“Nine is a lucky number in Thai culture,” our cooking class coordinator said as we stood in the crisp morning sunlight in front of the wooden spirit house at the Four Seasons Chiang Mai’s Rim Tai Kitchen Cooking Academy.
“So I give you nine incense sticks and ask you to join me in the Thai custom of asking for blessings from the local spirits before we start our class.”
Our half-day cooking course started with an age-old morning ritual of Thai culture – making offerings to the spirits that guard the land. The four members of our cooking class – myself and three ladies from Hong Kong – dutifully asked for blessings from the elaborate spirit house styled like a northern Thai temple. The spirit house had stood on this spot long before the cooking school was erected and the school was designed to incorporate the venerable shrine into its layout and activities.
The morning cooking session included an early morning tip to a local market to buy fresh ingredients but since the market trip started from 7 a.m. to 9 am, we’d skipped it to eat the buffet breakfast at the restaurant overlooking the landscaped rice paddies. Besides, I live in Thailand and am no stranger to local markets.
Our class coordinator told us we could wish for whatever we wanted from the spirit house, and I began to wish that I hadn’t pigged out on such a big breakfast when we found out how much eating lay ahead of us the rest of the morning.
Before the class started we were invited to sit on the floor of the dining pavilion in traditional Thai fashion on a reed mat with triangle pillows for support.
Here, we were introduced to the classic northern Thai khantoke meal consisting of a round rattan tray, or khan, covered with an array of curries and pastes served in celadon bowls, called toke.
As we dug pieces of crispy pork rind and parboiled vegetables into spicy eggplant chili paste and sampled the spicy northern sausage, yellow pork curry, and sticky rice that are typical of northern cuisine, our coordinator explained that this type of serving was initiated centuries ago by King Nimmanhaemin to entertain guests and is now recognized as the traditional northern style of dining.
With the khantoke tasting , or second breakfast , finally over (whew), we started our long morning of chopping, dicing, stirring, sautéing, frying and what seems to be non-stop eating every step of the way under the cheerful instruction of the chef.
The Thai-style cooking school is of vast, barn-like proportions, with a steepled ceiling rising to a lofty height.
We were shown around the room, with its individual work stations and attractive array of woks, cutting boards, mortars and pestles, and beautifully shining knives. Pearl, the teenager from Hong Kong, noticed a big hamper and asked if it’s for picnics. It turned out to be a first aid basket, “In case you cut your finger” laughed the chef, opening the lid and flourishing band aids and cotton.
The day’s course was Thai appetizers, which we ate after finishing each dish. The lineup included a couple of deep-fried dishes, which scared me a bit. I’m not afraid of the fat; in fact, I adore fried food in all its crispy, delightful, delicious crunchy glory. It’s the sizzling, snapping, popping, exploding livewire fat that can splatter on your hands and face and hurt you that scares me (always keep an aloe plant in the kitchen! Fresh aloe really heals burns!).
I could see the chef watching in curiosity as I timidly dropped some chilies in my hot wok with my fingertips and sprang backwards to watch it sizzle from a safe distance.
“Why you look …scared?” he asked, astonished. Apparently he’d never seen anyone cringe like this before. I must have looked like a freak.
“Uh…yeah,” I mumbled. “I’m afraid of popping hot oil”.
“Nothing to be afraid of when the heat is low,” he said cheerfully. “Come on, cooking is easy!”
The chef showed us how to arrange each dish artistically on the plate garnished with herbs and vegetables, the way Thai cuisine is presented in restaurants.
Aside from being overly stuffed from eating the lavish buffet First Breakfast and the khantoke Second Breakfast, I was forlorn at having to eat my carefully arranged noodle-wrapped deep fried prawns.
“It’s so nice I’d rather look at it than eat it” I told my classmates, admiring the six fried prawns arranged, tail-up on a bed of curled fried egg noodles (did I mention there were lots of fried items in this class?). The lady seated across from me didn’t have such qualms and snapped photos of her creations before tucking in.
Designed by the award winning Bensley Design Studios in Bangkok, the cooking school is one of the many culture-related activities at this lovely resort where the celebration of northern culture and traditional architecture forms the basis in all aspects of design. The main resort was designed by well-known Chiang Mai architect and Professor Chulathat Kitibutr, who drew on the life of a rural village as a model for the resort layout.
Based on the concept that rice and its cultivation is the lifeblood of Lanna culture, the guest villas fan out in a horseshoe facing a vista of terraced rice paddies framed by distant, misted hills.
These are active rice paddies, worked by local farmers who provide a picturesque rural scene clad in traditional blue moh hom garb while cultivating the rice which eventually ends up being cooked in the resort kitchen.
The cooking pavilion’s sliding glass walls were open so the fresh, rain-cooled breeze and natural sunlight streamed into the lofty space from all sides, providing a relaxed environment for us to work in. Wood floors and weathered chandeliers added homey warmth to the backdrop of shelves decorated with traditional Thai sauces and condiment bottles. Cooking done, we lunched on our creations, seated in the adjacent open-air dining pavilion.
The cooking school offers a variety of classes throughout the day. Afternoon sessions include the afternoon cooking class, Thai coffee master class where guests can sample local tea and coffee blends and learn to make Thai confectionaries, a Healthy Juice workshop, fruit and vegetable carving class, and kids cooking class.
And take note! Non-resort guests are welcome to attend the cooking school, with advance booking. How fabulous is that!
Have you been to the Four Seasons Chiang Mai Cooking School? What did you learn there?