Today I spent an enjoyable day learning how to cook Thai food at the “A Lot of Thai” home cooking class in Chiang Mai. For about a month now I have been trying to decide which Thai cooking school I would attend while on holiday in the north of Thailand. There are about 20 schools in this city and I wanted to help people choose the best value for money course. I did shop around quite a bit. I visited a number of cooking schools, spoke to some of the students and also observed their visits to local markets. I was going to attend a couple of classes before I made my final decision. However, after today, I can unreservedly recommend “A Lot of Thai” as an excellent choice for a Thai cooking school in Chiang Mai. This should be your first choice of school if you want to learn how to cook Thai food in a homely atmosphere. The school is run by Yui and her husband Kwan. Unlike other schools, Yui doesn’t delegate teaching duties to younger assistants. She not only has excellent Thai culinary skills but she also speaks English with a good accent and with great confidence.
As we had our own transport, we drove ourselves to Yui’s house which is just outside the city center down a quiet soi. Yui greeted us at the front gate and invited us into her house. Kwan had gone out in his VW minivan to pick up the two other students from their hotel and hadn’t come back yet. So we took this opportunity to chat with Yui about her school. She told us that she used to teach at the famous Thai Cookery school for a couple of years. At the same time she attended the local AUA school in the evenings in order to improve her English language skills. In 2001 she married Kwan (they had been dating since 1998) and together decided to open a home cooking school at his parents’ house. A year later their son Sid was born. Kwan quit his graphic designer job in order to support Yui full time. However, he used his skills to produce their excellent brochure and also the Thai Cookbook which they give away for free to every student. There are 29 recipes of popular dishes that they teach at their school. There are also instructions for making curry paste and dips. But the best thing are the18 pages of pictures detailing the ingredients that are used in Thai cooking. I would have bought this cookbook for sure if I had seen it for sale in a book store. (We will be giving a copy of this cookbook away to one lucky reader. Details at the bottom of this page.)
A short while later the other two students arrived and Yui took us through to the kitchen for the first demonstration. Today we cooked six dishes. These were: pad thai, tom yum kung, spring rolls, green curry, stir-fried chicken with cashew nuts and mango with sticky rice. There are four courses you can choose from which are run on different days. This is the popular one which is taught four days a week. The other three courses are run on the three remaining days of the week. Yui will teach the class even if there is only one student. Maximum class size is eight people. Unlike other schools which are run in homes, there is plenty of room for all of the students to stand around the demonstration table. There is also plenty of room between each of the work stations. This is quite important as foreigners are generally larger than Thai people and need plenty of elbow room. Yui said comfort is very important at her school. Although it is Thai custom to sit on the floor to prepare food and even to eat, she knows that not all foreigners find this comfortable. So she prepared spacious workstations with high stalls and a Western style dining room table.
A lot of the ingredients had already been prepared in advance by the grandmother. However, Yui demonstrated how to chop up things like garlic. She showed us how to chop off one end and then crush it before removing the skin. Then it was finely chopped. All of this was done at her workstation first. Here she showed us how to prepare the ingredients and then how to cook the food. She kept talking the whole time giving us plenty of tips. One tip which I will certainly use is to put the garlic in cold oil first. So may times I have added the garlic to hot oil and before I was ready with other ingredients the garlic was going from a golden brown colour to a burnt colour. This way you have more time. Once the demonstration was over we went back to our workstation to cook the dish ourselves. Yui kept hovering up and down each station making sure we had everything prepared correctly before starting the cooking. If there was something we couldn’t remember then she would quickly help us. Surprisingly, each of the dishes were quite easy and I think everyone ended up cooking some excellent looking dishes. They even looked like the real thing. Even mine!
The brochure says “Please don’t have a big breakfast”. I would say don’t have any breakfast as you will be snacking on six dishes throughout the day! In the morning we ate pad thai at 10.30 a.m. Then a little while later we sat down to eat the tom yum kung soup. Next came the spring rolls but we were so stuffed by this time that we asked if we could take these home to eat later. At about midday, Yui and Kwan drove us to the local Nong Hoi market. This actually worked out as a nice break from cooking. Most schools do the market visit first thing in the morning. You go with your teacher carrying baskets in order to buy the ingredients for the meals you are going to cook that day. In theory that sounds like a good idea. However, it does means you concentrate on just the dishes you are cooking. Yui had already bought all of the ingredients before the class had begun. This meant she could spend all of the time at the market explaining about the different ingredients.
I have watched six different schools do this part and I can tell you that Yui was the most competent. Her English was un-mistakenly the best which helped a lot. Also, she knew what she was talking about and was happy to answer our questions. Listening to some of the other teachers they sounded like they had memorized a speech. Yui also had a good rapport with the vendors as this was her local market. The other day we had visited Sompet market which was both smaller and inferior. Yet at least six different cooking schools took their students here. I felt sorry for the vendors as there were so many foreigners milling around. I told Yui that she should put in her brochure that she could almost guarantee that you wouldn’t bump into any other foreigners at her local market. However, another group did turn up, but the market was so big and they actually left before we had finished drinking our iced coffee.
I learned a lot at the market. Yui didn’t restrict herself to just the ingredients for what we were cooking that day. She showed us things like the different kinds of rice (her family prefers brown rice as it is more healthy), the different Thai fruit which is in season and how to choose a ripe mango, the large selections of Thai dessert, the numerous kinds of noodles and of course the wide range of vegetables. The different varieties of basil are always confusing but she clearly explained the difference. When we were finished, she telephoned Kwan and he came to pick us up in the VW. We were away for about an hour. The time had gone really quick.
In the afternoon we were taught how to cook three of my favourite dishes. These were green curry, stir-fried chicken with cashew nuts and the wonderful dessert of mango with sticky rice. The above is the result of my work which I am pretty proud about. Once we had finished cooking these three dishes we then sat down at about 2.30 p.m. to eat them. Hopefully you will allow me to say that they were really delicious. Honestly, they were! As it was the end of the course, Yui sat down to chat with us while Kwan cleared the dishes. Actually, that was one of the best things about attending this course. Not only was everything prepared for us, but we were given clean woks and cooking utensils between each dish. I think that if this was any other cooking school the teacher would have kicked us out when the course ended at 3 p.m. However, Yui remained chatting with us for over an hour.
So, how much did this one day class cost? Well consider first that it included a six dish meal. And then there is the cookbook which I would have bought if I had seen it in a bookstore. Then there is the excellent cooking course and of course the visit to the local market. All of this only cost 900 baht (about $27) which was excellent value for money. Yui said that if you ring her or Kwan yourself she will even give you a 7% discount. Their home number is 053 800724 and mobile number 089 853 9680. Don’t forget, you do not need an agency or your hotel to do this for you as they both speak excellent English. Also, please remember to say “Hi!” from me. I am missing them already.