Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Traveling the spice route

I love to cook. However, my skills in culinary alchemy are still pretty remedial – especially when it comes to Asian cuisine.

Clare's Mum Libby has been an advocate for the Chiang Mai Cooking School (possibly on the payroll…) since she visited a few years ago. On her recommendation, Clare and I decided to spend two of our five days in Chiang Mai at the School’s outer campus learning about traditional Thai ingredients, techniques and dishes.

Was Libby right? Without a doubt - the School is definitely in my top 5 things to do in Thailand.

First morning, first stop – Chiang Mai market. Along with a gaggle of fifty-something-year-old women, Clare and I were showed around a local market by our guide “Balloon”. Thai’s have some weird nicknames here.

In all of her ladyboy glory, Balloon demonstrated how coconut cream/milk was made (raw coconut is squeezed, pressed and contorted to extract the ‘cream’ and oil, then boiled in water for the more diluted ‘milk’ product), and also introduced us to an amazing array of mushroom, chilli, herb and vegetable species.

The smells aren’t that dissimilar to what you might experience down at Sydney Markets in Flemington. And just like Sydney Markets, it’s a pretty exciting place.

Like a hive of Thai PI’s, locals wander methodically throughout the market looking for primary produce at a prime price. Children amuse themselves by hooking right into a rambutan (see left). You can smell the morning – it’s fresh and full of promise.

However, unlike in Sydney, dried fish and shrimp sit out in the morning sun attracting flies and my nasal senses. A man reaches into a barrel of live carp, bludgeons one with a plank of wood, then guts it nonchalantly, as if he’s being doing it every day for 20 years. He probably has.

The spectrum is like a blend of the Hunter Valley’s green hills and a Ken Done art exhibition.

From the markets, we move to the school, don our aprons, oil up our woks and get cracking.

First on the menu was Tom Jued - clear soup with minced pork. This dish was a revelation - not only was it delicious and amazingly simple to pull together, but it also reinforced the importance of fresh produce in Thai cooking. You basically make pork balls (with coriander root and garlic), cook them in some pre-boiled stock, chuck in some Chinese cabbage, tofu, glass noodles, soy and salt and pepper and serve. All this takes about just 5 minutes.

I won’t go through the rest of the 11 dishes we learned to make, but I’ll make mention of some of my cooking highlights from the two days.

Paw Pia Tord - Spring rolls. I’ve never made them from scratch before, so it was a pretty comical exercise for Clare and I. I learned you’ve got to be quick, otherwise your fingers may get burned.

Gai Hor Bai Toey - Chicken in pandanus leaves. Like the spring rolls, my culinary coordination failed me yet again, but it was a hell of a lot of fun doing it. Basically you wrap marinated chicken into these long spear-shaped leaves, so that they take the shape of a triangle. Then you bake them for a bit, let them cool, unwrap and smash'em. I thought at the time, they’d make a cracking snack to prepare for mates coming over for a few beers and a game of footy/cricket on TV.

Just as a brief side note, Thais use pandanus leaves when they cook their traditional custards, giving it not only a sweet, natural flavour somewhat akin to a light vanilla, but also a horror-movie slime green colour.

Gaeng Kheo Wan Gai - Green curry with chicken. A bit of a classic in Thai restaurants across Australia, I found most fascinating the process of extracting coconut oil from the coconut cream, which is then used to fry up the curry paste. I also learned that a simple garnish works well for curries too!

We also made:

  • Red curry with roast duck (delicious!!)
  • Chicken with ginger (Mum, you would have loved it)
  • Mango with sticky rice (an old favourite)
  • Thai hot and sour prawn soup (Tom Yum, not a fan)
  • Thai style fish cakes (good for mates coming over)
  • Thai style noodles (simple Phad Thai)
  • Spicy minced pork salad (delicious, spicy dish relying on beautifully fresh ingredients, see Thai herb garden at right)
  • Water chestnuts with sugar syrup and coconut milk (weird, but satisfying on a hot day).

Each day, I often thought of my family and friends who would just love the experience. I just knew that Mum would be right at home in the market and in talking with the head chefs, and that Dad would be just terrific behind the wok (as he is at home!). Edwina and Leslie would no doubt be in their element, also looking smashing in their branded aprons.

Thai cuisine, like that of many nations, says a lot about its country and people:
  • It’s practical – it doesn’t burden itself with difficulty. Could it just be lazy?
  • It’s structured – though the concept of order in this country is debatable, ingredients are still prepared with care and cooked with flair.
  • It’s proud – Thai cooks are intensely proud that their traditional food still graces the spoons of its people, thousands of years on.
  • It’s egalitarian – ingredients here are not only inexpensive, but the menu for the king varies little from that of the suburban seamstress or northern farmer.
  • It’s communal – meals in Thailand are about sharing and family…you take your share from each dish and pass it on.
  • It’s spicy – this place, despite it’s serene exoskeleton, can be a pretty vicious dish if you’ve blindly or arrogantly sprinkled yourself a bit too much chilli.


Mum said...

That was just so beautiful Steve. I can visualise and even smell the market a combination of vegetation, dried 'things' in open bags, spices and humanity! Well done. It's amazing how similar markets smell the world over but there is nonetheless a uniqueness to each one. I recall my total amazement at my first sensory experience of the Spice Saulk in Damascus. It was a covered area (an ancient street from centuries ago just covered over) and you could see the combination of dust and spices moving in the light chinks from the holey roof!

I just loved all your photos and yes, Libby did a great job in selling this school, not only to you guys but to me. Her book, which she has lent me, is terrific. Also a useful tool when discussing your course with you on the phone.


Belly said...

What a wonderful comment, thanks Mum. There are a lot of similarities between the markets of developing nations across the world...something that seems to have transcended the ages!!