We pummelled pestle against mortar, grinding chiles to a paste, flexing our forearms and spinning our wrists, winding and grinding our hips too, which, according to Chef Nancy of the Siam Rice Thai Cookery School, is the secret ingredient to good curry paste.
The ever-exuberant Nancy slide-glanced at Sue and I with a twinkle in her eye. “This is how we find out if you will make a good wife.” She winked, jigging her wrist up and down even faster. “I make lots of curry paste and I have four children.”
Thailand has a culinary scene that is as robust and diversified as French, Italian or Chinese cuisine. The pork lollipops we devoured outside the Black House in Chiang Rai for less than a dollar each could have easily found a spot as an appetizer on a Michelin Star menu; the barbecued-squid-on-a-skewer found in a Bangkok back alley were steeped in a sauce that made a chorus of carollers start singing in my mouth; the green curry delivered in banana leaves on the train from Kanchanaburi put Western fast food to shame.
Even the smallest roadside indulgences could rival the taste sensations from the finest restaurants back home, especially in Chiang Mai, which some call the culinary capital of Thailand.
Upon arriving in Chiang Mai after a four-hour bus ride from Chiang Rai, we were famished and about ready to devour the rubber, Gore-Tex soles of our Merrell shoes. So we immediately booked ourselves into the first cooking class we could find.
Nancy took our crew in with open arms, promising a visit to the local food market and an evening at her home, where she would impart her culinary wisdom on our clumsy Western tastebuds. We agreed we’d try not to burn her house down.
In the comfort of her home, we learned how to make a soup, a noodle, a curry and a dessert, gaining a greater understanding of the fine art of Thai taste balance. We learned that each dish is a yin and yang of sweet, sour, spicy, salty, bitter… and booby traps. Lime leaves and lemongrass sharply cut and easily lost amongst the mix in your mouth, so much though that you might find yourself choking on a sprig of foliage caught in your esophageal lining.
From a large menu of choices, I chose to learn how to make my favourites: tom yum soup, pad Thai, pumpkin curry and mango sticky rice. Sue chose her favourite—coconut chicken soup—and something that promised to be a little out there.
“I chose Thai drunken noodles!” she said enthusiastically, her dreads cracking like whips as she bounced up and down.
“Sue!” I laughed, “that’s ironic given your oath to remain sober for a year.”
“I’m not in it for the booze… the heat burns it off anyways. I’m in it for the spectacle! I get to set the noodles get set on fire! ON FIRE!”
I then became slightly petrified remembering a piece of information she disclosed in passing earlier in the evening.
“I once set eggs on fire.”
Dear reader, think about that for a second: Eggs. On fire.
“How is that even possible, Sue?”
“No idea. But I did it.”
So when I lost points on Nancy’s rating scale for cutting my peppers incorrectly, Sue got a little smug, flashing her perfectly chopped peppers in my face.
Things quickly turned around when we got to our burners and she couldn’t figure out “how to turn this damn thing on!”
“I know how to turn it on…” said Nancy, with another wink. “You know I have four children.”
While we’d yet to burn down the place, when it came to setting fire to the drunken noodles, neither Sue nor I had proven ourselves worthy of lighting the concoction ablaze.
With a touch of cackling laughter, Nancy doused Sue’s pan with hard liquor and we watched the sauce erupt into a mushroom cloud of sweet, sour, spice, salt and lightly singed eyebrows, tanning our faces along with our minds, pushing us back to the outskirts of the kitchen, as Nancy laughed at us, maintaining control of the pan.
Her house remained intact.
The secret to Nancy’s teaching approach? “When you teach Thai cooking, you teach from your heart. If you cook from your heart, your food will turn good. If you cook from your happiness your food will turn good.”
It’s true. As we sat around the table, sampling our hard-earned wares, happy and hearty, our food was better than good.
If you ever find yourself in Chiang Mai, visit Chef Nancy. If our undomesticated, egg-burning selves can pass her course while producing something delicious to eat and having many a laugh along the way, so can you.