Coconut soup and other delicious discoveries in Chiang Mai

For some reason, I’ve never ordered coconut milk soup before. It always looked heavy to me and the temptation of noodles and stir fry would lure me in first. No longer. I learned to make chicken in coconut milk soup today and it was light and refreshing, with tangy kaffir lime leaves, a burst of lemongrass, and a hint of spice in the finish.

Coconut soup ingredients, including chicken, oyster mushrooms, tomatoes, onions, green beans, lime, kaffir lime leaf, lemongrass, and chili

Tangy coconut soup

The soup was the first of the seven dishes I made with Siam Rice Thai Cookery School. The school looks like a small family operation on the surface but is actually an efficiently run business that rotates through teaching up to 50 tourists a day, in small groups of eight that do manage to feel pretty intimate. When you arrive, you are given a menu with four options for each of the seven courses and each person can customize her own meal. The benefit is that you also learn a little bit about how other dishes are made – while I was making my coconut milk soup, I could watch the person next to me tackle spicy soup with sweet basil.

Noodle dishes were the next order of the day and I was particularly excited to learn how to make Pad See Eaw or fried big noodles in a sweet soya sauce. This is the dish I can never stop myself from ordering and one that I definitely want to try at home. It is made by stir frying chicken and smashed garlic, adding in an egg, then thinly sliced vegetables (we used Thai kale, baby corn, and carrot), and fresh thick rice noodles. The key to the flavor comes from the sauces: soy sauce and dark soy sauce reduction to marinate the noodles and oyster sauce, fish sauce, and sugar to add into the wok while everything is cooking. We just tossed all the seasoning in rapid fire while we were cooking, but at home I think I would measure it out first and really taste it to make sure the balance of sweet, salty, and sour is right because you don’t have time to correct that while you are cooking. My noodles were delicious – don’t get me wrong – but they weren’t outstanding and I think they were missing some of the depth of flavor that more deliberate seasoning could have provided.

Thick rice noodles marinating in soy sauce

Pad see eaw stir fry ingredients

Pad see eaw sizzling in the wok

I am now ready for a stir fried noodle competition with myself, and it is going to be a very close call between Malay/Chinese Char Kway Teow, Thai Pad See Eaw, and Pad Thai. Let me know if you want to be a judge!

Next was the appetizer course of salads and spring rolls. I opted for the spicy chicken salad and it was definitely a good call. I started by boiling thin slices of chicken until they were cooked and then added the chicken to a bowl of chili flakes, sliced shallots, julienned tomato, spring onions, and lemongrass slices. The dressing was a mixture of fish sauce, lime juice, and sugar and definitely accomplished the sweet, salty, sour structure of the dish after tweaking some of the proportions. Sprinkled with peanuts and coriander and mint leaves on top, this salad would be a perfect main course in the summer or a light way to start a meal at any point in the year.

Spicy chicken salad ingredients, including lime, tomato, ground toasted rice, cilantro, lemongrass, mint, shallot, and chili powder

Delicious and spicy chicken salad

We needed a break from cooking and eating so our little group moved to a shaded pavilion and lounged on triangular Thai floor pillows as our instructor demonstrated how to carve a carrot into a flower. It looked so easy when he did it. Soon everyone was hunched forward in concentration, simultaneously trying not to accidentally slice off a carrot petal or a finger.

My carrot carving handiwork

After our rest and relaxation it was time to use our arm muscles to pound curry paste. I decided to do green curry again – not because I’m obsessed (although I am, a little) but because yesterday we had only made the dish, not the paste itself and I wanted to make sure I could replicate the whole shebang at home. This meant that I was forced to eat green curry two days in a row, which makes my life really tough right now. I also really want to learn how to make Penang and Massaman curry pastes after tasting what others in the class had concocted.

Getting ready to mash together tons of spices into green curry paste

Spicy and flavorful green curry paste

For the stir fry I chose pad kra prao or chicken with holy basil. Like most stir fries, the work was in the prep – chopping up long beans, onions, garlic, and chili and then tossing them in the wok with holy basil, chicken, oyster sauce, fish sauce, and soy sauce. The dish was sweet and the basil was the dominant flavor although the overall feel of the dish was quite similar to the chicken with cashew nuts I made yesterday.

Chicken with holy basil stir fry

Last and certainly not least was dessert. All the options involved some combination of sticky rice, sweet coconut sauce, and fruit. I opted for sticky rice with fresh coconut in a coconut sauce. The hardest part of this dish is making the sticky rice – it has to be soaked overnight and rinsed multiple times before it is ready to steam. Once it is steamed, you pour the coconut sauce on top of it and let it sit again to absorb the liquid. The coconut sauce is a simple mixture of boiled coconut cream, sugar, and salt and in this dish, strips of young coconut, which is much softer than the thick hard chunks of mature coconut you usually find in American grocery stores. It was a richer dish than the sticky rice with mango that I made yesterday, with subtly different flavors in the rice despite the similar preparation.

Young coconut strips and sticky rice, ready for assembly

Sticky rice in a coconut cream sauce, sweet and salty

One of the things that struck me about the cooking classes in Chiang Mai was how similar they were to each other and how closely the menus mirror the Thai food we can get in the States. Cooking classes are much more closely aligned with the core tourism industry here than in any of the other places where I’ve taken classes and I wonder if that, combined with the fact that people often have a favorite Thai dish in mind that they want to make, has led to a more standardized set of menu items than I’ve encountered in other locations. Everything I made was still absolutely delicious, and I can’t wait to replicate it at home, but I feel like I learned less about the nature of the cuisine here than I did in some of the other locations. I would be very curious to take more Thai cooking classes in other cities inThailand at some point to see what the differences are. In the meantime, I have lots of green curry and pad see eaw in my future.

Additional information:
Siam Rice Thai Cookery School
http://www.siamricethaicookery.com/
211 Moo 13 Soy 5
Canal rd.,T.Suthep,
Mueng, Chiang Mai 50200
Office : 66 53 329091
Mobile : 66 8 41773160 , 66 8 50388600
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