8. An appetite for Chiang Mai

An all-day lesson at a northern Thai cooking school is followed by a late-night romp with the Midnight Ramblers, a regionally renowned cover band.

Some like it hot:: Chilies in a market stall, Chiang Mai. (JGA photo)

A big part of travel for me is always the food. I have loved Thai food for as long as I can remember. In recent years, inspired by chefs like Andy Ricker and Paul Itti, I learned to truly appreciate the cuisine of northern Thailand.

Ricker, based in Portland, Oregon, achieved widespread acclaim for his nationwide Pok Pok group of restaurants, recently closed due to COVID-19 economics. It was Andy who first described to me the pleasures of khan tok, an elaborate feast offered on special occasions such as Buddhist temple dedications, festivals like Loi Krathong, or weddings such as his own vows in Chiang Mai.

Itti, a native of Chiang Mai, established the wildly popular Wild Rose restaurant in Bend, Oregon, where I was a longtime food writer. Paul taught me the Jedi ways of khao soi, a savory noodle curry dish far more robust than southern Thai curries. Typically served as a one-bowl meal with egg noodles, shallots, pickled cabbage, ground chilies and wedges of lime, it can be offered as a vegetarian dish or with meats. I recommend duck.

Organic farm, Asia Scenic Thai Cooking School (JGA photo)

Having landed in Chiang Mai, I wanted to learn more about northern Thai cuisine. So I went to cooking school.

I found several modestly priced options available. I chose to invest a full day (six hours) at the Asia Scenic Thai Cooking School.  My 1,000 baht (US $33) was well spent.

Founder “Gayray” Sriwichian, a former international tour guide with a graduate degree in art history, considers cooking an art form in its own right. The Scenic Thai school reflects that philosophy. Along with a small group of other aspiring chefs, I was taken by van first to a rural market to purchase fresh ingredients, then to the family farm, a short distance outside Chiang Mai’s urban core.

The Sriwichian farm is a lush organic garden. Rows of fresh herbs, fruits and vegetables stimulated my senses before the cooking process even began. My fellow students and I sampled as we strolled, and in the process had our appetites aroused by aromas and tongue-teasing tastes.

Asia Scenic Thai Cooking School, Chiang Mai (JGA photo)

Learning to cook

Before we began, we enjoyed a snack of miang kham, featuring a variety of minced ingredients to be wrapped in raw tea leaves. These include chilies, roasted coconut, ginger, garlic, shallots, chopped nuts, lime (including the peel) and small dried shrimp. The ultimate finger food, it is simply delicious.

There is no fixed menu. I learned to make seven different dishes in seven elective categories, from soup and salad to dessert. I had individual coaching from start to finish. Once I began steaming the traditional purple sticky rice, I turned to spring rolls, filled and lightly deep-fried.  

Som tum (green papaya) salad has always been a favorite of mine, and I was able to give my version an extra twist, with carrots, mushrooms and peanuts.

spring rolls, Asia Scenic Cooking School (JGA photo)

I wanted to learn to make a good pad thai (sautéed rice noodles) and tom yum (hot-and-sour lemongrass) soup, not forgetting newly foraged oyster mushrooms. But even before I began envisioning dessert (banana steamed in coconut milk), I was already looking forward to my personal favorite: an authentic green curry.

Thai cuisine features a variety of curries: red curry, yellow curry, mild massaman curry, spicy Panang curry, and the regionally popular khao soi . I would love to learn to cook every one of them, which I suppose will give me a good excuse to return to this school whenever I’m in Chiang Mai.

As it turned out, using a pestle and mortar to grind fresh ingredients into a coarse paste was harder than I might have imagined. Not surprisingly, green chilies were the main ingredient. But there was also ginger, garlic, turmeric, shallots, lemongrass, peppercorns and a handful of garden herbs. By the time I was ready to simmer the curry paste with coconut milk before adding sautéed chicken as a protein, I was approaching exhaustion. But every minute invested made the final result even more memorable. Wow.

Curry pastes (clockwise from lower left): redi, massaman, khao sai, green (JGA photo)

Time to rock

It would be awhile before I’d be ready to eat again! But by mid-afternoon, it was already too late to plan a hike in one of the nearby national parks, including Doi Inthanon (named for Thailand’s highest mountain, a summit of 2,565m, or 8,415 feet) or to travel on the back of an elephant to visit a hill tribe, such as the Akha and Karen.

So after the class ended, Opor took me shopping. Our destination was not a mall, but Chiang Mai’s large night market — in fact, numerous interconnected markets that extend across (and through!) several city blocks to the east of the walled city.

Inside and outside buildings, on sidewalks and temple grounds, these markets are as well known for their local arts and handicrafts as they are for their savory street foods. At a stage constructed in the middle of one open square, I listened to painful renditions of American country-and-western classics by young Thai bands … even as I smiled to see how much they pleased onlookers.

Dinner at Khualek with Opor

It was finally dinner time. My companion was hungry. We crossed the Ping River to the waterside Khualek restaurant to enjoy a simple, Western-style meal of salad, rice and fried chicken. And the imported Australian wine was good, as well.

At 10 p.m., nightlife was just beginning to pick up. One reason I had chosen this particular week to visit Chiang Mai was to see an old friend. Joe Cummings — a expatriate American writer, musician and actor whose name is well-known to many longtime Asian travelers — was in town with his band, the Midnight Ramblers, following a gig on the Mekong River border with Laos. It had been a week or two (or 1,000) since Joe had crashed on my couch back in the States, but we had kept in touch through all his years as an author for the Lonely Planet guides in southeast Asia.

Joe’s passion has always been music, so it was no surprise, after serving as a personal guide to Rolling Stones front man Mick Jagger in Bangkok, when he began playing more Stones music. For several years now, he has been the lead guitarist in a band that performs 100% Stones covers. Along with singer Eric Brown and erstwhile horn player Roddy Lorimer, himself a legend in British rock-and-roll circles, they rocked the house when Opor and I descended upon the Aiya Café in suburban Nong Pa Krong. Let’s have a little sympathy for the devil, shall we?

The Midnight Ramblers’ Roddy Lorimer, Eric Brown and Joe Cummings harmonize on “Honky Tonk Woman.” (JGA photo)

As it has all over the world, the COVID-19 virus has frozen international tourism to Chiang Mai in 2020. That may not be entirely a bad thing. This city of a quarter-million is using the time to catch up with the rampant growth it has seen in recent years. Its 40,000 hotel rooms often have not seemed to be enough. The infrastructure, especially with regard to transportation and pollution, has been strained.

Last year, Chiang Mai launched a bike-sharing app called “Mobike In” that added 500 smart bikes to the streets, for use by both locals and tourists. The program supports eco-tourism with another non-motorized travel option. Agritourism (such as my cooking school) is showing promise for the future. The promotion of arts and crafts provides new incentives for local artists.

I look forward to my return.

John at the Asia Scenic Cooking School, Chiang Mai (Xingci Situ photo)

Published by John Gottberg Anderson

Writer-photographer specializing in travel and food subjects ... member of the Society of American Travel Writers for more than 20 years ... former editor for the Los Angeles Times and France's Michelin Guides, among others

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