In Chiang Mai, Thailand: A cooking class and market tour with a dynamic chef

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During our cooking class in Chiang Mai, we visited a covered market that sold a range of goods from eggs to vegetables to palm sugar … and more.

By Betty Gordon

© 2017 text and photos. All rights reserved.

Siripen Sriyabhaya, known to most as Yui, has a nonviolent plan for world domination (her phrase), though she does wield a mean cleaver.

Fortunately, what the petite Thai woman has in mind is far more appetizing: To share her passion for her native cuisine, one delicious recipe at a time. And her diabolical strategy starts in the shaded carport of her Chiang Mai home in northern Thailand.

In November of 2011, I took a cooking class taught by Yui, along with eight other students from around the globe. Our group included an Asian-American couple from the San Francisco area; a Swedish duo (though she was Icelandic by birth); a pair from Edinburgh, Scotland; a woman from Paris; and my traveling companion Susan, who readers of this blog will be familiar with as the person who went with me to Vietnam and Cambodia in 2016. (See 16 previous posts for that trip. We also did a cooking class in Ho Chi Minh City that’s one of the posts.)

We had all signed up for a full-day class, conducted in English. (I made the reservation online before leaving the United States.) Many of us were picked up (included in the cost) at our hotels by Kwan, Yui’s husband, driving a vintage blue VW bus.

The session included individual preparation of six relatively easy dishes, communal dining, a midday trip to a stimulating local market and a full-color paperback cookbooklet with all the recipes we prepared, and more. The cookbook also had tips and a section about Thai ingredients.

Yui, a graduate of Chiang Mai University with a degree in public administration, has been teaching cooking classes since 1999. In 2001, with her husband, she started A Lot of Thai cooking school.

She is a fanatic for fresh, healthful food, and her enthusiasm is catching. A real plus: For class, she will gladly accommodate any dietary restrictions, which in my case included making a special batch of green curry paste that omitted the ingredient shrimp paste. Vegetarians will feel equally at home.

After introductions all around, Yui explained some of the less-familiar ingredients we’d be cooking with, such as nutrient-rich galangal, a relative of ginger that shares the knobby look and light tan skin of that root.

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With students watching intently, Yui demonstrates one of the dishes we’d be making at our individual stations in the shaded carport of her home.

Then we began what would be the structure of the day: Yui demonstrating the recipe, complete with technique tips, then us attempting to duplicate it. We scattered to our individual stations set up with a wok, a range of utensils and the ingredients mostly prepped by her assistant.

In the spotlessly clean space, all food was protected underneath a domed plastic basket until we were ready to cook. While we were busy slicing and stir-frying, Yui circulated, energetically calling out timely reminders (“sauce goes in now”) as we executed what she had just taught us.

Our six dishes, in order: Thai-style stir-fried noodles (aka Pad Thai); hot and sour soup (prawns optional); green curry with chicken over rice; stir-fried chicken with cashews; spring rolls; and sweet sticky rice topped with mango. (A check of the website reveals that only four dishes are made per class now.)

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Ingredients for a single portion of Pad Thai. The white dishes and lidded metal containers have the sauces and oil we’d need to make the recipe.

With that much food, we’d clearly need to pace ourselves. But Yui wisely had thought of everything. Clear plastic rectangular containers were in ample supply to store whatever we couldn’t or wouldn’t finish eating. We wrote our names on our containers, which were then popped in the refrigerator until the end of class.

After plating each recipe, many of us took pictures of our creations, and then arranged ourselves at two snug tables to eat. Part of the fun here, other than seeing how successful we’d be at replicating Yui’s expert preparation, was sharing our travel adventures — where we’d been and where we were going in Thailand and beyond.

After the fourth dish, we all hopped into the VW, again driven by Kwan (he’s a graphic designer and helped design the cookbook), for a brief drive to the market. This was no boring tourist trap, but a bustling enterprise where neighborhood residents go to shop.

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Cucumbers, cabbage, green onions and lots of other veggies were at the peak of freshness.

We followed Yui around the stalls and the tables heaped with brightly hued bell peppers, tamarind, onions, mushrooms, cabbages, lemon grass, Chinese celery, kale, long beans and other vegetables in many shades of green.

In another section, big tubs of mounded raw rice, running the spectrum from white to light brown to red to purple to black, nestled side by side. Nearby were plastic bags stuffed with balls of tan-yellow palm sugar. Every so often, Yui stopped to hold something up and expound on its history and use in cooking.

Back at her house, we finished our last two dishes and took a group picture. We piled back into the van to return to our hotels, this time with Yui and her daughter, who was celebrating her fifth birthday, in tow.

After a full day of cooking, Yui announced the cake would be store-bought.

As for world domination, no less than the cantankerous Gordon Ramsay has been won over, as evidenced by Yui’s appearance in “Gordon’s Great Escapes,” a series that aired in 2010 on a BBC channel.

Susan and I brought our leftovers back to our hotel, which graciously stored them in its fridge until we checked out the next day. We enjoyed them a second time for dinner on our overnight train journey from Chiang Mai back to Bangkok.

A version of this post appeared in the Food section of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on March 15, 2012.

Quick reference: Classes 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; limited to 10 students. 1,200 Thai baht, which is about $35. Private instruction is available also. Reservations are necessary so that Yui can make plans to accommodate any special dietary needs. A Lot of Thai, www.alotofthai.com

Yui would be the first to encourage cooks to have fun with these recipes. Experiment with the flavors and degree of heat and use your favorite vegetables. Have all the ingredients prepped before you start stir-frying. Once the oil is heated, the rest of the recipe will come together quickly.

Thai-style Stir-fried Noodles (Pad Thai)

Hands on: 25 minutes

Total time: 25 minutes, excluding soaking time for noodles

Serves: 2

If using dried noodles, soak them at least 20 minutes first. They can be extremely sticky. Rinse, drain well, and set aside until ready to stir-fry. If you have dietary restrictions, omit the pork and shrimp. Tamarind puree, sometimes labeled “concentrate,” can be found at Asian markets.

3 tablespoons canola oil, divided

1/4 cup firm tofu, cut into 2-inch sticks

1 tablespoon shallot, chopped

1 tablespoon garlic, chopped

2 ounces minced pork (optional)

1 tablespoon dried shrimp (optional)

1 tablespoon sweet turnip, chopped (optional)

4 ounces fresh narrow rice noodles (or 2 ounces dried)

4 to 6 tablespoons water or chicken stock

1 tablespoon fish sauce

1 tablespoon light soy sauce

2 tablespoons tamarind puree

1 1/2 tablespoons brown sugar

3 ounces bean sprouts

1/2 cup Chinese chives cut into 2-inch pieces

2 eggs

2 tablespoons ground peanuts

Chili powder, lime wedges, cabbage, bean sprouts for garnish

Heat 2 tablespoons oil in a wok or large heavy skillet over medium heat. Add tofu and shallot and stir-fry until light brown. Add garlic, pork (if using), shrimp (if using) and turnip (if using). Cook about 1 minute.

Add noodles and water or chicken stock. Stir-fry until noodles are soft, about 3 minutes. Add fish sauce, soy sauce, tamarind puree and brown sugar and cook for about 1 minute.

Add sprouts and Chinese chives and cook just until the chives are bright green. Move mixture from center of the wok to one side. Add remaining tablespoon oil to empty side of wok. Crack eggs into wok and scramble until nearly done. Remove from heat. Gently mix to incorporate eggs. Sprinkle ground peanuts on top.

Garnish with chili powder, lime juice, cabbage or extra spouts, if desired.

Adapted from a recipe in “A Lot of Thai Cookbook” by Yui Sriyabhaya

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Stir-fried Chicken with Cashews is quick and easy to make.

Stir-fried Chicken with Cashews

Hands on: 25 minutes

Total time: 25 minutes

Serves: 2

A 1/2 cup of diced red bell pepper or julienned carrots will add extra color and crunch to this recipe. Add at the same time the chicken goes in. Mushroom sauce is a concentrated substitute for oyster sauce. It can be found in Asian markets.

2 tablespoons canola oil

1 tablespoon garlic, finely chopped

7 ounces boneless, skinless chicken breast, sliced or cut into 2-inch pieces

2/3 cup sweet onions, such as Vidalia, sliced

1 tablespoon fish sauce

1 tablespoon light soy sauce

2 tablespoons oyster sauce or mushroom sauce

1 1/2 teaspoons brown sugar

1/4 cup water or chicken stock

1/2 to 1 large red chile or dried chile, cut into bite-size pieces

4 green onions, cut into 2-inch pieces

1/2 cup cashews, roasted or fried

Heat oil in a wok or large heavy skillet over low heat. Add garlic and cook until light brown. Be careful not to burn it.

Add chicken and cook for 1 minute. Add onions and cook until they look shiny, about 2 minutes. Add fish sauce, soy sauce, oyster sauce and brown sugar and stir until well-mixed.

Add water or chicken stock and raise heat to medium-high. Bring mixture to a boil. When boiling, add chile and green onions. Cook just until the onions are bright green. Take a piece of chicken out and cut into thickest part to make sure it is cooked through. Return to wok. Stir in cashews, and remove from heat. Serve with rice.

Adapted from a recipe in “A Lot of Thai Cookbook” by Yui Sriyabhaya

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