Spicing Up Our Cooking Skills

It took 22 days before we put down our chopsticks and asked, “Why have we not learned how to make this delicious food yet?” Tara had a hand in making som tam in the streets of Bangkok, but it was finally in Chiang Mai that we decided enough was enough — we needed to know how to make other mouthwatering Thai dishes.

Mike, Aon and Tara

Tara and Mike with Chef Aon.

There is no shortage of cooking classes in this Chiang Mai, but we are picky when it comes to learning new cuisines. Two boring and non-interactive culinary lessons in India made us very choosey when it came to selecting a class in Thailand. We wanted something with more pizzazz, and we found it in Red Chili Thai Cooking School.

Chef Aon has been operating Red Chili since the beginning of 2013 but already has a reputation as an enthusiastic newcomer to the Chiang Mai cookery school scene. As soon as we met him, we could see why: he’s young, gregarious and passionate about food. We immediately knew this was not going to be another uninspiring class.

Getting a tour of the local market

Getting a tour of the local market.

Our adventure began with Aon picking us up from our apartment inside the old city. We joined Dutch and French classmates in the back of a songthaew (a converted pickup truck for public transportation) and made our way through heavy pre-Songkran traffic to a local market. This market was on the fringes of the city and populated only by local vendors and shoppers. Aon took us from stall to stall to show, taste and smell local produce and other ingredients. His English is great, so we took advantage and asked him every question we could think of. After our short tour, we were given time to explore the market on our own. Aon even helped negotiate discounts for some of the things we all wanted to buy. (We walked away with dried strawberries and a locally produced brandy made from strawberries.)

Hunger pangs were starting to hit as we jumped back in the songthaew and drove to Aon’s home. We arrived at a brand new eight-workstation pavilion and an open-air table laid out for us to sample our finished creations. Before the class began, we got to choose which dishes we wanted to create. Quite a few options contained chicken, but we don’t eat meat. Aon was completely accommodating and told us he would provide an appropriate substitute (tofu or textured vegetable protein) for any dish.

Cooking school workstation

Our workstation setup.

ASIDE: Thai cuisine traditionally incorporates a fair amount of meat (pork, chicken, beef). If you’ve been following our travels, you know that we’re pescetarians, meaning the only meat we eat is fish. Sometimes we cheat, but only to try a dish unique to a region that is absolutely unlike anything we’ll ever find again.

Time to strap on our aprons and hit the chopping block! With our menu options selected, we gathered around a central table where Aon walked us through the ingredients that would go in our first dish: soup. Mike decided on Tom Yum Goong (hot and sour shrimp soup) and Tara chose Tom Kha Goong (coconut shrimp soup). Everyone collected ingredients from the table and listened to the how’s, why’s and potential substitutions for things we may not be able to find at home. Then we went to Aon’s station to watch him demonstrate how to best slice the ingredients and explain the order in which to add them to the pot. Equipped with these Thai cooking secrets, we went to our own workstations to work on our soup.

Our next course was Pad Thai, our favorite and most frequently eaten Thai dish. We were stoked to learn that it’s actually quite simple to make. Pad Thai doesn’t call for many ingredients, but using the right ones can make it taste complex with both soft and crunchy textures. For years we were making our own complicated version at home (cooking peanut butter down with other sauces to make a “Pad Thai sauce”). It was time consuming and messy and wrong. Aon’s version took less than 15 minutes to prepare and is far better than our old version!

Mike pounding red curry paste

Mike pounding ingredients together for red curry paste.

Cooking class tip: Always arrive hungry because you eat what you cook! After devouring our savory soups and Pad Thai, we went back to the pavilion to make red and green curry pastes. Did you know that curry pastes may have more than 10 ingredients? They are incredibly complex and require time and hard work to put together — you can’t just toss the ingredients in a blender and walk away. Well, you can, but Aon explained how the power behind the pestle makes for a better paste. Most importantly, mashing ingredients instead of pulverizing them will release more flavor. Spending a solid five minutes pounding ingredients to a pulp can be boring, but Aon cranked up the music and danced around the pavilion to keep our energy high. It was by far the most fun we’ve had while cooking.

The paste smelled amazing, and Mike had to hold Tara back from eating it right then and there. Even though Tara wanted to dig in, you do not actually eat curry paste. So next we made a curry-based dish that you eat with jasmine rice.

Green curry in coconut milk

Green curry in coconut milk.

The tantalizing fragrance from our steaming curries reignited our hunger, but they had to wait until we finished our last dish: stir-fried shrimp with cashew nuts. Aon made each demonstration very engaging, but this was by far most entertaining because he taught us how to make a fireball explosion. This is something you usually only see on TV done by people who are super confident in the kitchen. It only took a quick demonstration and some confidence building before we all set our woks ablaze. Success! We didn’t burn the kitchen down!

By the time the class ended, we were stuffed with amazing Thai dishes we had made ourselves. Aon’s recipes are legit, not like the Americanized Thai food we grew up eating. Red Chili was hands-down the most enjoyable and informative cooking class we have taken. It was nice to finally take a proper cooking class that didn’t involve us furiously scribbling notes all night. Aon gave out recipes after class so our hands would be free to cook — just another helpful way to make sure we got the most from the class.

Click here for Aon’s Green Curry with Chicken in Coconut Milk recipe!

BONUS! Aon’s awesome cooking tips:

•The bottom half of a lemongrass stalk has the most flavor. Cut it diagonally if you do not want the slices to fall apart. If you want to finely chop the stalk, crush it with a pestle. Slice lemongrass horizontally if you are putting it in a salad so it comes out in round pieces (makes it easier to chew).

•When using shrimp in Thai cooking, leave the shrimp’s head and tail on. You can eat them, but they are an acquired texture.

•If you do not have tamarind juice, tomato ketchup is a decent alternative.

•Likewise, ginger is an okay substitute for galangal (They’re in the same family but actually don’t taste similar. Galangal also has a much stronger flavor.)

•Red and green Thai chilies pack the same heat. So only put green chilies in green curry paste and red chilies in red curry paste.

•When creating a coconut milk-based curry, stir-fry the paste and then slowly add in coconut milk. Do not boil/simmer coconut milk and then add curry paste.

•Freshly made curry paste can last up to a week covered in the fridge (store-bought curry pastes can last longer due to added preservatives).

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Disclosure: We received a class discount from Red Chili Cooking School in exchange for sharing our experience. As always, all thoughts and opinions are entirely our own. Aon’s class was truly an enjoyable and worthwhile experience!

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