What’s Cookin’ in Chiang Mai

31 Jan

Wow, it’s been quite a week here in Chiang Mai.  Earlier this week we had an unexpected “Chiang Mai version” of winter. The temperature dropped down to about 50 F.  This was quite a shock to the system after months of temperatures in the 80s and 90s.  I heard it was even recording-breaking cold! We had a few days of good “bundling-up”, some cold (and one wet) morning rides to work, and one day you could even see your breath (the kids at school of course loved this!). I even broke out a short down winter coat and my wool long underwear from Germany!  “What’s all the fuss?  That’s not that cold!” you might think?  It seems at least part of it is the tropical humid weather makes the cold even colder, an icy cold that shoots straight through you. Also, buildings here have no insulation and no heat.  Plus, your body is used to (at least somewhat on my part) hot weather! For a few days, there were many empty seats in classrooms and students bundled in fleece blankets and fuzzy animal hats.  As much as I complain about the heat, I am glad to have things back to “normal” today with pleasant blue skies and a comfortable 81 degrees.

Things are a bit crazy at work lately.  In part because we are preparing for the annual NP Fair, put on by the Native English Program at my school.  For the teachers this has us creating booths for the fair as well as preparing students for song and dance performance extravaganza.  As the end of the years is winding in, it is inevitable that teachers are a bit exhausted (I personally am…) and students are… well, let’s just say… less interested in paying attention and listening.  But like it or not, here it all comes and the crazy dance continues of life and teaching in Chiang Mai.

Tom Yum Soup

The beginnings of Tom Yum Soup

This weekend I treated myself to a Thai Cooking Class.  It was something I was hesitant to do with all of my food sensitivities. More and more it is challenging for me to eat here… but I thought perhaps if I cooked the food I could at least control what goes into it and learn a bit more about Thai food and culture.

I chose the Thai Farm Cooking School in part because they use organic ingredients they grow at their farm and also because of their popularity and high rating.  Plus you they pick you up, take you to their farm out of the city – always nice to have a little break from Chiang Mai and some new scenery for the day.  You cook I think… six different dishes… and get a selection to choose from.

curry paste

Curry Paste

Overall, it was a great day! The other folks in the class were all really personable and it was fun to spend some time and talk with an assortment of people with their own travel experiences and stories to tell.  And I learned a lot about Thai Food!  I was able to make most of the foods with some adjustments.  With these adjustments (mostly no adding anything that included sugar), some dishes tasted okay… and some in earnest were completely flat.  This class helped me to get clear that most Thai dishes simply rely on the MANY sugary sauces for their good taste.  A bit of a bummer for me, but also an eye-opener to the extent of the high sugar content of the food here.

curry

Chicken Curry

One of the highlights of the day was making our own curry paste.  We each had our own impressive mortar bowl and pestle. We added the curry ingredients and pounded away for a considerable amount of time until our paste looked like “peanut butter” as we were told. This was the basis for the curry we made later, a dish that still tasted pretty good even though I left out all of the sugary sauces used to complete the dish.

Overall they did a great job of being patient with me and adapting to my food needs and requests.  I would recommend them for someone with food sensitivities as they seem pretty adept to it.  However, the inevitable truth is that many of the dishes just don’t taste that great when you have to leave out some of the main ingredients…

That said, I now know what many of the “foreign” veggies are that I see in the supermarket and also know what they are used for – which is great!!  And I feel more informed about some basic Thai food and dishes.

Today at the JJs Organic Market, one of the regular weekly markets here in Chiang Mai, I ran into an American woman who has lived in Chiang Mai for ten years and also happens to be an organic growing expert.  One of my concerns here in Chiang Mai is that you don’t REALLY know what is organic and what isn’t – even at an “organic” market.  It was such a relief to chat with her a bit about finding organic food in Chiang Mai.  One of the challenges here, as she pointed out, is that it’s hard to really get the truth about things.  Someone may say something has no pesticides but you can’t count on the fact that they are telling the truth… which makes it difficult to eat healthy.  She pointed me towards some growers at the market she worked with personally who she could confirm are organic growers.  She also gave me some simple tips like if the veggies look kind of “bad” that is a good sign that they are grown organically.  Bug bites, for example, she suggests are a good sign when looking for organic food.

She also warned that many street markets use harsh pesticides including formaldehyde!  I do my best to stay away from traditionally grown veggies here as I know harsh pesticides are used… but had no idea about the formaldehyde!  And so the adventure of healthy eating on the international landscape continues!

I have just a little sunny day weekend left and look forward to a Thai Massage later today as the weekend sneaks away and a new workweek soon begins.

How are things in your neck of the woods?  It’s always great to hear from you!