International Travel: Chiang Mai, Thailand Thai Secret Cooking School and the Cowboy Hat Lady

After a short, but sweet, weekend in Siem Reap, Cambodia to visit Angkor Wat,  I have to say goodbye to my new-found friend Lee. He drops me off at the airport in plenty of time to catch my flight and waves goodbye as he maneuvers his tuk-tuk through the traffic at the terminal. I can’t stress this enough. If you are planning on traveling to Siem Reap to see the temples, hit Lee up. His hospitality and willingness to show you his city and his country is unmatched. From people I have talked to who found themselves in need of a driver, their experiences are very different.

My day is lost to travel. A flight to Bangkok, lines for customs, lines for visas, another flight to Chiang Mai and I find myself checking into the Furama Hotel, my base of operations for the next six days, well after the sun has set.

Some people like a very regimented schedule when they travel. I, on the other hand, do not. I feel that if you plan too much or schedule too many things in advance, then there is no room to allow the magic that occurs during an international trip to happen. The only exception for me is if it is something I will absolutely regret not doing. Point in case:

I did a little research on cooking schools before leaving the states. There were some that came highly recommended and during my evening hours on the rooftop lounge of the hotel, I send out a few emails looking for space in a class in two days. A while goes by as I have a couple of cocktails and enjoy the view of Chiang Mai at night and I get a response. The school I am really interested in is going to be closed for some housekeeping in two days and was I available the day after that. Unfortunately for me I had pre-planned to take an overnight trip to Elephant Nature Park (which I will get to in a few posts) and would be spending two full days caring for these amazing pachyderms. (Something I would definitely regret not getting to do for the rest of my life.) Not having anything planned or pressing for the following morning, I throw a Hail Mary email back asking if they had space. I know it is a long shot. I go to bed and hope that the Travel Gods will take pity on me.

I don’t have an alarm set but at 5 a.m. my eyes are open and I am wide awake. I check my phone and there is an email waiting for me. Dare I hope? My eyes fly over the words that were sent just 15 minutes ago. They have space and I need to reply pretty much immediately because they will be at the hotel at 7:30 to pick me up.  That, ladies and gentlemen, is travel magic.  And a big, big thank you to the Thai Secret Cooking School for being so amazing!

Thai Secret Cooking School is run by May and Jason, a wife and husband team that run things out of their small, organic farm in the San Sai District, about 20 minutes outside of downtown Chiang Mai. A red, covered truck or songthaew pulls up at the entrance and I climb inside. There are already a couple of people in the back of the truck and we talk about where we have been and what our future plans are as the truck takes off through the city. We make one other stop to pick up a younger couple from Europe and we are off to the Sam Yaek Market, one of the largest in Chiang Mai, to meet up with May. She’s waiting on us with a smile as we tour the market. May explains the different types of local ingredients that we will be using today. We learn the difference between ginger and galangal and the spice levels of local peppers before she lets us loose to explore on our own. I walk the rows of fresh fruits and vegetables, meats, seafood and spices taking in the sights and smells. The market is busy with people perusing the produce, picking up a head of lettuce here and feeling the ripeness of a dragon fruit there. It is a wonderful start to a long day of food and new friends.

We leave the market and May climbs into the back of the songthaew with us. We make decisions on the dishes we want to prepare on the way to May’s home. I will be making five in all. I settle on spicy beef salad, hot and sour prawn soup, chicken with king basil, panang curry with pork and for dessert, sticky rice with sliced mango. We pull up to May’s farm a few minutes later and I am greeted with the sight of one of her cousins raking two large tarps of drying rice in the front of her property. We wash up and don hats and baskets to go pick fresh ingredients for our dishes from her organic garden. The garden is impressive. May shows us the difference between different plots of basil that grow in neat rows. We pick peppers and other herbs like lemongrass and garlic as well as small blue flowers that will be used to dye our rice for dessert. Our baskets are full as we head back to the kitchen. Small stations are set up with knives and spoons, woks and a propane fueled burner. I pick out my spot and we get to work. We pair up with people who chose the same dishes and May patiently explains the process to each of these new groups. Although my group changes slightly with each dish, Sven, part of the younger couple from Europe, and I have picked the exact same dishes and work through each one together. I peel my garlic and dice my peppers. I chop my lemongrass and basil and prepare the rest of my ingredients. May walks up and down the double row of cooking stations checking on our progress. She gives us tips on what to look for and how to know when the food is prepared just right to serve. Heat, a lot of heat, comes off of the propane burner as ingredients sizzle in my large, steel wok. I stir in my chicken as we make our way through our first dish.

After my chicken with king basil is finished and plated May lets us all take a break and we get to eat. I love Thai food. It is spicy and delicious with all sorts of sour, savory and sweet flavors mixed in for good measure. I feel proud of my first dish as sweat starts to bead my brow. I am happy and full and we are given some time to explore the neighborhood before heading back into the kitchen. A few doors down from the farm, a neighbor runs a small store out of their house. The six of us make our way down to her store and we buy large beers to cap off a successful start to our school experience. The cold beer is refreshing and helps to remove the lingering burn from my lips. We sit and talk about where we have traveled and where we want to go next. Before we go I snap a picture of the store owner’s young grandson who is playing with a ball attached to rope hanging from a tree branch.

We’re back to it. I sit with a mortar and pestle, pounding and grinding spices to make a homemade curry paste. The group takes turns shaving coconuts using a traditional tool to prep for our dessert course. In another three hours of cutting, chopping, tearing and cooking my spicy beef salad, hot and sour prawn soup and panang curry are all done. May continues to teach us before each dish with careful instructions on how to prep and heat each delicacy. She paces up and down the aisle of stations leaning in to check on our masterpieces. I ask her how to raise the spice levels for my curry and she comes back with a handful of small peppers that look different than others I have worked with before. I chop them and toss them in my wok and my nose lets me know immediately that I am in for some spice. When it comes to cooking, May has her stuff down pat. She has a sixth sense, that only comes from intimately knowing each recipe, when it comes to the dishes we are preparing. The hours fly by and again we sit down to eat. It is so much food but I “suffer” through it and my belly is full and I am happy. We share our plates with each other so everyone can try a bit of everything. At the end I know I made the right choices for my palate.

But we’re not done. It’s time to make dessert. May brings out a large bowl of rice. We add local sugar and other ingredients and she shows us how to mix everything together. We take turns pounding the flowers we picked from her garden into a blue syrup and finally mix the rice so that it turns a hearty shade of blue. I plate my sticky rice and mangoes using a little creativity. In the meantime some of my fellow students are frying bananas and while others are creating equally delicious sweet treats. At the end of our eight-hour class we sit down to enjoy the last of our dishes as May hands out certificates of completion and cookbooks for us to take home with all the recipes we made and many more. With heavy hearts we say goodbye to May and Jason and climb back into the red truck. As we pull away she waves to us and makes the formal Thai goodbye with her hands.

It’s late in the afternoon when I return to my hotel. I need to walk off some of my fullness so I hit the streets and head towards the Old City section of Chiang Mai. The oldest part of the city is surrounded by an ancient wall that has four gates allowing access. I navigate the sidewalks and streets and make my way into the city. I stroll past people shopping and eating and busily making their way from place to place. The sun sets and I head towards the Chiang Mai Night Bazaar. You can’t miss this nightly cavalcade of commerce located at the intersection of Chang Khlan Road and Loi Khro Road. The stalls that make up the whole thing spreads out for two blocks in either direction. Although I was expecting more of a local wares feel, the market is actually full of useful everyday items. Clothing, phone cases, toys, household items and more clothing clog the small stalls. The narrow corridors between stands are crowded with people. Vendors cook skewers of meat or sell their wares. It’s crowded and smells delicious. I can’t believe I’m saying it but I might already be hungry again.

Since this has been a day full of delectable food choices, I am hard pressed not to search out another culinary landmark in the city.

Anthony Bourdain and, more specifically, his series Parts Unknown is one of my favorite television shows. One of my favorite episodes from that same show is when he visits Chiang Mai, exactly where I am now. If you’ve seen that particular episode you will be well aware of a street food vendor fondly and lovingly known as Cowboy Hat Lady. As my belly begins to growl I retrace my steps back to the outside of Old City. I walk the streets until I find a group of vendors hawking street food. I make my way past each stand, walking slowly and deliberately, seeing if I can spot a large white hat. This first group of vendors is a bust so I continue on. I walk past another of the gates and yet again there is a group of stalls with the sounds of sizzling food coming across the street. I dodge a bit of traffic and again walk slowly and deliberately past each vendor. I catch a glimpse of white. I try not to get my hopes up as Chiang Mai is still a fairly large city and the likelihood of me actually finding Cowboy Hat Lady is slim. And yet there she is. She’s sitting by her stand talking with a friend. She sees me, unabashedly staring, and gives me a smile. I smile back and immediately get in line to order food. I find a table and in a flash my food is placed before me. As I take my first bite, the only two things that come to mind is Anthony Boudain is a genius and how the hell am I still hungry?