Cooking a feast in Chiang Mai

Home is where the hearth is. Just like mum used to make. The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. The belly rules the mind. Tell me what you eat, I’ll tell you who you are. Ask not what you can do for your country; ask what’s for lunch.

Food is far more than sustenance clearly. An emotional resonance, a spotlight on personality, a window to a way of life, a social tool – food’s importance in our lives is paramount and challenged by very few things. What better way then to discover a new country than via its stomach?

There can be few things more thrilling than discovering a delightful new cuisine when venturing abroad. It’s not only the food but what it reveals about a country. The street food culture in so many countries is exciting and inviting, and one of the best ways to really immerse yourself in the epicurean environment and social sense. Avoiding chain restaurants and glitzy hotels is something most travelers seeking authentic meals and an sensation do anyway.

But the best way to truly learn the importance and significance of food to a country, and immerse yourself in it is by whipping up the dishes yourself. It’s not easy though. Local markets are buzzing with different foods, fresh aromas, varieties and variations previously unknown. But what do you do with them? The chef creating your dinner may do it with ease and grace, but how easily can you do the same without ending up whisked into a frenzy?

A cooking class can be a great way to discover and really engage with what goes on the plate. Enamored by the meals I have been consuming and keen to liven up the rice at home, I undertook a cookery class in Chiang Mai. There are a number of schools in Thailand offering 5 or so hour courses in which visitors purchase ingredients from the local market, and cook up a feast with them, creating traditional Thai dishes with the family twist of the teacher. Ann, who runs the Zabbelee Cooking School (meaning delicious in Thai) aims to deliver healthy dishes like her mum made, full of flavour, and taught with fun. So a sunny morning, and three of us gather together to undertake the class.

You can’t build a house without bricks, and you can’t cook good food without fresh ingredients. Song Thep market in the east wall of the city is our starting point. She smiles at our bewildered faces by the stalls as she picks up a small green marble sized vegetable, and calls it an eggplant. As far from the large purple fruits I know as it is possible to be, it’s just one of many signs of the differences that abound not only by culture but nature. I learn that glass noodles are made of mung beans (read super healthy) and the yellow noodles are egg (unsuitable for vegans). Lemongrass should be removed, not stoically chewed as I have been doing, and kaffir lime leaves are ludicrously cheap here. It’s all fascinating stuff, the frantic pace of the buying and selling adding a frisson to what would be mundane in the average supermarket, and leaves me dying to get my wok on.

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Back in Ann’s garden kitchen we get chopping. With five dishes to make this morning, it’s busy and bubbling, the learning curve steep, and tasty. Less than a dab hand with the knife and the chopping board, I learn not only what to put together but the best way to do so. Each plate of ingredients contains the substance and the flavour, one enhancing and enlivening the other.

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The aroma of lemongrass and tamarind is more than alluring, and there is something tantalizing about getting hands on and moulding rice paper around lush green vegetable, or spooning smooth fish into the banyan leaf baskets I have just clipped together. I’m struck by how vibrant the ingredients are. Even when not strictly necessary for flavour, like the traffic stopping chili or monk robe hued turmeric, Ann chucks in some carrot or basil for colour. It’s a truly multi sensory experience, taste, smell and sight are all challenged and illuminated, the sound of the sizzle and the delicate chop, and the feel of the food all combining.

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Thai food cooks fast. A hot wok and small pieces (necessary when eating with chopsticks) means that the process is swift, the food piping hot, and the flavours immediate.

Cooking is hungry work, and so we sample and stop as we go. But five meals before lunch time (after breakfast) is too much for me, and so I parcel it up for a picnic. I am laden with Stuffed Cabbage Soup, Red Curry Paste, Spring Rolls, Steamed Coconut Fish Curry and Chicken and Cashew Nut Stir Fry. I feel full. My recipe book in my pocket, I go to lay down into a food stupor.

Technically, we all know how to cook. We’ve fed ourselves for this long. In the global world it’s not often though that we munch on truly local food created not for sale but sample, not for mass production but mass enjoyment. Learning how to cook is more than an education, it’s an experience. A feeling. And the food tastes all the better for it.

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