Before going to Thailand, I loved Asian food and enjoyed eating at Thai restaurants in particular - I was really looking forward to having Thai food day in and day out, all summer long. I especially appreciate Thai food for the curries with coconut milk instead of cow's milk. Curries are undoubtedly my favorite meal to consume, but when eating out at Indian restaurants, I always worry about cream and ghee. At Thai food restaurants, I do consider how much chicken stock I am ingesting in "vegetarian" dishes, but at least I know I am safe from dairy. I love all the vegetables and spices and the light fluffy rice noodles that do not bog down my belly with gluten. As I prepared for the summer, I read two versions of Lonely Planet and perused many blogs and websites. In my reading, I kept coming across curious proclamations about great "western food" joints for when you are sick to death of Thai food. I thought this was absurd! How could anyone become sick of Thai food? I did not think that this would happen to me, but I conceded that I would not know until I had actually spent sometime in Thailand.
It turns out that the notion of becoming sick of Thai food really is absurd. After being in the country for almost 2 months, I was more obsessed with Thai food than ever. As the end of my trip approached, I dreaded returning to the U.S. for fear of missing many things about Thailand, but the food was at the top of the list. While in Thailand, I both sought out and stumbled upon experiences that deepened my appreciation for Thai culinary culture. The most prominent, I am sure, is the first cooking class I participated in at the Thai Farm Cooking School (ThaiFarmCooking.net), just outside of Chang Mai. I participated in this class on one of my very first days in Thailand and it ended up improving my whole trip; throughout the rest of my trip, I was able to distinguish flavors and ingredients and had a better understanding of food culture and customs. A second cooking class, eating meals with locals, and visiting several food markets continued to expand my interest in and passion for Thai food throughout the summer.
|Pern Teaching our group about different types of rice|
|Pig Head at food market. Spinning plastic bags for|
fly prevention can be seen in the background.
|Organs at Chiang Mai Food Market|
|Blood cockles at Chiang Mai food market.|
Dredging for these shellfish is extremely
harmful to near coastal ecosystems.
|Dragon Fruit at Chiang Mai Food Market|
Once at the farm, the lesson started with a tour of the garden. Throughout this tour, I was able to see how the different ingredients grew and what they looked like before they were cooked and ground into pastes. Eating the mini chiles straight from the plant was actually very intense, even though the spiciness they impart on a dish when cooked is usually quite mild. Perhaps the most interesting plant in the garden was the loofah plant. I had no idea that these skin polishing products, available at every wal-mart across the world, actually grew on tropical plants. I just never really thought about it, which I believe is common for most Americans - we buy things without stopping to consider where they come from or how they are produced. A close second was the different varieties of eggplant. There are Thai eggplants that are not much larger than peas! Another popular Thai eggplant is the size and color of a tennis ball. Previously, it had not occurred to me that the fat purple eggplants I know, are not the eggplants everyone knows. Now if only I could find these treasures in my local super market...
Following our garden tour, the class got down to business and started pounding out our own curry
|Enjoying the open air kitchen and the simplicity of Thai cooking.|
Once the paste was finished, we set it to the side and prepared some delicious Tom Yam Soup. An
|Pad Thai from the restaurant associated |
with the Chiang Mai Women's Prison.
The simplicity of my new favorite dessert is a common theme in Thai cooking. I was surprised by how simple all the dishes prepared during the class truly were. The secret to Thai cooking is not complicated recipes and expensive ingredients or a fancy kitchen, it is super fresh, healthy, simple ingredients. It is no wonder that Thailand is considered the country of smiles! I was happy to learn this secret, but sad, too, because it meant that the food I was eating in Thailand really could not be completely recreated in my kitchen. But, I knew I would try!
|Sowing soy beans outside of Pai|
When it came time for lunch, the locals cooked rice and soup in large pots over an open fire. The meal was served in hollowed out segments of bamboo stalks with no utensils. It took some effort to overcome the filthy state of my hands and dig into the food with my fingers. It is relatively easy to eat sticky rice with your fingers, but it is difficult to eat soup with your fingers. I tried to have mostly
|Eating traditionally prepared rice and soup in bamboo bowls|
|Demonstration of what these spices (left to right: galangal, |
chile, lemongrass, kaffir lime) look like when you should
and shouldn't eat them
|Taste of Thailand in one bite|
Writing this post has made me so nostalgic for Thai food! Buying food at the markets or eating meals at inexpensive little cafes proved to me that healthy, fresh, simple foods can be available cheaply and readily. This really made me wonder why it is so impossible to have similar experiences in the U.S.. Why do all our food vendors need to be huge chains and why does our food have to come from so far away. The way we eat in the U.S. is destroying the health of our land and our people. I learned so much in Thailand, but the lessons in eating and preparing food really stand out. I have enjoyed trying to cook Thai foods at home and am happy to have been inspired to grow my own herbs, but I am really looking forward to returning to Thailand to learn even more about the food, culture, language, and ecosystems.