Yumazing. I invented this word to describe the food at the three day organic and vegetarian Thai cooking course we just completed. It’s the only one that really fits.
I’ve wanted to take a cooking course in Thailand since well before World Tour, and its something I’ve been looking forward to for months. I’m not alone in this desire, and thus Chiang Mai is practically bursting at the seams with restaurants and cooking schools willing to provide foreigners with an “authentic Thai cooking experience.” Of course, all of these experiences look identical – they tour the same market, teach the same bland dishes, and offer relatively few vegetarian options. With our experience with the sub-par cooking class in Vietnam, which aimed to entertain more than educate, fresh in my mind I felt weary about taking a cooking course in Thailand. After viewing brochures and websites ad nauseum I was tempted to scrap the whole idea of learning to cook Thai food at all.
Fortunately, I am the queen of internet research these days, and persistently kept searching for a class that would suit our desires and needs. My persistence paid off when I located this vegetarian cooking course. Though I believe the program used to be offered fairly often, the woman who teaches the course now runs a restaurant in Chiang Mai and is writing a cookbook, so it has become much less frequent. After many emails, restaurant visits, and a few phone calls I managed to secure two spots for John and I just a day before it began.
The course took place at the Pun Pun Center for Self Reliance, an organic farm and sustainable living center about 30 miles outside of Chiang Mai. Pun Pun has an amazing setting, with gorgeous mountain views and some of the most stunning sunsets we’ve seen in a while.
We arrived at Pun Pun in the afternoon of our first day. After settling into our rooms at a farmstay down the road (think beautifully constructed adobe huts with outdoor showers where the water pours out of a hollowed out tree branch), we were toured around the facilities at Pun Pun. A community of people live at the farm year-round, living, eating and working together. They all live in adobe buildings they have constructed themselves, many of which are far more impressive than I expected.During our tour we learned about the sustainable projects and seed saving program at the farm. John and I later visited the neighboring Panya Project, another sustainable community focused on permaculture. While I don’t think I’ll be moving to one of these communities anytime soon, I did learn a lot about what they are capable of doing with sustainable resources and earned a healthy respect for their passion for innovation and education.
The chickens at Pun Pun are definitely free range – they have the run of an enormous pen and could not be happier. They produce heaps of delicious fresh eggs to feed the community.After touring around the facilities and gardens, we plucked some fresh organic produce for our dinner. I always love seeing how food grows (we are so sheltered from our food system in the US.) The farm grows a huge variety of plants during the wet season, but even in the dry season we could see things like okra, lemongrass, huge radishes, plenty of fresh herbs and greens, onions, mangoes and pineapples. You know the food will be incredible when the ingredients are picked just hours before dinner.
Rather than cooking for ourselves on the first night, we were treated to a meal cooked by our talented teacher, Yao. While she and her team whipped up several tantalizing dishes for our dinner, we wandered to the local reservoir to take a swim with the other 10 students in our group. The sunset and views along the way were truly exceptional. Mountains and papayas in the same space…if it wasn’t so darn hot I might call it paradise.
After our sunset visit to the reservoir (below), we practically inhaled the amazing meal Yao served us, stoked that we’d be learning to make food that delicious on our own the next day. While Thai food in the US usually has several vegetarian options, it’s been difficult for me to find good vegetarian Thai food in Chiang Mai. Yao’s cooking exceeded my expectations for vegetarian Thai food.Over the next two full days, we did some serious cooking. Each morning we’d have a yoga class followed by a substantial breakfast of fresh fruits and culinary creations made by other community members. The rest of the day was filled with cooking and eating (with a few breaks for digestion, thankfully.)
The simple outdoor kitchen provided an excellent setting for Yao’s teaching. When it got too hot, we’d retreat to the indoor kitchen to prep more food.
Yao would demonstrate how to chop or crush each ingredient, then the 12 of us would get to work slicing and dicing mounds of produce and herbs.
We used soo many fresh ingredients, and I could not stop photographing them after we had chopped them all to perfection. The vibrant colors of fresh food are irresistible.Below are some of the many components involved in Thai curry. We learned to make four types of curry paste (and their resulting curry dishes and soups) from these and other raw ingredients – Massaman Curry, Green Curry, Penang Curry and Tom Yum. The curry paste tastes exquisite on its own, but when you add coconut milk something amazing happens. Coconut milk is magical.Since they cook for the entire community at every meal, the kitchen at Pun Pun is equipped to make enormous batches of food. They are usually cooking for around 20 people at a time, though the numbers can swell up to almost 100 people when they are hosting certain workshops and classes. Though I can’t imagine I’ll be cooking Thai food for groups any larger than 2-8 people, it was handy to learn some of the techniques for making these dishes en masse.
Throughout both days we were constantly tasting the dishes to learn what they should taste like and how to season them on the fly without precise recipes (though we have those, too.) As you can see, this Tom Yum Soup was no exception.
One of the dishes we made was Banana Flower Salad. Though we’ve seen them growing all over the world, I had no idea you could cook with banana flowers. It probably won’t come in handy much in Colorado, but the salad would still be fantastic with cucumber or artichokes substituted in.
Below is the inside of the banana flower once you peel it. It has to be soaked in salt water to remove the bitter sap before you eat it raw in the salad.During the course we learned how to make tofu and soymilk from scratch, how to ferment bananas into a delicious banana vinegar, how to make coconut milk, and how to make vegetarian oyster sauce from scratch. None of these things would even be mentioned in your standard Thai cooking class in Chiang Mai. Yao really packed a ton of information into our three days.
In addition to cooking, Yao also shared with us some of the traditions and history of Thai food, and discussed the different flavor profiles you’ll find in every dish. Thai food always has a little sour, sweet and spicy as part of the flavor, which helps make it so complex and delicious. Tamarind juice provides the sour flavor in many dishes. Here Yao pours the juice into one of the giant woks to make Cashew Stir Fry with Tamarind Sauce.
Doesn’t this look amazing?? It was. All of the food we ate at Pun Pun was easily the best Thai food I’ve ever had, and some of the best food we’ve had this whole trip. Making everything from fresh organic produce certainly didn’t hurt.
In addition to all the curries and above dishes we also made Pad Thai, Pad Kaprow, Brown Rice Salad, and Spring Rolls (both fresh and fried) with homemade peanut tamarind sauce. Most of the dishes we made were so delicious I couldn’t be bothered to photograph them before digging in. I only have photos of a sample of the dishes we made – Banana Flower Salad, Papaya Salad, Fresh Spring Rolls, and Penang Curry (one of my all time favorites.)
The finale was an enormous dish of Mango Sticky Rice, which contained enough coconut milk and sugar to make you think twice about consuming it – until you tasted it. Our group took spoons straight to the huge plate, only coming up for air once 80% of the dish was gone.
On our final day at Pun Pun our group returned to Chiang Mai just after breakfast, but not after having the opportunity to ask Yao every question we could think of. She is an amazing resource of information. We learned so much during the course of our three days at Pun Pun, I couldn’t possibly explain it all in one blog post. We ate so well, and left with a cookbook full of recipes for twice as many dishes as we made.
And of course, more photos of the sunset than one could possibly need…here’s another for you in case you haven’t had enough.
Would you believe that this course (including transportation to and from Chiang Mai, three nights accommodation, all of our meals, yoga, and the endless stream of information and education) only cost US$112? Yeah. Oh Thailand, you may have finally won me over. I cannot wait to cook some of these flavorful dishes at home.