As if yesterdays too easy embracing of the Thai food eating disorder wasn’t enough we’re back on the wagon and ready to seek happiness at the bottom of a bowl all over again; it’s cooking school time. Again. After the Bamboo Tree cooking school in Luang Prabang knocked our socks off there seems no better way to get into the local flavour than by learning to make it ourselves. Our list of Thai dishes that we know from home only one has had a genuine comparison with the tom yum soup giving our local Thai takeaway a big thumbs up; we could have been on a Surry Hills footpath or in a Chiang Rai bar with the soup so fantastically pressed from the same mould.
Weirdly enough Chiang Mai also does coffee really well, public temper tantrum averted. We soak up the first proper piccolo we’ve had in months as Chiang Mai rattles past us on the hot busy street while we wait for school to start. School’s in and as seems customary it’s aprons on and off to the market for a poke around the range of different ingredients that put the magic into Thai food yet often seem so foreign to us. We know most of them but Thai ginseng, spicy basil and saw coriander are new additions to our shopping list when we get home, those secret flavours seem less shrouded in mystery by the passing minute.
In a first day that positively drowned in dreams of food and idolised rugby players bathing in said food, not too many of the dishes we know from home were held up to comparisons here. Today that changes. Surprisingly the famous pad Thai noodles are made more for a western audience knocking them down a peg in our books but we have pad see eew noodles on the list along with a green curry. It’s been minutes since we ate and in this country that is one big eating disorder it’s time to get happy.
Again the dishes we know from home are just a scratch on the range of food here leaving us feeling slightly limited in our Thai knowledge but still resolute in finding where our favourites sit. Shock horror of horrors presents our first conclusion, pad see eew isn’t really what we know it to be at all. Usually rich with sweetness slightly edging the sour saltiness to make the fat noodles slither over our tongues to melt into nothing these ones are a bit tart and vinegary it has to be said. It’s our second pad see eew so far and we weren’t willing to call it on the first try; could Australia possibly make a better pad see eew than Thailand? What a dilemma, I can’t bring myself to utter the shameful words acknowledging that I prefer the altered version bastardised to fit my tastes but it’s hard to see an alternative response. Pad see eew might just be the first domino to fall in the great Thai food pyramid even if the version at home remains a gem.
spicy minced chicken stir fry, papaya salad, spring rolls and fried banana all add to the story of eating in Thailand but there is a king calling order to his court. Green curry is possibly the Thai dish of Thai dishes and it’s our turn to give it a try. Pounding a paste the old fashioned way from chillies, garlic, galangal, ginseng, lemongrass, kaffir lime and more we throw our smooth green mush into the wok so desperately hoping that this idolised dish we love so much at home isn’t shown up to be a sham. Our teacher explains that degrees of heat are directly related to how sexy a dish is, hotter the sexier of course. On doling out the curry paste she relates it to school levels: kindergarten being mild and university being hot before asking what school level is sexy for us; I love translation hiccups. With a smirk I ask for a sexy high school student as I shrug off an unbidden feeling of being a catholic priest. Sorry, I said high school, not primary school; my mistake.
The paste melts into the coconut milk, the eggplants soften and the chicken fades to white as the king rises to speak. There’s a sense of reverence in spooning the curry into the bowl, a delicacy invades our movements belying the seriousness of this tasting. We’ve consumed so much chilli today that the sweat on our brows mingles nervousness and heat indeterminably; the moment is here. I banish the awkward vision of David Kilcoyne leaning over a grand bed of crisp white sheets to spoon feed me green curry as Thailand rushes to Sydney and Sydney rushes to Thailand in an all too rapid instant. These handsome rugby player cross food fantasies just have to stop; but I know they won’t. What a triumph, what a relief. The spicy kick of creamy coconut milk dances with sour fish sauce and sweet basil; If David were indeed sharing this green curry with me I’d nearly kick him out of bed to eat it all. Um, I mean share it with Charlie; almost.
We’re going to get seriously fat in this country and along with the extra holes in the belt, seriously happy too. We didn’t make the massaman, red or penang curries but a sneaky taste has them firmly retaining their position in the tree with pad thai the only dish to possibly fall to earth and join pad see eew on the endangered list when we return home.
After class an evening trip out to a Japanese tea house delivers a few surprisingly delicious glasses of wine, nearly a foreign taste by now, and another window into Chiang Mai. This town, this country I believe, is not just content to boast one of the most lauded food cultures in the world, it’s outward looking and open minded; Italian wines and Japanese fusion sandwiches just seem to fit in here. Yes it’s a touristy town but unlike others of its kind it disregards creating a homely little western bubble away from the big homely western bubbles we come from; Chaing Mai is Chiang Mai. This town is diverse, proudly Thai, chaotic and comforting, local and tourist friendly; placing the old saying on shaky ground, maybe you can be everything to everyone.