Monday, March 29, 2010

Waving Knives

Have you ever wondered how fruit in Southeast Asian countries gets its crinkle-cut profile? On my recent trip to Thailand I decided it was time to get to the bottom of this. I knew there had to be a special technique behind these eye-pleasing chunks of papaya, melon and apple. But it was the mini-crinkle cut carrots in the stir fried vegetables we ate our first day that really spurred me on. They were so adorable!

Though I launched my quest early on in our trip, it was not until our last day that I got my answer. Our Habitat house complete (sort of) and our energy depleted, Abby and I decided to take a cooking class. In Chiang Mai there are tons of cooking schools geared towards tourists. The class began with a trip to the local market a short distance from the school. Here our instructor escorted us to various stalls and explained the main food groups in Thai cuisine: tofu & noodles (egg and rice, thin, thick and thicker), root vegetables (including fresh turmeric and Thai ginger which is different from regular ginger), beans of multiple shapes and sizes, eggplants (she must have shown us 5 different types), peppers (the smaller the spicier) and, of course, the wide range of rice types sold by the liter. Apparently jasmine is considered the Cadillac of rice in Thailand. We skipped the meats and fruits which were self-explanatory more or less.

While the discussion of raw materials was fascinating and elucidating, our ten minutes of free time enabled me to score and score big! Instead of roaming the aisles, Abby and I headed over to a kitchen wares dealer, a wizened gentleman with a threadbare beard and big glasses. With our instructor there to translate, we easily got our hands on the coveted waving knives. We settled on a Kiwi brand (one of the best manufacturers, according to our teacher)blade in two sizes (Beth -- I bought one for you too), and another related implement to score the outer surface. I can not wait to put them to use.

Carrying small baskets filled with fresh ingredients, we headed off to school. Located in and around a 100 year old, traditional-style wood house, the school had several different, indoor-outdoor cooking areas, most covered by a roof only. We started by making red curry paste from scratch with a mortar and pestle. Then we graduated to a partially enclosed kitchen where cooked rice awaited us in a big aluminum steamer. With the addition of coconut milk, a little sugar and a lot of heat, we turned that staple into sumptuous sticky rice to be eaten with sliced mango. From there we went out back to a large area lined with individual cook-tops, each one outfitted with a wok. Here we made fresh spring rolls (wrapped in sheets of rice noodle), pad thai and curried vegetables (tiny egg plants, baby corn and carrots flavored with kaffir lime leaves and fragrant basil). The teachers adjusted all of the ingredients to suit our vegetarian diets. Turns out Thai mushroom sauce makes a very delicious substitute for oyster sauce. Hope I can find it at National Market.

We finished the course by tucking into our freshly made food. The plentiful meal was exceptionally good, probably the best fare we had all week. Armed with our waving knives and a cook book from the school, Abby and I are eager to try our hand at Thai cooking at home.

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