It was, hands down, the highlight of our Chiang Mai trip, and the best tour / class we’ve taken in five countries. The garden to kitchen cooking class with Ae was a once in a lifetime experience. We learned to make yum ma muang (mango salad), a fish and vegetable soup similar to tom yum, tom kha gai (chicken soup in coconut milk) and khao soi (chicken curry noode soup) in a span of four hours.
But the experience really went beyond cooking those four dishes. The afternoon and early evening with Ae was full of insights both personal and cultural. It was like meeting someone who spoke the same food language. It was everything I hoped for in a cooking class — and more. I couldn’t have asked for a better teacher, nor a more congenial one. We enjoyed our time with Ae so much that our not-so-easy time at finding her place became negligible.
On the way to the cooking class
Looking at the map, the venue for the cooking class with Ae appeared to be walkable. The directions from our hostess said the venue was a six-minute walk from the Chiang Mai Gate Market area so it shouldn’t be difficult to find.
But the sun was shining so brightly and the gentle breeze that blew was too warm on the skin. I asked Alex to book a ride with Grab. It turned out to be a good decision. From the Chiang Mai Gate, the Grab driver turned left, then right, then made a u-turn after we reached a dead end. Then, to our disbelief, he entered a street that didn’t look wide enough to allow a car through. Wide-eyed, I was waiting for something to scrape against the side of the car. Nothing did.
We stopped at the address. We saw no signs of a cooking school but we got off the car and paid the driver anyway. We’d have to wing it from there. We checked the houses on either side of the street, walked a few steps then out of a long driveway came a lady with a welcoming smile on her face. Ae, our hostess, found us. We exchanged greetings and introductions.
I knew from her Airbnb page that a class could have as many as six participants, I asked how many were attending that afternoon, wondered if the others had already arrived and if, unlike us, they didn’t have any trouble getting there. Ae replied that there were just Alex and myself. Oh, bliss! I am an ardent believer that the smaller the teacher-to-student ratio, the better the learning experience. And we’ve been lucky thus far. In Saigon, there were only three of us in the cooking class, and just Alex and myself in the coffee class. In Hanoi, the Bat Trang pottery tour and class was private so it was just Sam and myself.
Ae, our hostess
We traversed the driveway and turned right to an open-air structure that was the cooking school. A pavilion with two dining areas, a sitting area, a large kitchen and an auxiliary kitchen that’s mostly out-of-view from guests. Ae bade us take a seat, someone brought out cold drinks made with herbs from the adjacent garden. Ae handed us clipboards with the recipes that we were going to learn to cook. We chatted and got to know each other a little.
Her husband is a diplomat and, after he retired, they settled in Chiang Mai, her home town. The building across the driveway was their house. In the compound were two or three smaller houses that they rent out via Airbnb. When Ae found out that I travel in search of food and food stories to write about, she talked about places that she encouraged us to visit for the food culture. “You should go to Serbia,” she said, “the market is just beautiful.” And she had that nostalgic look on her face as though talking about the market transported her back there.
To call the conversation and the drinks an icebreaker would be to trivialize our first 15 or so minutes in Ae’s domain. By the time she suggested we visit the garden, we had none of that feeling that one usually gets in a strange place with a stranger. She’s that kind of Airbnb Experience Host.
The garden of edibles
The herb and vegetable garden behind the cooking school wasn’t large but the entire perimeter was planted with edibles. They did their own composting so all the fruits and vegetables they harvest are organic. Many are staple Southeast Asian produce that we were already familiar with — or so we thought.
We saw a pile of what looked like twigs and when I asked what they were, Ae handed me a piece and asked me to smell it. The smell was vaguely familiar. Alex and I made a few wrong guesses until I blurted out that “No, it can’t be cinnamon.” But it was. Ae walked over to a tree, took a knife, shaved the trunk and handed the shavings to us. It was our first time to smell fresh cinnamon. The aroma is so much milder and sweeter than the dried kind that is sold commercially.
But that episode about the cinnamon was really an aside — after all, we were in the garden to pick vegetables that would go into the dishes we were going to cook.
The cooking class
It was starting to get dark when we re-entered the pavilion. We were given aprons and assigned to our cooking stations.
The first dish we made was yum ma muang (mango salad). We peeled and shredded green mangoes, tossed them with boiled chicken meat then proceeded to make the dressing. We created a spice base using mortar and pestle, added coconut cream, chili paste and coconut sugar.
The shredded mangoes and chicken were tossed with the dressing then thinly sliced shallots, roasted coconut, roasted peanuts and crispy onion were thrown in. I was ready for a taste at that point but Ae thought as a better way to enjoy the salad — with wild betel leaves. Fold a betel leaf to create a “cup”, place a tablespoonful or two of the mango salad inside then pop into the mouth.
But a taste was all we got at that point. We were going to cook two soup dishes before sitting down to a real meal.
The prep stations were cleared we cut the vegetables for the fish and vegetable soup. It was not unlike tom yum with its subtly tart and spicy broth. But this soup had more herbs and vegetables that tom yum — including dok ngeaw (or dok ngio), the dried red flower of a cotton tree (seen soaking in a bowl of water in the left photo above), which we were introduced to during the food tour the previous day.
Then, there was tom kha gai which, until that day, was my favorite Thai soup. Cooking the chicken soup in coconut milk under Ae’s supervision, I learned something important about lemongrass. See, I’ve always discarded the top portion of the stalks of the lemongrass. They are too fibrous to eat and when they touch your skin, irritation can follow. I simply cut them off and took the lower portions.
But while cooking tom kha gai, Ae showed that, after the root ends have been cut and discarded, the lemongrass can be tied into a loose knot, added to the soup as it cooks then removed before serving. You get more lemongrass flavor that way.
The three dishes we made were laid on the solid wood dining table with a traditional Thai woven cloth. Eat and rest, Ae said, because we’re going to make khao soi next.
Oh, my goodness. We were full, we couldn’t finish all of the salad and soups, but I wasn’t about to say no to khao soi. I’ve been dreaming of khai soi ever since I saw Somebody Feed Phil on Netflix. In the Bangkok episode of first season, he travelled to Chiang Mai for the khao soi. And there we were in Chiang Mai where we were about to cook khai soi.
Making khai soi started with a spice paste. With a mortar and pestle, we gound chilies, peppercorns, cardamom, nutmeg, coriander seeds, galangal, ginger, turmeric, kaffir lime zest, lemongrass, shallots, cilantro roots, shrimp paste and coconut sugar.
We sauteed the spice paste until solid bits separated from the oil. Chicken, chicken broth and thick coconut cream were added, everything was simmered and the seasonings adjusted. Then the chicken curry soup was poured into a bowl of cooked noodles, topped with crispy noodles and sliced onions and served with lemon wedges on the side. It was divine. We would eat khao soi at different restaurants over the next several days but nothing — NOTHING — could hold a candle to the khao soi we cooked with Ae.
As the cooking class ended, Ae took out a map and marked establishments that she felt we should try. There was one that sold beef noodle soup, a place that she and her daughter frequented, that was just across the street from where we were staying. She also marked an eatery that sold fish balls noodle soup near the Three Kings Monument and, a few doors from it, a place selling coconut ice cream.
These recommendations… Ae didn’t have to. She wasn’t affiliated with those establishments and she wasn’t going to earn extra by recommending them. But Ae… she’s that kind of hostess. She wanted us to have the best Chiang Mai food experience so she went out of her way to point out all those places for us.
She had told us earlier that she was writing a book — a documentation of Chiang Mai cuisine and recipes from her grandmother. I hope she finds the time to finish her project soon. I’d love to read everything she writes about.