One thing we knew we wanted to do while in Thailand was attend a cooking school. After doing a little research, I’d decided Chiang Mai was the ideal place for this and had booked a day at Thai Orchid Cookery School before we left the States. Like so much on this trip that we planned in advance, there’s a sense of unreality when the day finally arrives…but here it was!
As promised, a brand new van arrived shortly after 9am to pick us up at our hotel. Another couple was already in the van and we picked up a third couple before continuing on the short distance to Thai Orchid which is located in the center-east of Old Chiang Mai. Cooking schools have boomed in Chiang Mai and there are a bewildering amount to choose from. I’d narrowed it down to two before picking Thai Orchid over a school far out of town located in a farm where you can pick fresh herbs. After all the driving we’d done the day before on our Doi Suthep-Blue Elephant day, I was happy with my choice. Moreover, Thai Orchid offered air-conditioned space for dining and classroom portions of the school, something the farm didn’t have.
We were greeted by our cooking instructor and owner, “A” (“My Thai name is too long!”) and dove right in by choosing the 5 dishes we’d prepare, marking our selections on a paper checklist before moving to the “classroom” for our first demonstration: spring rolls and fresh rolls.
David and I both chose fresh rolls as we’re fresh roll junkies. I make my own at home anyway, but was curious as to what A could offer in the way of variations. Fresh rolls are more Vietnamese than Thai, but the Thais have adopted them, giving their own twist by briefly sauteeing the main vegetables in a light sauce before adding lettuce, shrimp and herbs and rolling in softened rice paper. I’d always made mine fresh (save for when I add boiled shrimp)–and actually prefer them that way. Still, I liked the extra seasoning provided by the sauce.
For our next course we made soup; me choosing Tom Yum (in a clear broth) and David opting for Tom Yum Gai (chicken soup with coconut milk). Both were delicious and easy-to-make. The school ran super-efficiently, with our cooking stations prepped and ready to go when we came back from classroom or eating. We did much of the chopping and all of the cooking, but herbs and veggies were washed, meat chopped and apportioned, etc.
After our first two courses, A and her assistant Kong, drove us to a local market where she guided us around the stalls explaining unfamiliar items and showing us practical things like what sort of coconut milk at home would be equivalent to Thai “coconut cream.” (i.e., So long as it says “100%”, it’s the same as “coconut cream” even if it’s labeled as “milk.”) We had ten minutes to explore on our own, then it was back to the school for more cooking.
Fresh fried banana slices welcomed us back to the school as we prepared for the last courses. A demonstrated each option, showing us what ingredients our different choices shared and where they differed. She would prepare a dish with a “mild” level of heat (usually 2 small red peppers), then let us taste it to gauge whether we wanted to prepare ours with more or less heat. David and I usually opted for more heat, all the while being highly respectful of those blazing Thai peppers.
David made chicken with cashew nuts while I opted for classic Pad Thai with shrimp. Both turned out really well, and I was surprised how easy and past the Pad Thai was. David made a really fantastic panang curry with shrimp while I went with my fave, green curry chicken. Unfortunately, my green curry was probably my least favorite creation, turning out saltier than I wanted. I think I added too much soy and fish sauce given that I went for a thicker sauce than the usual Thai soup-style green curry. Next time!
A laid out fruit snack from the market, showing us how to eat mangosteen (press the “button” end to open the small black fruit, then pull out the yummy white sections from inside). She even provided Thai durian which are much more mild than the revolting Singaporean variety we’d tried in Singapore: Edible, but still foul-smelling and never going to be a favorite of ours. Besides, durian “sticks with you” and the recurring taste in your mouth is something to be avoided!
For dessert, our options were steamed banana or pumpkin cake or mango sticky rice. David and I both opted for the mango sticky rice, but the steamed cakes were really pretty.
We feasted until we were stuffed and happy. A handed out small, bound cookbooks with recipes for the day’s creations and a few more. Her email is on the front and she encouraged us to email with any questions that might arise while recreating her dishes back home.
We highly recommend Thai Orchid Cookery School for cooks of all skill levels. If you’re experienced cooks, as we are, you’ll still enjoy the local ingredients, information and insight. If you’re new to cooking, A and Kong are patient and happy to explain. You can learn more at: http://www.thaiorchidcooking.com/ Cost was 1200 baht ($34.29) per person, including pick-up in the old city.