Learn to Cook Thai Food

Chiang Mai is a culinary mecca like no other. While Thailand’s signature pad Thai noodles or the world favorite massaman curry, are certainly delectable, Northern Thai food is incredibly varied and full of surprises. Unlike Central or Southern fare, Northern food is less spicy, has little to no coconut milk or fish sauce, is accompanied by sticky rice (as opposed to steamed jasmine rice) and is eaten with your hands. The cuisine features an impressive array of pounded salads and pastes, grilled or fried pork and chicken, a variety of sausages and Chiang Mai’s signature pork rinds, which are eaten with just about everything. The key is variety, and a typical lunch can include as many as ten dishes, showcasing a spectrum of what’s on offer.

In the heart of Chiang Mai, and along the Ping River, Kad Luang is a vibrant and energetic area and an important culinary hub for locals. A collision of three markets: Wororot Market, Ton Lam Yai Market and Naowarat Market, Kad Luang has been the definitive commercial center of Chiang Mai for over 100 years. A maze of streets lined with mid-20th century Chinese shop houses, and congested alleyways bustling with pedestrian, car and rickshaw traffic, the neighborhood is a treasure-trove of textiles, basketry, culinary gems, kitchen supplies and most of all, food.

Kad Luang, meaning “great market” in the Northern Thai dialect, dates back to the time of King Rama V (late 1800s). It was established by one of his wives as a port to ship goods from the North down to Bangkok and also served as a stop on land delivery routes between Thailand and Burma. Traces of Chinese traders from Yunnan, who used to pass through Chiang Mai on their caravan route, are still evident today with a pop-up Yunnanese market every Friday morning just off of Chang Klan Road. This influx of commerce spurred Kad Luang’s growth with Chinese settlers establishing many businesses and Punjabi Indians setting up textile and spice shops. Many of these businesses still stand today.

It is no wonder that with all this heritage and variety of ingredients that Chiang Mai’s culinary traditions have blossomed and attracted a host of international chefs. Chef Yui (Siripen Sriyabhaya) is an exceptional local whose passion for Thai gastronomy has turned her into a foodie celebrity. She has judged cooking shows from the US alongside Simon Majumdar, a judge from Iron Chef America, as well as criticized Gordon Ramsey’s burning of curry paste (while on camera!). Despite all this celebrity, she remains humble and incredibly charming. In 1999, she decided to open  A Lot of Thai and teach cooking classes out of her home, where she and three generations of her Thai family reside. With no more than 10 students each day, she teaches Thai cookery her way, with an emphasis on combining art, tradition and science while making cooking fun and accessible. Her love of community and the environment shines through as she sources her produce from local markets, doesn’t like to use plastic bags and offers multiple choices for vegetarians (not just tofu!).

If you are vegetarian, or just love vegetables, the popular Anchan Vegetarian Restaurant offers cooking classes for the avid herbivore. Chef Naphat Na Talang embraces the cuisine of his childhood. “I learned to cook in my grandmother’s kitchen,” he says, “and now my mom helps me with the restaurant.” In fact, she grinds all the fresh curry pastes by hand. Naphat has decided to share this wisdom with intimate classes of up to three students, and starts the day by introducing them to the varied ingredients that make up Thai cuisine in a local market tour. You can expect to spend the rest of the day pounding ingredients in a mortar and pestle or over the heat of your wok while being guided through the ins and outs of Thai home cooking.

If a pampered cooking experience is what you’re after, the Four Seasons Resort has a spectacular cooking school in an unparalleled setting, atop a hill peering down into a lush, rice-paddy-filled valley. With daily regionally themed menus, expect anything from Thai favorites, to Northern cuisine, seafood or hot and spicy dishes. You can choose to start your day with an optional market tour, or just dive right into cooking. One special feature is a 1-hour added bonus: Learn the art of Thai vegetable carving, a tradition dating back 700 years.

For another 5-star cooking experience, check out the Dhara Dhevi which offers two half-day classes daily at their Culinary Academy. Concoct a 3-course central or Northern Thai meal in a Lanna-style teak pavilion, enveloped by architecture that draws heavily on the history of the region. Explore the grounds on your way to the on-site 3,000 square meter organic garden and pluck your ingredients straight from the ground. If you opt for the morning class, you will be guided through a local market with the chef and have the chance to pick out the elements of your meal while learning all about local ingredients.

[This article appeared in the March-April 2014 issue of Nihao Magazine.]