Andrew Taylor learns the perfect recipe for spicing up your stay in Chiang Mai.
The slow burn intensifies with every mouthful of water, inducing tears as it radiates from my tongue and lips.
Each spoonful of the hot and sour soup packs a volcanic amount of heat that lingers in the sweet, tangy broth flavoured with lime leaves, tamarind, lemongrass and fish sauce. This is what showing off tastes like.
My fellow amateur chefs, Anthony and Basil, wisely decline my offer of the soup I’ve revved up with 12 chillies, twice the number recommended by our teacher Benz (“like a car” she tells us).
“Your mouth is on fire,” she says, wincing slightly as she tastes my radioactive soup. It’s the second dish of our six-course introduction to Thai cooking at the Basil Healthy Thai Cookery School in Chiang Mai in northern Thailand.
After a week of guzzling papaya salads, pad see ews and a rainbow of curries, it is time to don an apron and attempt to replicate the culinary masterpieces of countless streetside stalls and restaurants.
Our class begins at the Sompet fresh food market inside the old town of Chiang Mai, close to the Sunday night walking market, where Benz quizzes us on different types of basil and ginger like a game show host. The market is a kaleidoscope of colours, smells and movement. Stalls of fragrant spices and tear-inducing chillies stand cheek-by-jowl with tables laden with tropical fruit, leafy vegetables, baskets of rice and tanks of fish from the nearby Ping River.
The odd insect buzzes around the butchers’ stalls, but small fans blow most of them away from the piles of pork and chicken.
The market is not just a photo opportunity to be admired by sweaty “farang” before moving to an airconditioned restaurant serving dishes made bland for delicate foreign tongues. Benz shows us different types of noodles – flat and thin, wheat and rice – helpfully adding that Thais eat glass noodles, made of mung bean flour, when they want to lose weight. With its laxative effect, a dollop of tamarind paste provides an even quicker path to slim hips, she says.
She points out different types of chilli, ranging from the mild red spur chilli to the sky point chilli used for curry paste. The smallest, hottest chillies, phrik ki noo, are reserved mainly for soups and salads.
Benz shows us how to test the ripeness of tropical fruit – obvious to some, no doubt, but not if you’ve grown up on Granny Smiths and tinned apricots – and gives us baskets to fill with fresh produce and block scooter riders who threaten to roll over our feet in the narrow alleys.
Students at the cookery school can choose to prepare six dishes from 18 on offer, which means that between the three of us we will attempt every meal offered, starting with noodles.
Handed a plate of ingredients, we are soon slicing up the vegetables, frying garlic and chilli over gas burners, and adding sweet, sour and salty sauces under Benz’s watchful gaze. My chopping needs work but she compliments my wok-handling seconds before I singe a few arm hairs. She attempts to train our taste buds by adding sugar or fish sauce to achieve those complex combinations of flavour that define Thai cuisine.
Minutes later, we’re seated at the dining table sharing pad Thai and drunken noodles that are the equal of any Thai joint in Newtown.
Next up are the fiery soups, spring rolls and salads that we create using the same basic ingredients and flavours. We’re only halfway through the class and the three of us are already stuffed but Benz insists on a workout in the form of pounding together the ingredients to make curry paste.
“Bang, bang, bang,” she says, showing us how to wield a mortar and pestle without painting the kitchen in curry. More energy is spent squeezing coconut flesh to make the liquid for our curries.
The course concludes with desserts – black sticky rice pudding, deep-fried bananas and sweet sticky rice with mango – that are the highlight for this sweet tooth and a certificate and cookbook Benz gives us. The latter includes every recipe as well a handy description of each ingredient and their surprising properties. Cloves relieve flatulence, kaffir limes can rid you of dandruff, while Thai ginger or galangal helps eject air from intestines, cures dysentery and relieves muscle pains.
Three other cooking schools in Chiang Mai
1. Baan Thai Cookery School has a similar course of six dishes to Basil, ranging from stir-fries and soups to curry pastes. Cost: 900 baht ($31). cookinthai杭州夜生活m.
2. Thai Farm Cooking School offers one-, two- and three-day courses on an organic farm located 17 kilometres outside Chiang Mai. Dishes are again similar and a visit to a local market is included as well as a tour of the farm’s tropical fruit orchard and vegetable garden. Cost: 1000 baht for the one-day course. thaifarmcooking杭州夜生活.
3. Run by chef Sompon Nabnian, the Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School offers courses for beginners as well as more-experienced chefs, and has a homestay program. Cost: From 1450 baht for the one-day beginner cooking course. thaicookeryschool杭州夜生活m.
Thai Airways International flies from Sydney to Bangkok daily and also offers connections to Chiang Mai. thaiairways杭州夜生活m.au.
The Basil Healthy Thai Cooking School course runs for four and a half hours and can be taken in the morning or evening. It costs 1000 baht ($35).
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.