When Freddie mentioned she was hoping to register for a vegetarian/vegan Thai cooking class at the well-known (in the tourist world) May Kaidee Cooking School, it took approximately two milliseconds for me to decide I wanted to come with. So, Freddie and I signed up, and it turned out to be the highlight of our time together!
On the morning of the class, Freddie, Guy, Tyler, and myself walked a kilometer down the road from our hotel, happily chatting about our good fortune: when we reserved our spot a few days ago, May Kaidee warmly invited the guys to attend free of charge to watch, take photos, and help eat the copious amounts of food cooked during the four-hour course!
After our quick stroll, we arrived at the restaurant/cooking school, and gathered around a large table to exchange introductions, meeting a roomful of people from around the world, all as eager as us to get cooking. Shortly after, the instruction began and it was time to get down to business, starting with one of the most important players in Thai cooking: chili paste.
While one of May Kaidee's sidekicks, Ohn, taught us how to make the spicy concoction, we watched and took notes in the recipe books we were given. Then, we each got a turn to wield the heavy stone pestle to crush the chilis, garlic, galangal, lime leaf, lemongrass, onion, cumin powder, and miso together in the mortar. As we mashed away, encouraged to sing along to the pounding beat, we watched the ingredients meld into a fragrant, eye-wateringly intoxicating paste.
After our initial lesson in the dining area of May Kaidee's restaurant, Ohn herded us outside, leading us down a bustling street until we arrived at an old man's market stall, brimming with fresh, green produce. There, we learned the differences between peppery, minty holy basil and anise-scented Thai basil, and picked up some bunches of the potent herbs along with bok choy and cauliflower.
Following our trip to the veggie stand was a visit to a spring-roll-wrapper-making factory! Really, though, factory is the wrong word; hole-in-the-wall, two-person operation is a little more apt.
Most people stood outside to watch the action from afar, but Tyler and I took off our shoes (out of respect for social norms) and squeezed in the tiny little shop, excited to see how the thin crepes were made. We watched, in awe at the two women sitting on the floor, seamlessly working in tandem.
One grabbed a blob of soft, unwieldy-looking, white dough from a bucket, holding it in one hand as if it were a freshly-caught squid. She smooshed the sticky wad onto the griddle for a moment and then quickly lifted it up, leaving a thin layer of dough behind, stuck to the pan.
Scarcely a moment later, the thin crepes were scraped free with the help of a sharp tuna can lid and placed gingerly (by a different woman) onto a stack of completed wrappers. The process to make a pair of completed wraps only took a few seconds.
When our curiosity was sated, we joined our classmates outside, and then we all got to try some fresh springroll wrappers before tromping back to May Kaidee's.
Back at the cooking school, we were led behind the restaurant, into an open-air kitchen. There, we met May Kaidee herself, decked out in fuchsia-colored traditional Thai garb. Wasting no time, she knighted us with aprons, slipping them over our heads one by one, then shuffled us off in pairs to the cooking stations.
Freddie and I paired together of course, taking out our trusty recipe booklets and ogling the colorful, fresh ingredients on offer. With a few brief instructions from our teacher, we were set loose to explore the rich world of Thai cuisine, beginning with the iconic, sour and satisfying Tom Yam soup.
After Tom Yam came Tom Kha, essentially the same, save for a creamy addition of coconut milk. Then came a delicious and strange Issan vegetable stir fry, given a slight grainy, mealy texture thanks to the addition of toasted rice powder.
After Issan came fried vegetables with ginger and cashew nuts, then the ever-famous pad thai, and then, a delicious cooked peanut sauce just like I enjoy at my favorite Thai restaurant. I never would have guessed it had cooked tomatoes and coconut milk in it!
And finally, we concocted curries, first Massamun, and then green curry.
As we all cooked, following the directions in our recipe booklets, May Kaidee flitted about like a beautiful butterfly, offering suggestions and advice and instructing us on the proper serving size for one person: not a handful of vegetables, but the slightly smaller, more delicate Thai lady handful.
While we were busy cooking, Tyler and Guy oohed-and-ahhed at the meals being prepared, took loads of pictures, chatted with a nice Canadian couple (James Brylowski of Solid Porcupine and his girlfriend, whose name we lost—if you are reading this please get in touch!), and goofed around with the staff while they waited for the next course to be ready.
After completing a dish, we would stop for a break to gather around a large table and eat our food. Guy and Tyler felt extremely lucky that we were generous with our creations! As we sat and ate, we compared notes with our classmates about the complex flavors of the Thai food we had just whipped up in a wok.
After several courses were cooked and eaten, we headed back to the main restaurant to learn about spring rolls and pumpkin hummus. The hummus, unlike its chickpea predecessor, was an odd concoction of mashed pumpkin, crushed cashews and sesame seeds, with a splash of soy sauce. It is a dip I never would've created on my own, but it was "sap sap sap…" (yummy yummy yummy!) as May Kaidee liked to say.
We also learned how to make spring rolls, made som tam, a tangy, fishy, crushed green papaya salad, and finished our lessons and meals off with a dessert of sweet coconut sticky rice and mango.
And then, because May Kaidee wanted to impart upon her students that Thai cooking should be fun, healthful, and life-giving, infused with love and happiness, she taught us to sing joyfully while we prepared our food. She even topped off our cooking lessons with a brief dancing class. How fun!
I've always wanted to learn how to cook Thai food. The complex, enigmatic flavors of Southeast Asian cuisine have fascinated me for years, and it was really empowering to learn that they are fairly simple to recreate when armed with the right ingredients.
My deepest thanks to Mary and Steve from Minnesota, whose generous donation paid for my class today. Thank you so much!