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Taste of Travel: Thailand

Studying the Food Chain in Chiang Mai

From the market to cooking class, tourists poach some culinary secrets

October 06, 2002|JERRY V. HAINES

CHIANG MAI, Thailand — Oh, this was my kind of school. Instead of pencils, we had spatulas. Instead of blackboards, we had black woks. Instead of notebooks, noodles.

As at most schools, we learned much from our teachers' lectures, learned more when they demonstrated and learned the most when we did the work ourselves, however badly. But unlike most classrooms, the Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School let us eat our lessons. We graduated magna cum stuffed.

My wife, Janice, and I love to cook. She's better at it, but I have more fun, probably because, unlike her, I am not burdened by the belief that cooks should clean up after themselves. We've taken cooking classes--even in tropical cuisine--at home near Washington, D.C. But somehow one is not in the proper frame of mind to execute tropical dishes when one must slog through snowbanks to reach class. In Chiang Mai we had the right setting.

This old northern Thai city has many enticements: a cuisine with such rich, complex spices that a seemingly simple noodle dish becomes a seminar in contrasting flavors; ancient Buddhist temples whose golden adornments communicate sensuousness along with their spirituality; people so welcoming that jaded visitors quickly set aside their skepticism. And then there are the prices.

In light of all of its cultural attractions, it seems crass to say so, but Chiang Mai is a bargain. Two people can eat well for less than $5. Luxurious hotel rooms are the price of a Motel 6 in the U.S. And the dirty clothes you left with the family-operated laundry in the morning will be ready that evening--washed, dried, ironed and folded--for 30 baht, about 70 cents.

Janice and I came to Chiang Mai after discovering that Bangkok was just too much city for us. I don't regret our three days in Bangkok. The majesty of its temples is almost greater than the human brain can process. But the city is so crowded, so busy, so unwalkable.

Chiang Mai is about 435 miles northwest, in the little lobe of land squeezed between Myanmar and Laos--and it feels even farther away. The city was founded in 1296 by King Mengrai, at the time a prince from southern China, who gave it the name Nopburi Sri Nakorn Ping Chiang Mai (understandably shortened to Chiang Mai, or "New City") and put walls and a moat around it. Although its control subsequently passed back and forth between Thais and Burmese, it became a regional capital and the center of commerce and Buddhist culture.

The population is about 173,000, making it Thailand's second-largest city. Clearly modern, the city nonetheless reveres its ancient treasures. No high-rise construction is permitted near temples, and the old moat has been cleaned up and improved with fountains that keep the water moving.

After arriving, we located the hotel we had selected through a reservation service at the Bangkok airport. The comfortable though plain Chiang Mai Gate Hotel is typical of what's considered mid-range accommodations here. We paid $31 a night; some hotels and guest houses were $5 or less but didn't have a private bath. Turns out our bath was one of those setups where the shower stall is the entire bathroom, which meant that, if we showered at night, we started the next day with a disheartening walk on a wet floor.

Such mild annoyances aside, we had grand days in Chiang Mai, particularly when we happened upon the Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School and signed up for a full day of English-language instruction.

Sompon and Elizabeth Nabnian have operated this school since 1993, offering daylong courses for casual cooks like Janice, me and our eight classmates, each of whom seemed to find it as we did: while strolling along the moat.

The school (www.thaicookeryschool.com) changes menus daily, so one could make a week of it. Students prepared six courses and got to eat what they cooked--another bargain, considering the tuition was only $43.21 for Janice and me. Heck, the complimentary cookbooks were worth almost that.

The class began with a trip to the Somphet Market, so we could start like real Thai cooks--assuming that real Thai cooks wander around smelling this, prodding that. Or asking dumb questions. Or taking flash pictures of stacked bamboo shoots, muddy-looking mounds of chili paste, baskets of marble-size miniature eggplants or snarls of "snake beans" (imagine foot-long string beans).

In the large, open-air hall, we saw and sniffed all the aromatic ingredients we would be using: galangal, lemon grass, kaffir lime leaves, turmeric, coconut, and red and green chilies in various grades of lethality.

A fishmonger efficiently dispatched a fish with the unglamorous name of "serpent head" and quickly scaled and gutted it. Was it destined to be part of the red curry with fish we would cook? Should I have felt guilty?

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