Come with me back to Chiang Mai, one of my favorite cities. In a lot of ways, it’s very similar to Portland, in an alternate dimension where Portland was in Thailand. There is seriously a vegetarian cafe or signage for a vegetarian menu around every single corner. And it rains so much that buying an umbrella is considered one of the three ‘Chiang Mai musts’ by the instructor at the cooking school class I’ll get to dishing about. With the current political situation and state of emergency, the vibrant country has been quite on my mind lately. One dear friend is on their own escapade in the north now, and another friend is venturing to the land of smiles for the first time in just over a week. Naturally, when others, especially those of the vegan and vegetarian-persuasion, mention that they’re heading to Thailand, I’m now full of recommendations, funny stories and wistful smiles of my own. And when Chiang Mai, the largest city in the north, is mentioned, I light up.
Learning to maneuver a bicycle in this traffic is now on my life skills list
While I did engage in a number of live-blogs while traveling for three months, I haven’t gotten around to writing my actual Chiang Mai or Thai Vegetarian Festival recaps yet, because they’re both such mesmerizing experiences that I can best describe over some homemade curry. I had visited the city in question a few days more than once in 2011 and enjoyed some lovely strolls, getting acquainted with the city inside the gate. Most importantly, I tried legit, Northern Thai-style Khao Soi (also seen as Khaw Soi and other regional spellings and culinary variations) curry, so when my partner decided to spend a week volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park, I decided to get to know Chiang Mai and its neighborhoods and cuisine some more.
Some Time to Explore.
It’s a beautiful thing to be able to actually spend more than a few days somewhere when you’re on this type of trip, and the near two weeks total I spent in Chiang Mai was in a word: enriching. Everyday, I’d walk and bike all around the city, exploring different neighborhoods and temples, going off on my own self-guided vegan Khao Soi & dining tour, obsessively witnessing the start of the Thai Vegetarian Festival, purchasing an umbrella, seeing where I felt drawn, and simply making my own schedule of showering, biking, exploring, eating, biking, exploring, stopping back at my small room above a juice bar and showering, biking, eating some more, and finding a cozy cafe or quiet bar to read in before another ride home to my mosquito net-covered bed. It was a magical week of solo adventures, and seeing just what I wanted in my days, in this temporary home away from home.
Later on, J. Legume and I had similar experience at an apartment rental for over a week in Phnom Penh, but that’s a story for another time. Two other highlights of that first week alone were my bout of dental tourism, where I basically spent as much as my partner did during her time ‘volunteering’, (btw, which we both found so worthwhile, and yes, my work was a totally professional experience I’d recommend in such an expat haven and medical tourism-heavy city) and the other experience I’ve been recommending to my friends heading that way, to get to the damn point: Asia Scenic’s Thai Cooking School.
Let’s talk curry
Honestly, I thought I loved Thai food before visiting, and I’ve just become obsessed since then. I wanted to learn as much as I could on this trip, particularly about Northern Thai specialties, and began researching classes once we decided to separate for a week (a healthy travel practice, for the record). A couple of vegetarian-friendly classes caught my eye, right off the bat. Let me tell you, there are cooking classes at stand-alone schools and restaurants offered everywhere you go in Thailand. Tourism is a massive, all-encompassing industry in Thailand, and it shows. Every single Thai city I’ve visited has multiple tour agencies and bus companies looking to take you on a day trip to another city or country, and so on. It’s really easy to get nearly anywhere. There’s a bus or tuk tuk ready to go.
To get back to the point: I was decidedly devoting this lengthy hiatus to my taste buds and experiencing anything and everything vegan-friendly, and there was never a shortage. There was rarely enough time or appetite to sample as much as I wanted to, and that’s even before the massive Festival (which is even bigger down south) began!
To be clear, I was nervous about taking a class at a non-vegetarian specific school, but I decidedly embraced the challenge with an odd thrill. It wasn’t something I would ever do in Portland, therefore, it was a perfect learning experience. Most school materials do mention ‘vegetarian options’, for sure, but just like a restaurant, who knew if that represented fish sauce, fermented shrimp paste, oyster sauce, etc. I had no idea if people would be butchering things next to me or if we’d be making communal dishes and I’d be left sniffing some lemongrass before it entered a pot.
The cooking begins
So there I am, 24 hours into my solo stay in Chiang Mai, walking by a few class locations while trying to memorize the twists and turns of the Old City area, and deciding on Asia Scenic, a short walk from where I was spending my first week. Tossing my early research aside, I noticed a link for it while reading an old post on ‘Chiang Mai Vegetarian Restaurants‘ over at the Neverending Voyage blog. Definitely a good sign. I stopped by and signed up for a half-day class the next day, just in case it got a little too meaty for my tastes. That, and to save a couple of hundred baht I could happily drop on a couple of beers later on that night. Gosh, I have a soft spot for hot curry paired with a cold glass of Tiger. I inquired off the bat about being vegetarian, and was actually asked to clarify if that meant ‘strict’, which was exciting with its fish sauce-avoiding potential.
And avoid, I did.
All the Thai cooking classes I’ve noticed seem to have a similar formula: introduction, local market tour, cooking, eating & mingling, cooking, eating & mingling, and so on. At Asia Scenic, our tour had a bonus, as the introduction was a simultaneous tour of the lovely on-site garden. There was also an option of taking the entire class at Asia Scenic’s farm outside Chiang Mai. Since my class was the half-day option, it was held at the cooking school option, and also attended by ten or so other travelers, from Britain, Canada and Israel, who were staying for the full day, and had at two more dishes to cook and enjoy in the late afternoon segment. I had a really fun time during the engaging, educational and delicious experience, and in the end, was so focused on my own individual cooking that the occasional chicken didn’t bother me. It was definitely the first time in a long while that I’ve found myself as the sole veg, not to mention American, in the room, and that’s already making for an interesting experience.
From the website:
Asia Scenic Thai cooking school does not just teach you to follow the teacher or the cookbook but teach you how to be creative and understand the basic of cooking Thai food. What you love most is that they do not have a fix menu for you. You cook what you wish to cook.
At the start of my class, us half-day kids were asked to pick what courses we’d like to make on a menu, as in appetizers, noodles, stir fries and desserts, and then which actual dishes we’d like to make. I was pretty much down to make whatever once I realized I would have my own individual cooking station, letting the other half-day attendee decide on stir fry over dessert. My own must? Making some legit Khaoi Soi curry noodle soup, vegan-style.
Just a little lunch for one: Khao Soi Curry and Tom Kha with fresh herbs
What I cooked:
- Pad See Uw (which I’d previously seen spelled as See Ew, or Se Ew)
- Coconut Milk Soup aka Tom Kha
- Khaw Soi Curry Paste (red curry base + curry powder)
- Khaw Soi Curry
I have no doubt that my classmates thought I was some super Thai food nerd with a camera (while my digital camera wasn’t the largest around, it was surely the most active). I wanted to know everything being said for every dish going on. Unsurprisingly, I have over 70 photos of the day to share, and it reinstated what May Kaidee’s previous class taught me: cook fresh, cook fast, and get the right ingredients.
We played around with tasting different flavor curry pastes in May’s fabulous class, but Asia Scenic really elevated my experience by making each and every one from scratch, mincing with enormous knives on wooden blocks and then pounding away. The biggest shocker was my misconception that most Thai curry pastes contain fermented shrimp paste. I’m forever reading traditional and new Thai cookbooks, and have read my share of canned curry curry paste labels (which in my experience, are largely bland with the exception of Thai and True, but that was then and this is now). It often looks the case, and is seen sometimes inside the paste (which you can sub with a strong, red miso), but in this class, all the curry pastes were automatically vegan. There were a couple of dishes the teacher offered a red chili garlic paste that contained shrimp, and obviously I skipped on that and opted for ground chiles.
I learned so much, and can proudly say that I haven’t gone back to premade curry pastes since! LIFE-CHANGING, WORLD OF DIFFERENCE.
Commence the learning
Culinary lessons from Asia Scenic & eating every curry I could get my hands on:
- Get the right ingredients! Look for the freshest lemongrass you can find and seek out Kaffir lime leaves if at all possible. Come early summer, and I can often find fresh Asian vegetables, roots and citrus at the local farmers markets. Things like fresh ginger and galangal are utterly amazing.
- Mushroom soy sauce is your new best friend. Ditto for vegetarian mushroom oyster sauces and powder.
- Cook hot & fast!
- Look out for store bought vegetarian ‘chay’ fish sauce, or better yet, make your own. When in doubt, just use a little sea salt and a little more lime, sugar & soy sauce.
- (Coconut) Palm sugar. It’s seriously that missing *something*. Especially in Pad Thai and curries. > I really dig this one from Big/Sweet Tree.
- Start buying coconut milk in bulk. Better yet, if you can get your hands on a fresh young coconut, scrape out the flesh and puree with water for your own homemade milk, or add to curries and blow your mind (thanks to Curry Shack in Pai for that tip).
- Basil talk: Look for Thai Holy, aka Hot Basil, or Thai Sweet Basil. Delicious, fresh flavors.
And all the photos from my vegan experience at Asian Scenic:
And to top it all off, I was sent home with my own cookbooklette and it’s become my serious go-to for all things curry back in Portland. I’ll share my notes and the ratio for the red or maybe the Khao Soi twist one of these days!
Quick talk on Khao Soi ordering in Chiang Mai: When I’m at it, while Khao Soi often has a poultry-based stock, it’s not uncommon to find a vegetarian version, and obviously even more likely at one of Chiang Mai’s ever-growing vegetarian restaurant options. I talked my way into vegan versions with little surprise: subbing rice noodles for the egg ones and holding off on the crispy noodles on top (everywhere I tried in Chiang Mai, they were fried egg noodles, although I realize this isn’t always the case). The vegetarian versions were rich and just like the regional dish, varied from yellow curry to deep red bases, with mushrooms, egg and bamboo, and usually topped with pickled mustard greens, crispy shallots, red onion, fresh Thai basil and lime. The best I’d come across on my first trip was Aum’s, and then nothing compared to the fabulously crimson broth at Khun Churn’s vegetarian lunch buffet in the Nimmanhaemin neighborhood. I’ve also heard that it’s possible to order the dish meat-free at street stands, but I didn’t have time to try that out with the festival starting and everything else I was busy devouring. Vegan food was everywhere, and something else I’ll try to compile into a list of highlights sooner than later.
If you’d like to read more about Elephant Nature Camp, I urge you to read J. Legume’s beautiful recap on volunteering: Elephant Party. It’s apparently the only LEGIT elephant volunteering camp in the country right now. I hope that will change. Every other one is really more of a ‘show’ and does not offer the care this one does.
For all things cocktails, juice, coffee and tea in SE Asia, check out: The Hiatus, Hiatus in Cocktails & Coconuts.
- Hiatus, Hiatus Part I: Bangkok, May Kaidee and the search for Mr. Yim’s
- Hiatus, Hiatus, Part II: Chiang Rai, Oasis Vegetarian, Connect Cafe & into the mountains
- We’re not in Portland, anymore: Postcards from the Hiatus, Hiatus
- Chiang Mai: riding on bikes with croissants (via Sister Legumes)
- Hashtagging the Hiatus: Scenes from Thailand and Cambodia
- Chiang Mai, Bangkok, a couple of nights (via Sister Legumes)
- Hi Pai! Bye Pai! (via Sister Legumes)