Cooking in the land of smiles (and MSG)

preparing papaya salad :)

First of all, many apologies for abandoning the blog and you wonderful readers these past few months! I have no excuse except that I was having lots of fun exploring the southeast of Asia. And as much as I would have liked to write some posts, blogging from a phone without all my photos was just never that appealing…

So now here I am, back in my home with a much-too-quickly fading tan and an inspired spirit that always lingers after being in another culture for a while. And more wanderlust, which seems to grow exponentially with each trip I take. Luckily, this was only part 1 of my grand adventures of 2014, with moving to Australia coming up in merely a month!

But let’s talk about Southeast Asia. Without doing much research beforehand, I had few expectations for this 2-month backpack adventure except to be able to travel cheaply and eat some good food. I was not disappointed :)

(And, having few expectations helps me appreciate every place I go so much more — a key to happy travels I’ve learned throughout the past).

Chiang Mai Flower Festival
Flower Festival in Chiang Mai, Thailand

Our first stop was Thailand, where I was eager to take a cooking class and learn what authentic Thai food is all about. I found our first tastes of Thai fare in Bangkok to be quite heavy and rich, and much smaller portions than we’re used to – which was a good thing! Along with the sweltering humidity, cramped city feel, and bad traffic made horrendous due to ongoing political protests, I was ready to get my massage on the street and get outta there.

A (long) train ride later Forrest and I breathed a sigh of relief and fresh air as we stepped into Chiang Mai. Our songthaew (pick-up taxi) ride from the train station drove us to the moated old city where flower-coated parade floats lined the streets and a colorful, neon-lighted concert was blasting its music to the whole city. We arrived in this super cultural northern city smack in the middle of the annual flower festival – lucky us!

The laid-back, down-to-earth city of Chiang Mai has all the Thai culture your senses could care to soak up. And more. It was such a relief to be there after overwhelming Bangkok, especially at a time of such celebration and blooming flowers galore! Forrest and I had fun trying to navigate through the narrow alleys fringed with tropical plants and quaint cafes to find majestic temple after temple, each with their own style and color and peaceful aura. We’d pick up a street food snack and a Thai iced coffee (the best) and continue our day of exploring or people-watching in the park until it was time to experience the craziness that is the night market.

Then the day came to indulge our tastebuds, stuff our stomachs and learn what it is that makes Thai fare so rich and flavorful. We were recommended a school called Smart Cook Thai Cookery School, and the full day involved browsing the morning market to learn about essential Thai ingredients and then heading to the open-air kitchen to learn how to prepare six different dishes. (Yes, that’s a lot of eating!)

a little market shopping to pick up ingredients for our cooking lesson
Shopping the market to pick up ingredients for our cooking class

One thing I wasn’t expecting to see in the midst of all the produce and fresh herbs was bags of white crystals labelled “seasoning” or “MSG”. Mmmmmmm… Our cooking instructor even picked up a bag and said this is crucial to Thai cooking, used by itself as well as mixing into chicken bouillon for extra extra flavor. Well, that made sense seeing as every dish we ate seemed extra extra flavorful.

We began the day of cooking with a stir fry, and I chose my favorite Pad Kra-Prao Gai, or chicken & holy basil stir fry. What we quickly learned about Thai cooking is that the majority of your time is spent chopping and prepping ingredients, whereas the actual cooking time in the wok is nothing! I also hadn’t known that there are 3 types of Thai basil: sweet, holy & lemon. I’ve grown Thai sweet basil at home as I thought that’s all there was, but this stir fry uses holy basil for its spicier flavor. (Unfortunately when Forrest & I made this dish back home for our families, there was no holy basil to be found. Not even at the exclusively Thai market which claims to have “all your Thai cooking needs.” We substituted Thai sweet basil which was fine, but definitely not the same!)

The simplicity of this dish but the complex, pungent flavor it produces gets me every time. And since it’s one of my favorites, I’ll post the recipe for you at the bottom. :)

holy basil stir fry

Next up was soup. I chose to make a simple vegetable and tofu soup and Forrest chose the heavier (but tasty!) Tom Kaa Kai, or chicken in coconut milk. Once again it amazed us how quickly Thais can cook their food using super high heat – I don’t think my stove at home can even get that high! Both soups were delicious, but by this time we were wondering how we were going to eat 3 more dishes in the next couple hours…

Oh well, life could be worse. Back to the kitchen to pound some curry paste.

Making your own curry paste is time consuming but rewarding and so worth the incredible freshness you get out of it. I chose to make green curry paste, which is a combination of (get ready) Thai sweet basil leaves, garlic, green Thai chilies, galangal, coriander seeds & root, turmeric root, lemongrass, shallots, cumin seeds, peppercorns, kaffir lime peel, salt and shrimp paste. After assembling this long list of ingredients you must chop them all as fine as possible, then pound pound pound with a pestle and mortar until your arm aches. Then keep pounding because it’s not pasty enough.

Once again, the actual cooking of the curry takes no time at all compared to prepping the ingredients. And I must say that was one of the best green curry experiences my tastebuds have ever had.

Thai green curry

Ok, getting full yet? Or maybe very hungry for a 5-course Thai meal :)

Next we learned to make a Thai salad, of which I chose my favorite green papaya salad. This is also prepared with a pestle & mortar (first photo of this post) to crush and combine all the ingredients and flavors. Every papaya salad I had on the street thus far had been suuuper spicy so I decided to go light on the red chilies. It was delicious; if only I had still been hungry to enjoy it!

green papaya salad

Aaaand finally it was time for dessert. Mango with sweet sticky rice was an obvious choice, but I couldn’t imagine eating any more rice at that point. I went for the banana in coconut milk and Forrest surprised me and went with the pumpkin in coconut milk. Neither of us had tried either, but they turned out to be some of our most favorite desserts. It couldn’t be much simpler to prepare as it involves boiling pieces of banana or pumpkin (seemed similar to a kabocha squash) in coconut milk that is sweetened with palm sugar and a pinch of salt. The coconut milk condenses a bit into a rich cream and the dessert is served hot in a bowl topped with toasted sesame seeds. Again, simple but incredibly tasty – perfect as a light, sweet ending to a meal.

Our Swiss friend taking the class with us was generous enough to let me taste (and photograph ;) his amazing mango & sticky rice as well. And with that, we were done — hardly able to waddle home, all senses overloaded, and our heads spinning with this plethora of new information.

Thai desserts

For me, learning about and experiencing a people’s food culture is something that keeps me in love with travel. And getting a lesson in Thai cooking means I get to relive my experiences in Thailand every time I make these recipes at home or share my knowledge with friends. So if you find yourself in Thailand, first don’t miss Chiang Mai. And second, consider taking a cooking class to really understand the love and tradition that Thais put into their cooking. Along with a good dose of fiery chilies and MSG.

holy basil stir fry

Now the as promised basil stir fry recipe. I’ve made this 4 times since being home and love it more every time! I actually like it better with tofu as it soaks up more flavor but chicken is traditionally used. This is the recipe given by our cooking school but feel free to throw in other veggies like broccoli, eggplant or leafy greens.

Stir-fried minced chicken or tofu with holy basil (Pad Kra-Prao)

*Recipe is for a single portion, but easily multiplied for more people

  • 100g minced chicken or tofu (~1 chicken breast or ~1/4 block of firm tofu)
  • 30g large onion, sliced diagonally
  • 30g baby corn or carrot, sliced
  • 20g (a large handful) Thai holy basil leaves
  • 1-2 fresh red Thai chilies, chopped + seeded
  • 1 T chopped garlic
  • 1 T oil (high heat tolerant, like coconut)
  • 1/4 t coconut palm sugar
  • 1 T oyster sauce (vegetarian use mushroom sauce)
  • 1/2 T fish sauce (vegetarian use soy sauce)
  • 1-3 T water

Heat a wok or frying pan over high heat and add 1 T oil. Fry garlic and chilies until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Toss in minced chicken or tofu and stir fry continuously until cooked, adding a splash of water if the pan gets too dry. Add sliced onion, baby corn or carrot (or any other veggies you decide to use) and stir well. Add oyster sauce, fish sauce, sugar and stir again until everything is coated and the veggies are cooked. Toss the holy basil into the pan, fold it into the chicken and then immediately turn off the heat. The basil will continue to wilt and cook from the heat of the pan. Serve immediately over rice, and top with a fried egg if you’re feeling really authentic :)

Hope you all enjoy! I’ll have more travel highlights and Southeast Asia inspired recipes up on the blog soon :)


serenity in Chiang Mai

This post is shared on Gluten Free Fridays 


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