“Why? Just…why?” This is a common question asked when we discuss our dream to sail around the world. There are many reasonable explanations for casting off on a sailing circumnavigation: I’m looking for the fountain of youth! I’m hoping to acquire super powers from a head hunter in Borneo. I’m seeking to learn the long lost art of celestial navigation. But, Andrew will say “I am hankering for some Thai food.”
“Thai food? You do realize there is a Thai restaurant within walking distance of your (house, boat, AND office…insert any and all locations in which we spent most of our time), right?”
Andrew blinks. “No, I want to eat Thai food, IN Thailand.”
“You also realize planes fly to Thailand, right?”
This morning, we are taking that inspiration one step further and attending a full-day cooking class to ensure we don’t have to turn right back around and head back to Thailand for another “Thai Food Run” as soon as we get home. Though there are five cooking schools within walking vicinity of our hotel room, our Mafia Taxi Friend knew we were looking to be kidnapped and taken away into the Thai Countryside for our cooking school experience. Kindly, he set us up to be picked up in a large extended van with windows tinted pitch black. As we slide back the van door, the ambiance is already bubbling with the conversation of other tourists enjoying their holiday: two from England, two from Portugal, two from France, one from Switzerland, and a Chinese person who had immigrated to Canada…we are a diverse crew. Andrew and I introduce ourselves and make friends.
Our first stop is about forty minutes away, a local market a small, outlying village. We disembark and follow our culinary professor to find the best ingredients for the twelve different dishes we were planning to make that day. With each ingredient, we were given a tutorial on how to choose the best quality.
Having visited so many local markets, I’m enjoying the nuances of this one - including the addition of fans to swat away flies.
Once we have everything we need, we load back into the van, bump along a few dirt roads and arrive at a beautiful Thai farm. A traditional teak Thai home sits on the property along with a fully kitted, outdoor cooking school. The view in three directions is of the open garden and farm property. We are instructed to strap on fluorescent pink aprons and a shade hat to keep the sun out of our eyes while we tour the vegetable garden. I can already see those first few sparks of Andrew’s “Oddgodfrey Unicorn Horn” start shooting off little sparks.
You have to understand. Andrew loves gardens, and vegetable gardens, specifically. The first time I visited his childhood home, I arrived in the dead of a snow-less winter to find a most curious situation: an entire back yard filled with almost nothing but dirt. I shrugged, carried on inside and thought nothing more of it until his sister took a bowl of compostable food scraps out the door, dug a hole in this stretch of back yard dirt, and buried what looked to me entirely like garbage.
Later that evening, I asked him. “Why is your backyard all dirt? Are you guys installing lawn?”
He looked at me as if I had five heads. "That's the vegetable garden.”
Lucky for me, he kept me around at least until that summer when the yard filled with a bounty of giant, red tomatoes, peaches from the peach trees, plums, the most delicious homegrown cantaloupe I’ve ever tasted (and probably ever will taste) zucchini, lettuce, peas, green bell peppers….the list goes on.
So, as we weaved our way beneath trellises of strange cucumbers, along rows of several different varieties of basil, and several beds of those famously HHHHHHAAAAAAOOOOOOOTTTTT thai peppers, Andrew was already in heaven. Our guide explains what each plant is, how it can be used in Thai cooking, and tips and tricks allowing it to grow. Enjoying a footpath lined with a small water feature and Traditional Northern Thai pottery collecting rain water for later use in watering the garden, Andrew gets pensive. “I wonder how much it would cost to get enough land in Thailand to grow your own food?” In the imagination clouds popping above his head, I can see images of his own Thai garden filled with everything a man would need to make red curry night after night. (Mom! We’re moving to Thailand!)
We arrive back at the cooking tables, neatly arranged with our cutting boards cut from teak logs, chopping knives and little white bowls just waiting to be filled with the colorful Thai flavors. Andrew grabs his cutlery, takes his space, and is quickly followed by one of the British ladies we first met on the bus. I laugh because the table is a bit low, especially for 6’3” Andrew.
We slice and chop, collect, and organize each of our ingredients for our first dish so we are prepared to add them as the time is right. We collect around a square of propane gas fired stoves, each cooking station supplied with a selection of spoons, spatulas, tongs, and the non-negotiable Thai flavors: palm sugar, fish sauce, vegetable oil, and chili oil or powder. We add our collection of chopped basils, limes, vegetables, fresh chilis, and meat - each selection depending on the dish we chose. My first dish: Stir Fried Hot Basil with Chicken.
We learn to light and settle the large propane flame beneath the wok. Once the oil starts to bubble, we add garlic and chilis and cook just long enough that they are “fragrant” - meaning everyone in the kitchen is crying, coughing, gasping, and sputtering due to the cloud of pepper spray that has been released from our chilis. The proper chili proportions being as follows:
Don’t get distracted!
Add the chicken and cook 1 minute.
Add the veggies and basil: 1 minute.
Add fish sauce, oyster sauce, palm sugar (to your taste!) add a little water if it looks dry.
Before you can say “Bob’s your uncle” get that stuff off the heat and onto a plate. Stir frying is a high pressure, fast paced, race against heat and time that will either light your hair on fire or cause all your veggies to turn to moosh.
“But, but, but…. how much fish sauce????”
“No time to look at the recipe, here! We cook with our hearts!”
Our cooking instructor explains, “Traditional Thai cooking is a very difficult thing to teach. There is no one, right flavor for a Thai dish. All dishes are a particular balance of sweet, salty, spicy, umami, and tangy, and that balance depends on the chef or the diner’s particular palate. This is why any Thai restaurant worth its sea-salt have a table center piece that holds containers of fish sauce, oyster sauce, chilis in vinegar, chilies in oil, sugar, and salt. Like all food cooked by Mamas everywhere: it’s the “little of this, a pinch of that, a handful of those, and some of these” strategy.
Noodle dishes are even more challenging, as those noodles act so strangely in the wok. They start as a blob, stick to the sides, then suddenly come loose to the perfect texture before dissipating into a gelatinous glob in the blink of an eye. Don’t lose concentration, you’ll miss your opportunity to add the egg.
As we work through our list of dishes, an “ah-ha” moment takes hold of me. Having previously studied more of the European style of cooking, I presumed all the flavors in Asian dishes started by being sautéed in oil. Mince the garlic, dice the onion, carrots, and celery, softly warm the olive oil, selectively add your vegetables in the order to get the right flavor meld….
NO NO NO! Wrong.
In Thai cooking, the flavors are introduced to the dishes in the fashion more like steeping tea leaves. Sometimes it is in oil, sometimes in coconut milk, and sometimes in water. I learn to make one of my favorite Thai soups: Tom Ka Gai or Chicken in Coconut Milk. Heat the coconut milk in a pot over high heat until it is just boiling. Then, add lemongrass, galangal root, kaffir lime leaves, and chilies. Let these flavors simmer for 2-3 minutes. Unlike the onion, garlic, carrot, and celery of a good minestrone base, these Thai ingredients are not meant to be eaten. They are for flavor only. Once the coconut milk is properly infused with these flavors, you add chicken and cook until it is done, then tomatoes, sliced onion, and mushroom that you leave in just long enough that they are barely softened. Add your sugar, fish sauce, and a squeeze of lime juice. Top with cilantro and spring onion. The whole process takes just a few minutes.
At a certain point, I look over at Andrew and I can see he is riding one of those waves of “travel magic” that flip you beneath a sun dappled curl and take you for a ride on a rush of salt water and foam to the golden sand of a perfect day. “I’ve sailed 17,000 miles for this!” He whispers to me as he tips food art in my direction.
For each dish we make, we pause, take a seat at a long “family” dining table and eat our concoctions while we make more friends. Andrew has a particularly robust fan club of older British ladies fawning over him. “I just love your voice!” one tells him with hearts in her eyes. I know, who can resist a man in a hot pink apron?
The day culminates with the moment I know Andrew has been waiting for, and that is: time to learn how to make the elusively delicious, but hard to replicate, Mango Sticky Rice.
I’m not going to give away all our new secrets!
By the end of the day, we were stuffed to the gills with delicious Thai food of our own making.
On the bus drive home, Andrew leans over to me: “This is great! Now we can cook our own Thai food.”
“I know!” I say, “It’s like I have super powers, now.”
I guess we can start heading home.
P.S. We also received a cookbook to help us remember all that we learned. This is my favorite page.