It’s been exactly four years since a day I remember with great affection, the day on which my friend and I attended a full-day cooking school in Chiang Rai, Thailand and–with a lot of effort, hard work, and a great sense of fun–made some of the loveliest and most delicious food I’ve ever eaten. A shining moment. The silver lining. The wisdom of Gibbs’ mother. Proof positive that it’s possible to find, and be grateful for, beautiful things in a sometimes dark world.
I’ve written about the experience before here and on Ricochet, and it’s proven to be one of my most popular posts, so I thought I’d give it another airing. Over the years, it’s been viewed by readers in a couple-dozen countries, including by many in Thailand itself, and I’m also very grateful for that. If reading it has encouraged any of you to sign up for a class with the lovely Ms. Suwanee, then I’m even happier. Before posting this, I verified that she’s still in business: Her website is here. For those of you unlucky enough neither to live in Thailand nor be planning a trip there, please note that she does post many of her recipes on her site. Not quite the same experience, but it’s a start.
Bon appétit! ทานให้อร่อย
This post fulfills a promise I made in July of 2018 to a lovely lady, Ms. Suwanee Kwan Cheablam, that I would write a public review of her cooking school in Chiang Rai, Thailand. I’m sorry it’s taken me such a long time. However, as Allen Saunders said (in a quote which is frequently mis-attributed to Beatle John Lennon), “Life is what happens to us when we are busy making other plans.” Nevertheless, and belatedly, here is my review. Net, net: Five Stars!
A couple of years ago, in July of 2018, I had the opportunity to spend ten days with a friend of the family in the city of Chiang Rai, in Northern Thailand.
This particular friend had been known to me online for several years through a social media site I write for, and Mr. Right and I met him in person on December 31, 2017, when he’d just arrived in the States for an extended visit. By the time he left, on February 22, 2018, having spent almost all the intervening eight weeks living with us, we knew each other very well, considered each other members of the same family and friends for life, and we’d made arrangements for continuing contact and relationships far into the future. Our friend, like Mr. Right, has a history with the United States Marine Corps (you know, Semper Fidelis and all that) and I was confident that all was good.
So, cut to a few weeks later, when my friend was complaining of missing the West and “home” and the opportunity presented itself for me to spend some time in a country I’d never have had the nerve or desire to visit on my own. After some rational discussion, and with my friend’s enthusiastic, and Mr. Right family’s cautious, agreement, I took said opportunity, and we arranged the July visit.
Mr. Right is in poor health and can’t travel. So his daughter stayed with him while I made my trip. And I’ll never be other than grateful to her for her support before, then, and since.
Unfortunately, to borrow Queen Elizabeth’s magnificently understated summation of her annus horribilis in 1992, my trip to Thailand is “not [one] on which I shall look back with undiluted pleasure,” but that’s a completely different story. Picaresque novel to follow at some point, when I finally get around to it. Maybe penny-dreadful installments, like James Malcolm Rymer and Thomas Peckett Prest. Who knows? I’ve always liked G.K. Chesterton’s defense of the penny-dreadful:
Sensational novels are the most moral part of modern fiction. Any literature that represents our life as dangerous and startling is truer than any literature that represents it as dubious and languid. For life is a fight and is not a conversation.
Still, conversation is what we do here, and I’m not interested in fighting, so there it is. Although I can’t help thinking that Chesterton may have changed his tune if he’d ever encountered Fifty Shades of Grey. It wasn’t the “dangerous and startling” nature of it that rendered me incapable of getting more than two pages in; it was the appalling writing and the self-evident appeal to sad middle-aged women desperate at any cost for titillation via “mommy porn.” Good Grief. No thank you. [2022 Update: The further away I get from my own experience, the more the comic potential of the situation opens up before my eyes. LOL. At least, unlike that of E.L. James, my hilarity will be intentional, and my prose is impeccable. So there’s that.]
But I digress.
The Lord, as they say, turns everything to good. And like the sundial, I count only sunny hours, and there is at least one day of my trip to Thailand which will never be other than a perfect memory for me, one I’ll hold in my heart forever.
It was the day my friend and I attended a cooking school together.
I wasn’t sure what to expect for the incredibly modest fee, but looking back on it, I’d have been happy to spend it many times over, every day of my trip, for the opportunity to go back and make, and eat, some more such incredible meals.
Our day began fairly early when Ms. Suwanee showed up in her rather impressive SUV to pick us up and take us to the Chiang Rai Central Market to purchase the ingredients for the delicious meals we were to make that day. To be clear, and since I suppose the Chiang Rai market qualifies in some ways as one of those “wet markets” you’ve heard so much about recently, I didn’t spot anything (no bats) too off-putting, other than a few flies on the meat. As I grew up in Northern Nigeria, with its many colorful local markets, that didn’t throw me off my game much. And the sights, the sounds, the smells, and Suwanee’s expert guidance, were totally worth it. (She speaks excellent English, by the way, and is a fountain of fascinating information on absolutely everything to do with her native country, which she clearly adores.)
Once we’d gathered up our ingredients, we processed to Suwanee’s house, outside Chiang Rai proper, a lovely estate, complete with fish pond and a beautiful garden in which many of the herbs and spices she uses in her classes are grown. Her kitchen is set up perfectly for the school, and in no time at all, we were all set!
Since just the two of us were in the class (she could accommodate up to four students at the time, although I see her website today says she can manage eight–you go, girl!–we were given some flexibility in our selections. We chose a Pad Thai, a Panang, a Hot and Sour Soup with Shrimp, and Mango With Sticky Rice for dessert (many of these recipes can be found on Suwanee’s website.)
The class took place in Suwanee’s huge and welcoming kitchen, in which she has separate workspaces set up for each student, and several propane-fired stir-fry stations to do the actual cooking.
First up: the red curry paste for the Panang:
Glory Be. That was work! Starting with whole spices, and grinding them in a mortar and pestle made from Thai granite, by hand. By the end of the exercise, I was sweating, and not only from the heat of the peppers. Fortunately, Suwanee had the perfect respite when she served up a delicious beverage made from pineapple and Thai basil:
Best smoothie ever! I’ve tried to recreate it, with not-too-bad results. Take some fresh pineapple chunks, and pineapple juice. Add a handful of Thai basil (it tastes different from the Italian and Greek, just trust me on that) and some honey. Whirl in a blender. Try it. Adjust amounts as necessary. I can’t quite match Suwanee’s beautiful presentation, though.
Anyway, the Panang was glorious. So, on to the Hot and Sour Shrimp Soup.
Ms. Suwanee, just know that I have totally stolen your idea about putting all the measured-out ingredients onto a divided platter and into little bowls before I start out to cook. Genius!!
Again, utterly delicious.
But, whoops, what is this? A little side trip into Thai culture, and the equivalent of what we’d call in the United States, “moonshine.” In Thailand, it’s called Lao Khao, and honestly, it tastes like nothing so much as furniture polish remover. Still, all part of the experience, and I understand that many folks really like it. De gustibus non est disputandum, as they say. Glad I tried it. No more, please.
Now, on to the Pad Thai, a popular dish, and one that’s known worldwide in many forms, not all of them authentic. I have no doubt that the one we made was authentic:
And, finally, after three gorgeous main dishes, it was on to dessert!
Well, first we talked about dying the rice. So much more exciting that in the US, where I’d probably have used unsweetened KoolAid as a vehicle (that’s what I do when I’m teaching introductory wool-dying classes. But, No! Suwanee has a better idea!)
We chose to dye our rice green, and blue:
Both of them were natural plant dyes. The green is pandan, and the blue is butterfly pea flower. So much fun!
If you can see Suwanee’s demonstration mango at the top right in this photo, you’ll see how beautifully square and regular her cuts are, and how nice it looks. Mine was a bit disheveled, with something of a Donald Trump comb-over aspect. But, I believe, it tasted just as good! And, with the flowers and leaves, what a lovely presentation. (Note to self: almost worth another trip to Thailand, just for the mangoes, the bananas, and the pineapples. I’d forgotten how lovely tropical fruit is, when it’s picked locally and fresh.)
Thank you, Suwanee, for one of the loveliest, most charming, and best days of my life. I’ll never forget. May you prosper, and if someone comes across this review and enrolls in your class, I’ll consider this a job well done. Khob khun ka. Thanks for everything.
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