be eating enough throughout the day, so didn’t buy anything.

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We then headed to the farm, about an half an hour drive from the market down a long, winding dirt road; upon arrival, we were greeted with cold drinking water (much appreciated) and Thai hats and aprons to wear during our cooking session.  Our instructor then gave us a very lengthy tour of the farm, encouraging us to smell and taste many of the herbs and vegetables we’d be using; though he was very engaging, the tour lasted for an hour, and it was probably the hottest day of our trip, so even with the hat and loads of slathered-on sunscreen for protection, I was pretty desperate to get back in the shade.  Alas, the cooking session took place in a kind of hut, with gas stoves that got very hot, but no air conditioning, not even a fan, so even in the shade, things weren’t much better.

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However, once we started cooking, I could for the most part ignore my discomfort, as I was interested in learning some new recipes and techniques.  There were ten cooking stations, one for each of us in the class, with our instructor in the middle of the room so we could observe what he was doing.  We began by learning to make curry paste from scratch, either green, yellow, or red, our choice.  I had opted for red, which gets its colour from long red chillies, which are nowhere near as hot as the small ones, and includes a crapload of other exotic ingredients, like kaffir lime and Thai ginseng.  I really enjoyed using the massive mortar and pestle to grind it up; these were super heavy-duty ones, and it was great fun to bash out my frustrations on the paste.  That done, we learned how to make our choice of soup, which we then took outside to eat for the first course.  I am a total spice wuss (my favourite comfort food is homemade spaetzle sauteed in a bit of butter and lots of salt, so yeah, I tend to go for bland, yet salty foods), so I only put one chili in my Tom Yum, even though the instructor said to use two for mild.  Word of warning for wusses like me: it was so damn spicy, avoid the little peppers!  I think I might have just got a freak chili, because my boyfriend had put four in his, and said his soup was nowhere near as spicy as mine, but I seriously couldn’t even eat it without having an embarrassing coughing fit.  I didn’t put the little chillies in anything after that.  Lesson learned.

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We returned to the kitchen after soup o’clock to prepare the main dishes, including finishing the curry with the curry paste we made in the morning.  I was super excited to get to put tofu in my curry AND my stirfry, because I’d been counting on eating a lot of it on the trip, as it’s one of the few Asian foods I do really like, but had only seen it in vegetarian restaurants thus far (which I was really surprised about because Thai restaurants in the US and UK always have it on their menus, so I expected the same in Thailand, but it’s not as prevalent there as I’d been led to believe).  I was also pumped to use a beat-up, yet well-seasoned wok and shovel stirring thing, because I use a nonstick wok at home with a wooden spoon, which does the trick, but isn’t terribly authentic.  The flame kept burning my hand though, so I couldn’t keep the heat up quite as high as the instructor wanted me to.  So yeah, we cooked our curry and a tofu (or meat) stirfry with holy basil, and then sat down for the main part of the feast, accompanied by plain steamed rice, sticky rice, and papaya salad (which was again too spicy for my stupid weiner mouth, even though the instructor said he’d used light spicing).  Another word of advice; I took a bunch of regular rice because I didn’t know there’d be sticky rice, and I wanted to make sure I’d be full in case I didn’t like my curry (which was not a problem, since the curry rocked, and yes, I dislike rice, but at least it’s reliably edible), but sticky rice is like a gazillion times better, and then I was stuck eating a bunch of crappy regular rice, so don’t make my mistake.

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After lunch, we were given a little time to wander the grounds, and digest.  There was a nice little pond in the middle of the huts (there were four of them, and they all had a cooking class going on at the same time as ours), and a sleepy cat.  I was pleasantly surprised to see that even though the toilets were in another hut, they were clean and normal (non-squat) toilets, since after Phuket, I was kind of suspicious of any that weren’t in a city or hotel.  We were so full after lunch that I think we all felt a little sick at the thought of doing more cooking and eating, but our instructor assured us we could take the rest of the food to go if we wanted, so we all consented to cook the last two courses.

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These consisted of a noodle dish of our choice (pad thai, pad see ew, or spring rolls) made with fresh noodles from the market.  I went with pad see ew because it’s one of the few Thai dishes I really enjoy, because the noodles are so big and tasty, and it doesn’t have chili!  After cooking that and putting it in takeaway bags, we made pudding, which was either mango with sticky rice or bananas in coconut milk.  That was a tough call for me because I don’t like mango or cooked banana (unless it’s mushed up in something like banana bread where I don’t have to experience the texture), but I went with the sticky rice in the end because I figured I could at least eat the rice part.  We flavoured the rice with coconut milk and palm sugar, and oh my god, palm sugar is amazing!  It tasted like fudge (as in British sugary fudge, not chocolate) with more complexity, and I took a super huge blob just so I could sneak bites when no one was looking.  The finished dish made me feel extremely ill after I ate it, but that was probably far more to do with gobbling down all the palm sugar than the unpleasantness of the mango (I also don’t normally like pineapple, but Thai pineapple is amazing, so I thought Thai mango would be better too, but nope, still horrible).  Thankfully, our instructor served us delicious lemongrass tea that was meant to help with digestion immediately after.

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Even though I wasn’t crazy about all the food (which was not the fault of the farm, just my own weird palate and dislike of veg), I loved getting to learn how to cook new things, and I managed to survive the extreme heat of the day without air con, I was so engrossed!  I think it’s a fun experience for anyone with an interest in cooking or hell, eating, and Sawat (our instructor, who also appears to be the owner) was really friendly and helpful.  This is not going to turn into a cooking blog (not because I don’t like them; I actually read a tonne of cooking blogs, but because I wouldn’t want to take on all that work of recipe testing myself), but I thought just this one time, I’d include one of the recipes we learnt in class (I think it’s ok because they have them up on their website), for Pad See Ew, both because it’s tasty, and doesn’t have a lot of hard-to-find ingredients.  My own comments are in parentheses.

Stir Fried Big Noodles (Pad See Ew), from the Thai Farm Cooking School Cookbook

Serves 1-2

Ingredients:

200 grams big fresh noodles (about 7 ounces, though you can probably get away with using 8 if it’s easier, see note below)

100 grams sliced tofu (3.5 oz, I’d error on the generous side and throw in more, see note below)

1/3 cup sliced long beans

1/4 cup of sliced carrot

2 cloves of chopped garlic (again, I’d probably use more, but only because I love garlic)

1 egg

1 tsp of fish sauce or soy sauce

1 tsp of dark sweet soy sauce (if you can only find regular dark soy, that’s ok too)

1 1/2 tsp of sugar

1 1/2 tbsp soybean or vegetable oil

1 stem of chopped spring onion

Mix dark sweet soy sauce with big fresh noodles first and set aside.  Heat the oil in the wok.  Fry tofu until golden brown.  Add garlic, long beans, and carrot.  Stir fry until fragrant.  Push the vegetables to the side of the wok and add beaten egg.  Once they begin to set, quickly scramble them and stir through the vegetables.  Add noodles, and season with fish or soy sauce and sugar.  Add spring onion and stir fry thoroughly until well mixed.

Notes: By “big fresh noodles” they mean pad see ew noodles, or, as I usually see them sold, Thai rice sticks. I can never find the fresh in the UK, and have to go to Chinatown to find even the dried kind.  I buy the XL width ones, or the thickest kind I can find.  They usually come in 400 gram packets.  Just rehydrate in freshly boiled water for about five minutes, or whatever the packet says, before using in a stir fry if you’re using the dried kind.  Also if you’re using the dried kind, either only rehydrate 100 grams to end up with 200 grams of cooked noodles, or use the full 200 grams dried, but double or triple all the other ingredients to make sure you have enough – 200 grams of dried noodles that have been cooked is a lotta noodles!

They don’t specify, but when I cook any kind of stir fry with tofu, I use the extra-firm or firm kind (sold packed in water in the refrigerated section, not the shelf-stable silken kind), and press it for at least an hour to improve the texture, by wrapping it in a towel and weighting it down with a heavy pan, flipping halfway through.  I also love to bake it in a marinade first to improve the flavour, usually using the recipe in Vegan Eats World (I’m not vegan by any means, but it’s a great cookbook).  I also use WAY more than 3-4 oz if I’m cooking this as a main course, more like an entire 14 oz packet for two people, but I don’t really put veg in, and I love tofu, so use your own discretion.  I have to confess that my standard Pad See Ew recipe also comes from Vegan Eats World, and I love it (and admittedly prefer it to this version), but this one is probably more authentic, so give it a try.

And this is why I don’t have a recipe blog, because I can’t leave well enough alone and ramble on for three hours about ingredients.  Next week, I’ll be back to my regularly scheduled museums and historic homes, don’t worry!

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