I've been cooking from Naomi Duguid and Jeffrey Alford's books (Hot Sour Salty Sweet; Mangoes and Curry Leaves; Beyond the Great Wall et al) for over a decade. So it was kind of weird and very wonderful to find ourselves covering their first culinary class/tour in northern Thailand last February for Wall Street Journal Asia. Read my article in today's edition of the paper's 'Weekend Journal' it here, and check out Dave's accompanying slideshow. (More out takes from the story here.)
The makings of a Shan meal
To say that this class is 'hands-on' would be an understatement. Students did the wet market shopping and the cooking -- in traditionally Thai low-tech kitchens (think charcoal braziers instead of cooktops, two knives and a chopping block instead of a meat grinder, and good old mortar and pestle rather than a blender or food processor) -- from Day One.
Khun Mae ('Mother') teaches students how to make rice flour dumpling sweets
To teach the class the couple brought in locals, only one of whom speaks fairly fluent English and none of whom are tourism or culinary professionals; the main 'instructor' was a 70-something-year-old grandma from Fang, north of Chiang Mai (by the end of the class everyone was calling her 'Mother'). Two days were spent in Fang where, in an outdoor kitchen on a beautiful lychee farm, a young Shan woman introduced students to her ethnic minority's cuisine.
Students were given shopping lists, but no written recipes, so they learned as Jeff and Naomi do when researching their books -- by watching and doing, and finding ways past language barriers to communicate with local cooks. Meals outside the 'classroom' were taken on the street, at markets, and in local restaurants.
Shopping lists yes, recipes no
Culinary courses are, by their very nature, staged experiences, but this cooking class felt as 'true' as a cooking class could possibly be. Naomi and Jeff told me that they hoped to challenge course participants both inside and outside of the kitchen, to nudge them beyond their culinary and cultural comfort zones. Judging from students' comments they succeeded in this; though a few students acknowledged feeling like fish out of water that first morning in the wet market, by the last day of the class everyone seemed to be riding a high.
Oh, and did I mention that we ate exceedingly well?
Students enjoy the fruits of their labors on a lychee farm in Fang
Details on the next class, to be held in January 2010, can be found here.