Chiang Mai Thailand February 2023
Partaking in a Thai cuisine cooking class has been on our radar screen for a while now. It’s only been about 20 years.
The last time we were in Thailand ‘The Land of Smiles’, was 28 years ago, just after being mugged in New Zealand in 1995.
We spent most of our time in the south of the country and experienced a few hot and spicy “rip your face off” curries. We were captivated by Thai cuisine, even though Yvonne did not really enjoy either rice or spice! Yet.
Fast forward to the present – we have been cooking Thai food at home for over 20 years – primarily self taught – from cook books, the internet, and taking notes when eating at Thai restaurants.
Luckily living in Vancouver, with a large South Asian population, meant there were good Thai restaurants and we had easy access to fresh ingredients pivotal to Thai cooking (as well as a bunch of ingredients we had no idea what they were used for).
Over the years our cooking skills have improved along with the education of our palates.
Our previous cooking class experiences
We did our first cooking class in Luca Tuscany in 2012 with Chef Paulo Monti. We enjoyed it so much we did a second class with him a few weeks later.
Chef Paulo’s class was fun mainly because of the group who were travelling together and had done a class the day before. Not only did the group know how to have fun, but Chef Paulo also had an excellent rapport with them It did not hurt that the Chef was a bit of a stand-up comic. The food, wine and laughs were plentiful.
Taking a class with a larger group can be festive, high energy and a lot of fun (if the group dynamics are right ) – especially if your host is gregarious.
The only downside to a larger class is you might not be able to ask as many questions as you would like and might not receive enough personalized instruction. Especially if you are having too much fun while laughing, drinking and eating!
The next cooking class we participated in was in October 2022 in Oaxaca Mexico. We signed up for a cooking class through the hotel concierge. We did not sign up for a private class however we were the only students that day.
The highlight of the class was the tour through the massive Mercado Central de Abastos market in Oaxaca which covered almost an entire city block.
The problem with the class itself is the Chef had checked out – he was there in person (sometimes) but he did not seem really interested.
The chef had also done a lot of prep in advance and explained what he had done, rather than involving us.
The class was held in his family home but we felt like we were tolerated intruders.
We ate the yummy food we prepared and drank a few beers with the chef’s Mom, while our Chef disappeared. She was really sweet but her lack of English combined with our Tarzan Spanish didn’t help.
The class was OK, half assed really. We did learn how to make some awesome dishes like a Mole Coloradito from scratch, the filling for chili rellenos but there were no peppers to be stuffed, so why bother? We felt the benefits of doing a private class were not realized and left rather disappointed.
Thai food the real deal
We arrived in Chiang Mai Thailand in February of 2023 and soon had several Aha moments (as well as a few tastegasms).
Right away I could taste the difference that each type of sugar makes when used to balance fish sauce. In my cooking I had been using either refined white sugar or brown sugar. In Thailand palm or coconut sugar is used and the taste profile is completely different. The food tasted much more balanced, rounded and sooo much better!
There were also ingredients that were prepped in different ways (fried basil leaves) and there are some components I had no idea what they were (found out later they were pea eggplants).
After a couple of weeks of eating restaurant food, we were primed and ready to delve a bit deeper and take a class in Thai cookery.
Spoiled for choice
Cooking classes in Chiang Mai are popular!
The vast array of classes and street food tours can be overwhelming. Look up Chiang Mai cooking classes on Trip advisor and you are offered about 47 options, Cookly gives you about the same number of choices. I am sure there many more as well. Probably as many cooking class options in Chiang Mai as there are massage studios – a veritable cornucopia.
What we were looking for in a cooking class
Based on our previous cooking class history in Italy and Mexico combined with our experience of cooking Thai food at home, we had a set of criteria when searching for a class in Chiang Mai.
We were looking for a class that offered the following:
- A guided tour of an authentic local market
- An engaging host – looking for an Edutaining cooking experience
- A host who has a decent command of the English Language
- A wide variety of dishes to choose from
- A hands-on experience
- A class that matched our skill level
- Dishes we can recreate almost anywhere
- Documentation we could take with us
- Good reviews that mention the points above
We decided to go with “Benny’s Home Cooking” based on the information on their website and the reviews on Trip advisor and Cookly.
“The cooking journey starts at the local market, one that mostly visited by the locals only. We will see how Thai people sell and buy their everyday meals, you can try some local Northern Thai food in the market too.
Then we head to our lovely home and there’s an organic garden you get to harvest ingredients from, a rice field just outside the back gates, and mangoes grow right above your head.
The outdoor kitchen is set up in a welcoming style where everyone cooks together and gets to try each other’s dishes. Each person will have their own cooking station and hands-on cooking experience with the menu you choose. You will learn to cook 5 delicious dishes that absolutely plan to recreate at home. We can also accommodate to individual taste and dietary needs. We will provide a complimentary recipe book before transfer you back to your hotel in Chiang Mai downtown.” From Benny’s Home Cooking webpage
What caught my eye in the reviews were all of the mentions of Benny’s fun welcoming personality and the fact that the cooking school was a family run affair located at their home south of the city. The fact that Benny offered professional level courses was also attractive.
The next step was to choose from the course options which included:
- Daily course with up to 8 participants
- Private Dinner Course: 05.00 pm.- 09.30 pm.
- Private Northern Food Class
- Professional Thai Food Class
We wanted to do a class that was not too basic – we have been cooking Thai food for over 20 years, yet we did not feel that an advanced or professional class was justified.
We thought the Northern cuisine course might involve ingredients that are hard to find outside of the region. For example red ant eggs used in a Thai style omelet called Kai Jeow Mod Dang????
We did not want to get over our skiis skill level wise – we really wanted to get a better grasp on some of the foundational aspects of Thai cooking.
We decided to book the dinner private class this way we could ask lots of questions and get personal tutoring.
We contacted the school arranged and paid for the course, however because the mosquitos have been rather active, the class was being rescheduled for the day time.
The market tour
We were picked up by Benny and her partner Nan at 9:30 am as arranged and we were given a very warm welcome.
The market was fairly compact (by no means a city block) but was an absolute feast for the senses.
To be honest I find Thai markets to be a little intimidating. I am never quite sure what exactly I am looking at, or if I partake am I going to be on the Thunder Bucket for a week. Our host Benny confirmed I had a cause for concern.
On display there was the typical array of battered deep fried offerings which concealed their inner secrets, laying out in the heat.
There were the somewhat recognizable food stuffs such as skewered chicken hearts and chicken butts, roasted chillis, sausage, and pork crackling.
Then there were the more obscure items such as bags of deep-fried chicken intestines, banana leaf packages containing pork brain (which apparently is quite smooth, creamy and tasty) and the ubiquitous balls of various colored Asian mystery meat on a stick.
Benny proceeded to point out puffed up plastic bags containing a reddish pink paste – which turned out to be fermented pork, the resulting off-gassing apparently responsible for the tautness of the plastic bag.
Many Thais eat out a lot and the market was full of prepared dishes which the Thais eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner. The offerings are scooped into plastic bags, which Benny called “Thai Tupperware”, and off you go – fast food Thai style.
The butcher and seafood section was located in a separate annex of the market complete with whirling fly swatters driven by small electric motors.
The butchers were selling chicken, pork and beef. There were brick colored patties of steamed congealed pork and chicken blood.
The seafood vendors had a wide range of prawns, squid, shellfish including snails along with live offerings of frogs, cat fish and tilapia.
The fruit and vegetable selections were amazing.
Having a local guide took away some of the mystery, however my trepidation still remains.
Home at last
After a short drive we arrived at Benny’s Home Cooking school. Benny’s mom gave us a big smile and a welcoming wave from the back porch. We were also introduced to Benny’s niece who along with Nan were the “kitchen faeries” who made the ingredients appear and the dirty dishes vanish automagically.
We were given a tour of their organic garden where the raised beds contained varieties of basil (Thai, Holy, and Lemon basil), coriander, cumin, chives, chili peppers, mint, lemongrass, saw toothed coriander (a.k.a. stink weed or culantro) and Pandan.
The garden, which backed onto an emerald green rice field, had shady Mango trees, passion fruit vines, kaffir lime bushes, and even a healthy specimen of cannabis sativa. This garden would make anybody feel at home!
We were given a welcome drink called a “Sexy Benny”, a refreshing non alcoholic drink made from palm sugar, pandanus grass and with butterly pea flowers. Add a splash a bit of lime into the drink and the color changes from Royal blue to purple – Sexy!
After our welcome drink we were handed a cooking apron and we were getting ready to cook with gas!
Ready steady cook
Before we came to class we were asked what dishes, and curry pastes we would like to prepare. Yvonne chose four and I choose four different ones. We even asked for a couple of extras.
Not only is Benny a friendly welcoming host she is also an excellent instructor. It is very obvious she has found her Ikigai.
Benny explained what ingredients we were using, how they contributed to the dish. All our ingredients were supplied in authentic Tupperware boxes happily supplied by the kitchen Ferries. The operation was well oiled and organized!
Benny started each dish by showing us how to prepare ingredients and create the “Mise en Place”. After the demonstration we were dispatched to our stations where we did the prep and the cooking.
If the finished dish did not taste just right Benny gave it a taste and made recommendations on how to improve it – a squirt of fish sauce, a little bit more coconut milk or a bit a sugar to take the bite out the chilli.
The day was full of tips and trips – the most emphasized tip was to keep smiling!
Benny also gave us many insights into Thai life. She was equally as interested in life back in Canada and asked tough questions like what is typical Canadian food (that one stumps me – no idea really).
All in all, we prepped cooked and ultimately ate a total of 10 dishes including 2 soups, 2 curry dishes utilizing the curry pastes we made from scratch (Massaman and Jungle), chicken satay, stir fried morning glory, 2 noodle dishes including one of the best pad Thais I have ever had, and finished off with a couple of deserts.
When we could eat no more and it was time for us get home, we were given a recipe book including all of the dishes we prepared and many more we didn’t. We were also given one of Benny’s custom made kitchen apron.
We were made to feel very welcome and appreciated.
We were driven back to our door step and given a big farewell hug
What an Awesome day!
Addendum culinary regions of Thailand
There are four distinct regions in Thailand: the South, the Center, Northern Thailand and the Northeastern Isan.
The languages are different, the ingredients are different, the terroir is different, and hence the food is also different.
The people of peninsular Thailand are mostly ethnic Malay.
The food in this part of Thailand tends be to very hot and spicy and influenced by Malaysia and Indonesia.
This area is where most of the coconuts and jasmine rice is grown. There is lots of seafood options and the curries tend to be thick, rich, and coconut based.
This is where the Thai people are and hence the center of Thai culture.
Much of the country’s vegetables and fruits are grown in central Thailand.
The staple rice there is jasmine.
The foods there tend to be more refined dishes (probably due to the influence of the Royal Palace). There is also a strong Chinese influence in the cooking as well.
Northeastern Thailand (Isan)
In Northeastern Thailand the people are the are mostly ethnic Lao or Khmer. This region is arid and the food is typically simple and spicy.
Sticky rice is a staple here.
The most famous dish from this area is som tam, a green papaya salad that can come with a very punchy dressing.
Northern Thailand, including Chiang Mai is more mountainous, and has its fair share of jungles.
The climate is cooler and the food here incorporates more herbs.
There are freshwater fish and pork is very popular. The Northern Thai pork sausage is off the fricken charts good!
The staple rice in the North is sticky rice.
Not many coconuts are grown in the North, so the food traditionally tends to be more brothy, boiled or steamed.
A typical dish is called Laap, is a minced meat salad made with offal, blood, herbs, fried garlic, shallots and spices. A spicy blood and guts salad so to speak.