5. Thai cuisine

With time on my hands - we'll spend 50 days in Thailand - I've decided to take a course on cooking Thai food. My "Rough Guide to Thailand" - which I deem the best written, most comprehensive and instructional of the self-guides to this most hospitable, if tourist-infested country (it's refreshing to visit somewhere in this post 9-11 world where Americans are somewhat loved) unreservedly recommends The Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School (http://www.thaicookeryschool.com). Founded in 1993 - eons ago, given the pace of Thai tourism - it is the original and remains the most professional of 20 cooking schools in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand's vacationer's mecca.

I've chosen to take the complete course (under US $100) which runs for 5 consecutive days, 6 hours each session. Each of 18 pupils has his/her (class roughly 50-50) work station, and every time an implement or utensil is used, the staff of 10 whisk it away and replace it with what's needed for the next preparation. The chef demonstrates how to prepare a dish, we taste the result, then try to replicate.

Not surprisingly the class is mostly culinary refugees, natives of English speaking and northern European countries - all who have been brutalized by uninspiring and uninspired home food (I dare not use the word 'cuisine.') In class we eat what we cook and by the close of a session, we've polished off 6 dishes - equivalent to about 2 lunches. By course end I've prepared 30 different dishes which, since tofu, pork, chicken, lamb, beef and seafood are often substitutable, means I should be able to reproduce a Thai menu of 300+ dishes. Theoretically speaking, of course.

I came into the course with a favorable impression of Thai cuisine, and I come away in addition with slightly raw fingers, due to chopping so many chillies [The little green ('rat turd' in Thai) chillies are the most potent - the big red ones the least formidable. Removing contact lenses has become a most frightening experience.]. When I started classes I asked myself if, by the end of the course, I would be able to place Thai cuisine at the top of my culinary pyramid, which is now reserved for French and Chinese fare. Don't get me wrong: There are a lot of dishes in various cuisines that are superb - I'm especially partial to southern European, Indian, Mexican, middle eastern and Japanese - but for me (and everybody has individualized taste buds influenced by experience) Chinese and French are the only ones that I could find satisfying day in and ay out and never boring. What separates them out is not only sophistication and style and dedication to both process and product but also their diversity and potential to surprise, especially for a standard dish to satisfy as if eaten for the first time.

My bottom line? Thai food is good, but not in the class with French or Chinese. There is just too high a degree of predictability. A well-executed dinner might consist of several classes of foods - a soup, a curry paste/coconut cream dish, a cold think noodle salad or a broad noodle vegi stir-fry, a sticky rice concoction, dessert and fresh fruit. Many of the dishes would be characterized by chillies, fish sauce, oyster sauce, sweet-sour, kefir lime leaves, coriander, basil, ginza or lemon grass. Perhaps there's a downside to cooking classes that demystify: by the end of the course, I figure I know too much about Thai food. Whether this little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing - whether it limits my continued enjoyment of eating Thai - remains to be seen.

Bon appetit from

Chiang Mai, Thailand