Just one year ago, I was in Thailand exploring Buddhist temples, masochistically indulging in Thai massages and draining seemingly endless supplies of fresh coconuts. I also managed to not only eat some of my favorite familiar dishes like pat thai and curry, but also explore new dishes like papaya salad, shrimp in tamarind sauce, drunken noodles, basil chicken and mango sticky rice.
I knew I wanted to eat my through Thailand--exploring the various open markets and street food. But I also wanted to cook my way through Thailand. After much research, I settled on the Basil Cookery School in Chiang Mai. Not only did they focus on making dishes from scratch with high-quality ingredients, but the class included a trip to the market to learn about the various varieties of peppers, eggplants, basil and ginger.. all hallmarks of Thai cooking. I also loved that it was locally owned and run. The owner, Tom, was accommodating and even let us do an evening six-hour class since we already had plans for the first half of the day.
The Basil Cookery School made everything easy. All we had to do was choose what six dishes we wanted to make. All of the ingredients were already portioned out, and we prepared the meal using simple instructions and under the watchful eye of Tom who was there to tell us to "pound the curry paste more," or "add a little more fish sauce." We made everything from scratch--even coconut milk. (Coconut milk isn't much more than dried coconut meat soaked in hot water, then drained.) We successfully made a six-course meal and ate to our hearts' delight, and I left with my little cookbook of recipes, feeling confident that I could re-create these dishes at home.
Fast forward one year.
It was 5:05 p.m. The dinner party was scheduled to commence at 5 o'clock. I stood in the kitchen-area of my studio, staring at a mortar and pestle with 15 large green chilies inside, their skin not wanting to budge. I pounded and pounded, but the chilies were not dissolving into a green curry paste. My gaze shifted to a large green papaya, not yet peeled. The pungent odor of shrimp paste wafted through the room. I looked quizzically at the unfamiliar ingredients surrounding me, with unfamiliar smells and tastes. Gone were the building blocks of cooking that I'm used to-- salt, black pepper, cayenne pepper... Instead, I had fish sauce, oyster sauce, tamarind juice, palm sugar, a variety of small and large peppers, holy basil, sweet basil and numerous other ingredients.
Gone was the confidence that I usually have, and I was not sure if the three dishes I planned--pat thai, papaya salad and green curry--would actually come together. I briefly wondered if I was hosting a dinner party with no dinner...
You see, to celebrate my Thai-nniversary, I invited the girls I went to Thailand with to come to my house and prepare a few of the dishes we made that great afternoon in Chiang Mai. It all seemed easy enough. I scoped out Bangkok Center Grocery in Chinatown, where the owner enthusiastically helped me and counseled me when choosing my ingredients. Plus, I had my recipes from the Basil Cookery School. What could go wrong?
I got a very real reality check in authentically preparing unfamiliar cuisine! Especially cuisine as well-known and complex as Thai cuisine. But, I powered on and a friend even helped by shredding papaya and helping me with the seasoning. And everything came together! The papaya salad was spot on. The flavor for the green curry was as authentically Chiang Mai as I could even imagine, although, the texture could have used work (more on that in the next post!) The pat thai may have been the most challenging, but that is likely because it's the last thing I made of the night.
So, I debated whether or not to even share this recipe because you really have to commit to it. But if you'd like a slightly more user-friendly recipe, try this version that a friend of mine created.
There's no coincidence that so many idioms and proverbs are based off of food and cooking. I was reminded of a great lesson that night. Just try, and you'll be amazed at what you can accomplish.