More fish sauce? Thai culinary delights with crazy Joe!

Ever since my first visit to Thailand in 2002, its distinct, aromatic, but simple flavours have stayed with me, and Thai food remains my favourite cuisine.  Chilli, ginger, lemongrass, galangal, kaffir lime leaves, fish sauce, palm sugar, soy sauce, and garlic – an amalgamation of ingredients that scream “Thailand!”

I learnt to cook with these ingredients back in 2006, during a 6-month solo trip around south-east Asia.  I’d made it up to Chiang Mai from Bangkok, via Kanchanaburi – the pretty riverside town that’s famous for being the location of the Bridge over the river Kwai – and Lopburi – renowned for its wild monkey population – and Thailand’s old capitals, Ayuthaya and Sukhothai. I’d been constantly on the move since I landed in Bangkok a few weeks previously, so having 5 days in Chiang Mai actually allowed me some time to stop.  I had a traditional Thai massage, sat around in street cafes drinking fresh fruit smoothies, and booked myself on a Thai cookery course with Gap’s Thai Culinary Art School.

Being Vegetarian – or more accurately, Pescetarian (but many people look at me rather blankly when I use that description) – what appealed to me about Gap’s is that they are able to adapt their dishes to suit vegetarians, by using tofu instead of meat.  This is advertised on their website, and gave them an immediate advantage over companies who do not offer that. The whole day was expertly and seamlessly organised, informative, hands-on, and most of all great fun.  Moreover the group size is small (never more than 8 students per tutor – we had 5), so you really feel valued as an individual.

The day starts with a visit to the local market for an attack on the senses, and to have a look at some of the vegetables, herbs, and seasoning that we’d be working with.  The market in itself was fascinating – I never realised there were so many different varieties of eggplant (in fact, all of the vegetables traditionally used in a Thai Green Curry are a type of eggplant – bitter, long, and crunchy).  I also learnt that Papaya is great for your digestive system and that rubbing fresh Turmeric on mosquito bites will help to reduce the swelling and itching (still haven’t tried that one though!)

Already feeling positive, excited and inspired, we were then driven to the ‘school’, which is actually a large covered open-air kitchen built in the middle of some beautiful gardens.  I couldn’t have asked for a prettier, more authentic setting.  The kitchen was well laid out, and our individual workstations were spacious and fully-equipped.  Our tutor – affectionately named ‘Crazy Joe’ – spoke enthusiastically about the Thai flavours and how they work together.  He taught us now only how to use all the ingredients effectively but also how to prepare and cook the following dishes creatively:

1. Poh Pia (Thai spring rolls)

The art of rolling...

The art of rolling…

And cooking...

And cooking…

2. Tom Yam Koung (Spicy and sour lemongrass soup with shrimp)

The raw ingredients

The raw ingredients

3. Khai Phat Met-Muang (chicken sauteed with cashew nuts)

This one's all meat-free

This one’s all meat-free

4. Phat Thai Sai Khai (fried noodle Thai style)

More commonly known as Pad Thai

More commonly known as Pad Thai

How it's done in the pan

How it’s done in the pan

All rolled up omelette stylie

All rolled up omelette stylie

4. Khaeng Khiaw Waan Kai (Chicken green curry)

IMG_2546

Some of the ingredients in a Thai green curry…think I was too busy salivating to take a photo of the dish itself!

5. Tort Man Pla (Thai style fish cakes)

The raw ingredients

The raw ingredients

Cooking in the pan

Cooking in the pan

And voila!  On the plate and ready to eat

And voila! On the plate and ready to eat

7. Ho Mok Plaa (Fish souffle)

All prepared and ready to go in the steamer

All prepared and ready to go in the steamer

8. Sang Kai Yaa FakThawng (Steamed whole pumpkin with coconut custard)

All the dishes we cooked, apart from the steamed pumpkin  which was still cooking when I took this photo

All the dishes we cooked, apart from the steamed pumpkin which was still cooking when I took this photo, and the spring rolls which I’d already eaten!

N.B I substituted the chicken for tofu in all of the above dishes

The enormous intensity of the flavours in Thai dishes belies the relative simplicity of creating them.  Preparation is key ; cooking time is nominal.  We even got to show off a bit of artistic flair by making a rose from the peeled skin of a tomato…this did require a significant amount of patience and concentration but when I looked around at the other attempts afterwards, I was feeling rather chuffed with mine 🙂

Looks convincing, doesn't it?

Looks convincing, doesn’t it?

Now I realise that I’ve not sampled any other cookery courses in Chiang Mai, and so my recommendation may be a little biased, but when you find a company like Gap’s who run such a professional, organised, informative, fun, and worthwhile day, then it removes the need or desire to look elsewhere.  This is why – when I returned to Chiang Mai 5 years later – I decided to enroll on the same cookery course with Gap’s.  Not only were the company still going strong (which is a testament in itself to their success), but the whole experience was just as rich and fulfilling as the first.  Moreover, crazy Joe was still running it.  5 years on the trot and he still retains his enthusiasm and energy and humour….more fish sauce anyone? 😉

Useful Info

The cooking school office is located at:

Gap’s House, 3 Rajadamnern Soi 4, Chiang Mai (a few minutes walk from Tapae Gate)

email: info@thai-culinary-arts-cooking-school.com

tel: (66 53) 278140

Or click here to visit the website

Courses are held every day except Sunday

1-day course (10am-4pm) is 900THB and includes all transportation, a visit to the local market beforehand, a recipe book, certificate of completion of the course and a cotton shoulder bag.  Any food you can’t eat for lunch and any dishes you cook after lunch can be boxed up and taken home with you to eat for dinner (although, after the enormous amount of food I had managed to cook by lunchtime, dinner didn’t really happen for me!)  Finding someone to share it with is probably the best idea 🙂

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