Be not afraid of fermented fish

Pad thai ingredients at Grandma's Thai Recipes cooking class - Chiang Mai, Thailand
Pad thai ingredients | Photo by Lauren Girardin

In 2005, Todd’s brother Joshua and our freshly minted sister-in-law Sutay spent over a year on an extended multi-continental honeymoon. When they settled into Chiang Mai, Thailand for a month of tranquilo writing and intense massage schooling, it was a perfect time for a visit from Joshua’s mom, Beth.

Todd and I have been together a long time – and friends even longer. So, even though I’m just 33, I’ve known Todd’s family for more than 20 years. They’re old friends. It’s comforting to know that, though it’s been many months since we’ve seen anyone we know from L.B.T. (Life Before Travel), now that we’re in Chiang Mai, every so often our steps fall exactly where Joshua, Sutay, or Beth’s did less than four years ago.

Like most travelers that pass through Chiang Mai, Joshua and Beth chopped and pounded away a day in a cooking class and recommended the experience. I’ve taken a cooking class here and there on this trip and never regretted it – the market tour helps me identify mysterious street food, and since you usually make more than one meal’s worth of dishes, it’s a kind-to-the-budget activity. Chiang Mai also seems to have as many cooking classes as pimped out golden Buddhas. How could I not follow in Beth and Joshua’s footsteps?

Dried fish at the market - Chiang Mai, Thailand
Dried fish at the Chiang Mai market | Photo by Lauren Girardin

As phenomenal as constantly eating out sounds while you’re elbow deep in a sink of dirty dishes, once you’ve hit your 500th non-homecooked meal in 6 months, the thrill is gone. I want to cook something and mumble through my first tasty mouthful, “Damn . . . mhmrmm . . . good . . . mmm . . . yum.” Especially for a confessed recipe coveter and dinner party addict like myself, there’s also a fierce yearning for the most mundane of cooking actions: peeling onions, waiting for oil to heat in a pan, mixing salad dressing. My hands haven’t smelled like garlic in ages. I miss cooking.

After a close scrutiny of cooking school pamphlets and online reviews, on a walk through the streets of Chiang Mai, I meet Chanisa a.k.a. Jib. She’s leading the classes at Grandma’s Thai Recipes now that her grandmother spending golden years by running a few restaurants. While shifting the weight of a squirmy toddler from one hip to the other, Jib assures me that I’ll be challenged with hands-on work and new techniques. And, since Grandma’s is one of the few cooking schools that still lets you pick the dishes you want to make, I can choose the most challenging recipes.

As I climb into the back of the school’s truck the next morning, Jib introduces me to sisters Kate and Beth, the only other students for the day. Better even than the intimate class size, since we chose many disparate dishes, we’ll learn how to make almost every recipe the school offers.

At Grandma's Thai Recipes cooking school - Chiang Mai, Thailand
Stir frying it up | Photo courtesy Grandma’s Thai Recipes

Before we cook, we shop, touring through a local market to buy fresh chicken, tofu, and banana-leaf wrapped mystery snacks, and to ask questions about palm sugar quality, unfamiliar varieties of eggplants, and eggs dyed like Easter’s coming, which signals whether the eggs are pickled, salted, or preserved.

With bulging bags of produce and protein in hand, we drive to the class HQ and Jib’s home, in a quiet neighborhood just outside Chiang Mai. We poke around the family’s organic fruit trees and herb garden, net a few fish out of the well-stocked pond, and admire Jib’s orchid collection. After a quick breakfast of our banana leaf encased treats – Thailand’s answer to the pop tart – we start cooking.

Prepping for cooking at Grandma's Thai Recipes cooking class - Chiang Mai, Thailand
Prepping for cooking | Photo by Lauren Girardin

Over the next six hours, we race our way through 15 dishes. For me, it’s the perfect pace – the same as if I was cooking for a dinner party at home. We prep our dishes barefooted, sitting on floor-cushions on thatch mats. We drown the heat with Jib’s homebrewed hibiscus iced tea. At the wok, I discover multiple reasons why my past efforts at pad thai have always sucked: push on the noodles to mix the sauce in, toss in some minced pickled radish, let the egg cook a bit before stirring so the white and yellow stay separate, and don’t skimp on the nam pla, the fragrant, salty fermented fish sauce.

As I pound my red curry paste with a pestle so hefty I could use it for Whac-A-Mole, in a mortar so large I could wear it as a helmet, a fleck of fiery birdseye chili flies into my eye, causing an instant blinding burn. Jib is fast to act, tending to me with a laboratory-grade emergency eye wash kit. I add “mortar and pestle” and “protective goggles” to my long list of things to buy when I get back to San Francisco so I can make Thai food whenever I want, as spicy as I want, without inflicting permanent damage.

Photos from the Cooking Class, Chiang Mai, Thailand

If you can’t see the photo slide show above, view the photo set on Flickr.