Monday, 23 February 2009

Around the world in 15 mails - No.9 (Chiang Mai)

Kooking, Burma, Opium

Chiang Mai, April 6 2005

Pride comes before a fall and chilli's come before an evening in the smallest room in the house.

I spent last week in Chiang Mai, northern Thailand. I have been traveling now for over two months and in all that time, have not been anywhere near a kitchen. I had started to get a bit twitchy and was desperate to get my hands on a knife and start chopping. As luck would have it, Chiang Mai is the Mecca of Thai cookery schools, so it was with great excitement that I enrolled on a one day cookery class at the most famous of all schools.

The class was run by Thailand's one and only celebrity chef. I admit that I didn't know him, although I am assured he has made tv programmes in Britain - some of you may have caught 'Thai Way" on that famous cable channel, UK Style!

My group of ten gastronomes were picked up in the city centre and taken to the school, situated some way out of the town, on a large farm. We were a motley crew of professional chefs, have-a-go-heroes and complete beginners and there was a 60 year age span. We were to cook five dishes and they were all the ones I had been sampling during my stay in this country. First we were given a presentation on Thai ingredients, then the first dish was cooked for us, after which we were led to our individual work stations to recreate them, after a fashion.

Thai's love chilli. They say it's an addiction and that every meal must have an element of heat, anything without it is regarded as bland and unworthy off their attention. They also like to show off this ability to endure terrifying heat. It was clear from the start that their showing off and my pride were not going to make for happy bed-fellows. The first dish, Tom Yum Keung (the shrimp soup I have mentioned in a previous epistle), calls for a good handful of chilli. When asked how hot we'd like it, most of the westerners cringed and said they didn't like spicy food. I was confused by this and a little embarrassed. It begged several questions - why were they in Thailand? Why were they doing a cookery class? Had they not already sampled Thai food etc?

In an effort not to let the Thai's think that all furungs are pathetic, I made sure I kept pace with the teacher and his assistants. I had five chilli's at my working station for the first dish, when asked if I wanted more (the question being asked with a knowing look) and having noted that most of my fellow students had actually handed back the majority of theirs, I naturally said that yes, I would like more. After we had created each dish, we then ate them and whilst everyone else quietly supped their soups, it was all I could do to stop myself suffocating and blacking out. Sweat ran off me freely, my throat was set on fire, my eyes turned to slits and it took a super-human effort to finish the dish, try to look nonchalant and state clearly and in a strong voice that it was just how I liked it!

This set a precedent for the rest of the day and it was an action I would later regret. All five dishes called for chilli and after my bravado, my workstation became a magnet for these beastly peppers - each time I returned to cook the next dish, there was a mountain of the things waiting for me and on each occasion, I forced myself to use every one of them. By 5pm, I was not a pretty sight, whilst my pride was intact, my digestive system was in tatters and my evening was spent sitting down.

All that said, it was a great day and a real highlight of the trip. I can't wait to cook these dishes for you all and i promise to go easy on the spice.

My planning was not well thought through, as at 5am the next morning, armed with immodium and several litres of water, I set off on a three hour journey in the back of a people-carrier for a day trip to the Golden Triangle. What an amazing corner of the world. At Mai Sai, the Mekong River divides Thailand, Burma, China and Laos and from the middle of the river, you can see all four countries. Quite incredible. We took a trip in a long tailed dragon boat, equipped with a 4litre Chevy engine. Skimming the waves, we shot up and down the river and stopped on the shores of three of the four countries. At the fourth, Laos, we were allowed to get off and enter the place, for a small fee. Greeting us there were the customary souvenir stalls and one of them sold the 'famous' Laos whisky. I was at the back of the group, as ever, lighting a cigarette and trying to snap my spine back into place after the boat trip. I noticed one after another of my day-tripper buddies refuse the offer of a shot whisky but when it got to my turn, I grasped the opportunity with both hands and it disappeared down my already mauled throat in the blink of an eye. It was an acquired taste and not one I want to repeat, although a second one followed the first, just to make sure I didn't like it. It was then that I saw the bottle it came from and
understood immediately why my chums had refused the offer. My palate prefers a single malt and i had just sampled a single snake. That's right folks, this whisky is bottled with a small cobra in the bottom, fangs bared and looking out at you with a slightly angry face. However, this was nothing compared to what happened later in the day.

After lunch we spent the afternoon with two hill tribes, the Yao and the Akha. Like most tribes in that part of the world, they hail from China and Tibet and have their own customs, language and tribal dress. It was an interesting and rewarding afternoon and I wished I could have spent more time with them. In fact, when I come back, as I undoubtedly will. I plan to do a proper trek into the mountains and spend a few days with them. Having learnt the art of opium cultivation, we walked to a quieter part of the village, where a couple of elders were huddled over a fire. There was a distinct smell of cooking meat but whilst I recognised the aroma, I couldn't quite put my finger on it. On arriving at said fire, it all became clear. Canine fans should stop reading now. Supper in the Yao tribe that night was going to be a brace of dogs. I thought I'd have to go to Korea or China, in order to decide whether or not I could muster the courage to eat Fido, I wasn't expecting to have to make the decision here. Not wanting to offend my hosts and with that bloody pride raising it's head again, the decision was made. I wont go into details, suffice to say, it's a little like a cross between chicken, rabbit and pork but with a stronger, well doggier flavour.

Over-doses of chilli, snake whiskey and dog - it was a strange few days folks.

I'm back in Bangkok now and will leave for Laos at the weekend. The real adventures start then.

Until next time. Love to you all and Tolly, any trouble from you on my return and it's up to the bar-b-q with you.


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