Growing up with an Irish American mother, now known as Nana Jane, meal time wasn’t always a culinary experience. In fact, she’d be the first to admit that her cooking left a lot to be desired in those days but she comes from a long line of Irish mothers whose idea of cooking is canned ham, canned peas, and potatoes.
Nana Jane was so “over the potato” when she left her home she didn’t have one for at least 10 years, and when she did make them it was usually from a box!
But we all survived, and my brother and I have now become foodies of a sort – loving great cuisine, gardening, and cooking fresh real food. We are starting to rub off on Nana Jane and she has started to collect a few sacred recipes she now prepares for guests (don’t even try getting the recipes – she refers to herself as a one trick pony – she’s promised me a few of these easy and delicious crowd pleasers on her death bed).
So needless to say, when I found out about all the cooking classes in Chiang Mai, Thailand, I thought this would be a perfect fit for Nana Jane and me!
Basil Cookery School
A cooking class in Chiang Mai is a must do for anyone traveling through the area and who loves Thai food (who doesn’t?) There are a myriad to choose from depending on what you are looking for.
When choosing consider class size, food prepared, class location (city, rural, farm), and if class is taught or owned by locals. We chose Basil Cookery School because it offers a great menu selection (you select 6 dishes from their menu to prepare). If you are cooking with another person, pick 12 different recipes to learn and share. The class is taught by local Thai people whose English was great – imagine trying to say technical cooking terms in a second language!
What really drew us to Basil Cookery School was the small class size – 6-8 people max, providing an intimate setting and individual attention. Nana Jane has hearing difficulties – so the small class size was key.
Here’s a short video with some sights and sounds from the cooking class.
The school sends out the teacher to pick up students to bring them to a local market. For us it was Sompet wet market, right down the street from the Eurana Boutique Hotel where we were staying.
Our teacher, named Apple, was an attractive girl, covered in tattoos and definitely from the Dauntless faction (pardon the Divergent reference).
Apple’s English was great and she had a sense of sarcasm that any Bostonian can appreciate. While at the market, she asked if any of us experienced a Thai massage yet, to which my mom responded we had. Apple says “Very enjoyable, yes?” Nana Jane “Yes, very enjoyable when it was finally over!”
At the market we saw a local shop owner shred fresh coconut, were shown the various spices, sauces, and vegetables that make up the dishes we were to prepare. The colors and aromas are brilliant!
After you learn about the ingredients you have a little time to explore the market on your own then it’s off to the cooking school in a van. The school isn’t too far from the old city, and is set up with a dining room to enjoy your food and a kitchen with a prep island and series of stove stations with woks for cooking.
Other than Nana Jane and I, there was a fun couple from the U.S. – John and Catherine (check out their blog at FloodsTravels) – and another quieter couple taking all these loud Americans in stride.
We went straight to work prepping our first dishes: for me drunken noodle, for Nana Jane pad thai. Apple explained each ingredient and why it was used, showed you how to chop, crush, and peel whatever vegetables and spices you had.
Don’t worry about choosing a recipe based on spiciness – you can control the amount of spice for each of your dishes (i.e. don’t shy away from green curry if you like the flavor but can’t handle the heat – unlike in the restaurant – you are in control). Apple referred to more chilies as “more sexy” – Nana Jane felt she was sexy enough and kept the spice to a minimum. I put a little sexy in, and Catherine was by far the most sexy in our group!
After prepping, it was straight to the woks for the chaos – I mean fun! I didn’t realize most Thai meals only take a few minutes to actually cook – so once we were at our woks, Apple became Gordon Ramsey as she shouted for us to “Add oil! Add meat! Add Vegetable! Add spices, no sprout!!”
It was pretty crazy and there were several different dishes being prepared at once. I was often thinking when she’d yell “Druken noodle, add noodle!” – am I making drunken noodle? oh man, I forget! All this over the sizzles and pops of food frying and delicious aromas of our meals!
Once we were done preparing our first meal, we covered it and put it in the dining room. We then made our soups and appetizers in a similar fashion to the first.
Nana Jane and John made excellent spring rolls, to which we continue to compare the rest of Asia’s – “these are good, but not as good as Nana Jane’s”. They were pretty labor intensive, so I think that will be Nana Jane’s first and last foray into cooking spring rolls!
We then got to eat the fruits of our morning labor – and boy, was it scrumptious! Everyone kept saying “wow, this is the best Pad Thai, Tom Yam soup, or Papaya Salad I’ve ever tasted!” We got to socialize and learn more about our fellow travelers during this wonderful meal as well.
A good tip – you will be preparing 6 meals during the day – a TON of food for 1 person to consume! I knew I wouldn’t be able to finish it all (plus my hungry husband Matt and the minis would want to try them). No problem though, you can put aside anything you want to save in Thai Tupperware (plastic bags sealed with a rubber band). At the end of the day I pulled out all the meals from the refrigerator that Nana and I didn’t eat (we tried a bit of them all) and it was enough to feed us and our family that night for dinner too! What a great deal!
After lunch time we had a little time to explore the area, I believe about an hour break but we were having such a good time chatting at lunch we had only a few minutes to explore. Just enough time to walk to the nearby mall and buy the elusive tonic water for Nana Jane’s vodka tonics. What she lacks in cooking ability – she more than makes up for with her famous cocktail recipes!
After our break we were set up to make more food – including stir fries, curries and dessert. I got to extract the coconut milk from the fresh coconut grinds (umm – excuse me for a minute while I just drink all this). We also made delicious white and black sticky rice.
The most fun was making the curries – again Apple did not let anyone get away with anything less than a perfectly smooth puree (all by hand with a mortal and pestle). I was very happy to be on chopping duty for the task as it took some serious muscles to get veggies and spices into a smooth paste for cooking.
One of the best parts of a cooking class is that they prep all the meat and do all the dishes & clean up (my least favorite parts of cooking). So after we finished cooking the afternoon delicacies, we just ate more. Nana Jane had never tried Pha-nang curry before – but after making it, decided it was the best curry in the world. I was happy to expose my mom to more than just Pad Thai that day.
The school offers morning (9am-3 pm) and evening (4-8:30 pm) classes. We enrolled in the morning class. The course costs 1,000 baht ($31 US) per person, a great deal for all the individual attention and excellent food you receive. You will also get a recipe book with all the recipes made that day (even from your fellow chefs), which is amazing as I wouldn’t remember half the stuff we did otherwise!
Of course Nana Jane forgot her recipe book at the school, but luckily Catherine and John were willing to part with one of theirs for her. All in all, an amazing day, a great early mother’s day gift for my mom, and I can’t wait to try some of my Thai cooking skills back home!