A Thai Cooking Experience in Chiang Mai

My mom and I were holed up in her little apartment, cracking open brittle, plastic takeaway containers from a Thai restaurant down the street. She was getting over jet lag from the New York flight to Melbourne, and I was just starting to feel like myself again after an ungodly bout of Bali Belly that sent me fleeing to Australia–a souvenir from months in Southeast Asia. ‘Try it–it’s not spicy at all’. I passed her my green curry. A few seconds later she had a coughing fit and I realized I’d nearly poisoned my poor mom with what probably tasted like lava. A month in Thailand will have you eating fire.

Thai food wasn’t at the top of my eats bucket list when I left for Southeast Asia. I dreamed of crouching on a tiny plastic stool again on Nowhere Street, Vietnam, over steaming bowls of salty-sour Pho and vinegary, crunchy salads with exotic herbs and mountains of cilantro. But my second trip to Thailand converted me to a fanatic, in no small part thanks to a woman I met, named Yui. 

In a street full of barely-holding-together rickshaws and buzzing, Chinese-made motorbikes, a well-loved VW bus rolls up through traffic to the curb at McDonald’s, where my friend Renee and I have just scarfed down an emergency breakfast of brownies after waking up late. We’re waiting to be picked up for a small cooking class with A Lot of Thai in Chiang Mai, which promises to teach us how to make Pad Thai, curry, Tom Yum Soup, and mango sticky rice.

The glowing reviews had swung me (I live and die by 4+ stars) on this class but I was still skeptical; Each day of the week the class had a different menu, but they all included Pad Thai–a takeout food rice noodle dish, usually made cloyingly sweet in a goopy, brown, MSG sauce. It puts you into a dazzling carb coma, and it turns into a brick if you let it sit long enough. I wanted to know how a cooking class teaching Pad Thai could really be that good.

The VW is our ride, and next to the driver is a woman wearing a black, skull-printed t-shirt and sporting dark, choppy fringe–looking very hippie-rocker, by Thai standards. She has the presence of someone who’s seen and done a lot, and has stories to tell. Meet Yui.

Yui hosts her cooking school at her family home on the outskirts of Chiang Mai,  surrounded by lush tropical trees and the sounds of clucking neighborhood chickens. Her smiling father is waiting at the house, hand over hand resting on top of his cane. You can sense his pride as he takes note of the day’s hopeful (and very hungry) class.

The kitchen area is lived in and inviting, an open-air space decorated with family photos, homemade wall art, and clippings from magazines and newspapers, featuring Yui. We put on aprons, apply borderline toxic amounts of bug spray over in the back corner, and make our way over to a row of stools in front of the main prep area, where Yui joins us.

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You might not guess it, but Yui is a celebrated Thai chef. She’s appeared on multiple culinary TV shows and been flown in as a chef-in-residence to restaurants all over–and it doesn’t take long before someone has spotted photos of Yui posed with British TV chef, Gordon Ramsay. She tells us about sharing her passion for Northern Thai food on episodes of his show. In one of these, Gordon, interested in the Buddhist culture and lifestyle, asked how many days of practice it would take for him to be considered a monk. We laughed when she said she was shocked at herself for telling him it would take a lot more than the traditional 100 days to still his mind. Don’t quit your day job, Gordon!

The conversation steers away from food for a while–to her thoughts on community, and living in a home with three generations; discussing an elevator-like invention she designed to solve mobility problems for seniors so they can stay in their homes as they age; the afterlife and receiving contact from departed family members; herbal mosquito repellants. I almost forget we’re there for a cooking class. And then we get to her background in food. She grew up in a family passionate about local food, who are creative with a limited budget, and who are very aware of their senses–and this is how Yui navigates cooking. Not by precise measurements, but by sensation.

She starts with the Pad Thai, moving fast but in a simple, easy to follow method. Her workspace is organized and she chats with us as she works through the recipe, clearly having done this enough times to rely on her hands that know the steps.

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Yui in her workspace.

You realize Yui is on some other level, though, when she explains the recipe for perfectly balanced Pad Thai sauce–made of soy sauce, sour tamarind paste, meaty fish sauce, and coarse palm sugar paste. As Yui explains, the sauce is the perfect balance of salty-sour-sweet when a taste test makes one eye blink. Two eyes, and your sauce needs some tweaks.

We mix up our one-eye-salty-sweet-sour sauces and hurry over to our own stations. In about ten minutes and a frenzy of chopping, pan-greasing, and stirring, our group is able to recreate the dish. We each made a picture-worthy Pad Thai, topped with a smokey, homemade blend of toasted chili and crunchy, chopped peanuts. It’s far from Thai takeaway, and it’s delicious.

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My Pad Thai in the works!
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Finished Pad Thai

Next, we move on to Tom Yum Soup. I’d just attempted my own version the other night, reducing a stock made with a chicken carcass and carefully deveined shrimp–tossing their cooked heads into the garbage as I tried not to look them in the eye. It took me hours. And here, Yui shows us how to make an even more delicious Tom Yum in less than 20 minutes. OK, I’m ready to eat out of her hand now.

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Renee, putting some muscle into her prep!
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Finished Tom Yum

My favorite is next–red or green curry, our pick. For those of us with fire signs, Yui recommends using at least a whole spoonful of the fresh, locally made curry paste, for added heat. I spot Renee dumping two spoons worth into her wok next to my station. The sharp but earthy smell of it cuts through the air immediately–an aromatic paste of ground chilis, ginger’s cousin–galangal, citrusy lemon grass, and other muddled spices. I am in love.

Another tip from Yui–curry should be thick, never loose and watery. A chef who serves it like soup probably comes from an industrial kitchen background and doesn’t know any better (poor chef).

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Baby eggplant to give bitterness to the curry
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My finished red curry, topped with Thai basil, shredded kaffir lime leaf, and drizzled coconut milk.

We finish with Yui walking us through the syrupy coconut sauce for mango sticky rice, and she produces a basket full of perfectly timed, steamed rice. This is topped with fried mung beans for crunch and a little salt, and sticky, sliced mango. I want to smear it all over myself, like a toddler lost in its enjoyment of food. 

But class isn’t done yet. We groggily make our way into the VW again, heading back towards city center, but not before stopping at a local market. It’s a sweaty, open-air market–kids are playing on little mats by the curb while their parents work, and little old ladies watch Thai soap operas on old tube TVs in between bagging produce. There are only locals here, and Yui takes us around to the different vendors. She points out her pick for the best rice noodle brand, shows us the tiny bitter eggplants we used in green curry, and takes us to the curry paste vendor, who scoops up a portion for me out of a giant, industrial tub into a crinkly plastic bag. Bless you, Curry Paste Man.

curry paste

In our food coma daze we’re dropped off in the city again and Yui and the VW are gone. Before her class, I liked Thai food, but it seemed to be missing an edge. But now I had seen the real food of Thailand, and I learned that with the right, fresh ingredients (you might not be able to find them or have to do some hunting) you can make curry and other famous Thai dishes in the same amount of time as any other weeknight dinner (and blow some minds).

If you find yourself in Chiang Mai, go meet Yui. It’ll be much more than a cooking class.

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Thanks for the selfie, Yui!

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