Vegetarian Thai Cooking Class

December 6, 2009

The first thing I did upon arrival in Chiang Mai, Thailand, was head to May Kaidee’s Vegetarian Restaurant. It’s on Ratchapakinai Road, next to the Sumit Hotel, about 4 doors up from the Thai Red Cross office, which is easy to spot.

Look for the plants in front of the tiny shop.

I had a bowl full of something luscious, with coconut milk curry and vegetables, and I was immediately happy.

Last time I was in Chiang Mai, I took a cooking class from The Farm, an organic farm about 20 minutes out of the city. It was a well-organized class, the food was delicious, and it was a nice break to get out of the city and spend a relaxing day making mouth-watering food. I highly recommend it.

This time I wanted to take a class that was specifically vegetarian, not just a cooking class that substituted vegetarian ingredients. Since May Kaidee’s had a cooking class available, I had to taste the food before signing up.

No use taking a cooking class from somewhere with tasteless, or worse, awful food.

So I was relieved that the food was delicious and that it was close enough to my guesthouse, which meant I would be coming back often to eat. (I did–I went every day except when I was out of commission due to food poisoning…grr.)

Class started at 9 am with a bowl of fruit and yogurt for breakfast. Then the other three students and I, plus Duan, May’s sister, who runs the Chiang Mai restaurant with her husband, daughter, and brother, set off for the local market.

There Duan pointed out and explained several ingredients crucial to Thai cuisine. She showed us sticky rice, kaffir limes, ginger, galangal, lemongrass, holy and Thai basils.

Choy sum swarming with bees

Most of the produce was already familiar to me, including long beans, choy sum (Chinese greens with yellow flowers that the bees were swarming around), gailaan (sometimes called Chinese broccoli, and what Duan called kale), round and long eggplant, pumpkin (large, flat, and brown, like a more rowdy cousin of the Japanese kabocha).

The Thai papayas are enormous, at least eight inches long, orange and shaped like a cylinder. The papayas in Hawaii are much smaller, shaped like yellow pears on steroids.

We also saw the rice noodles that people ordered by width and watched the vendor chop them with her cleaver before putting them into a tiny plastic bag secured with a rubber band. The thin version, like fetuccini, are what is used to make Pad Thai, the popular fried noodle dish. The uncut sheets are the wrappers for uncooked spring rolls.

After filling our baskets, we walked back to the shop, past a rotund yellow dog that took up half the road. Cars, people and motorcycles inched around it to pass. We couldn’t decide if she was pregnant or just obese.

The Somphet Market Dog--fat or pregnant?

Back at the shop, we chopped some baby corn, greens, and cauliflower before heading upstairs with bottles of drinking water, to get to work.

Each of us had a station with a wok and shared areas with dark and light soy sauce, chili paste and already-chopped garlic and chilies.

For each recipe, Duan walked us through the steps. “Put one spoonful of oil in your wok. Now add chilies, half spoon, and garlic, half spoon.” Spoons were the Asian soup spoons, the long ones with handles bent upwards, that come with bowls of gau gee min and ramen, Asian noodle soups.

“Now, quickly…KHON!

That meant “Stir!” in Thai. We spent many hours that day khon-ing.

“Next put tofu and vegetables….khon faster!”

And so it went. After the first three dishes, I lost track of how much of what went into what. Fortunately, all the recipes had been printed out for us, so we stopped after a few to make notes about substitutions and anything else not already written for us.

Duan prepares rice wrappers to make uncooked spring rolls.

Each of us had a tasting spoon, which we kept in a pocket in the front of our aprons, for sampling the dishes as we finished. This was an interesting part of the course, because we learned how much of a difference in flavor small substitutions could make.

For example, clear Tom Yum, coconut Tom Yum, and Tom Kha soups were identical, save for the amounts of coconut milk we added, but the flavors were more different than you’d imagine.

Four hours later, we had a spread large enough to feed us all for lunch and dinner. Fried noodles, soups, several kinds of curries, and the famous Kao Soi, a northern Thai curried noodle specialty.

The finished uncooked spring rolls: light, fresh, chewy, crunchy, spicy, and refreshing, all at once.

We also made lip-smacking peanut sauce, and May Kaidee’s famous and possibly the most popular dish on the menu: Pumpkin Hummus. Various seeds, spices, chilies, and cooked pumpkin were pounded with a mortar and pestle. The end result was creamy, complex pumpkin magic.

Duan said it was their mother’s special recipe. She used to make it for them growing up, and they ate it with everything, from balls of sticky rice, to spread on bread as sandwiches, or as a dip with vegetables. It was easy to see why this was such a popular dish.

The only non-vegan things were the yogurt in the morning, plus the egg noodles in the Kao Soi. But that was a variation on a curry dish, so you could leave them out.

I gave my leftovers to my Thai massage friends, since I did not have a fridge in the guesthouse and did not want to tempt fate with even more food poisoning.

Thank you, Duan, An, Nain, and Opal, for delicious food every day, and for your help! Khob kun mahk kha!

If you are interested in taking the cooking class, visit the restaurant and talk to one of them. I highly recommend it.

May Kaidee Vegetarian Restaurant, Chiang Mai, Thailand

Thai Crepes and Batik Class

December 3, 2009

I spent the day at Chiang Mai Batik Painting School with Ann, the teacher, at her home.

She served me some snack/dessert cakes she had gotten at her daughter’s school.

Thai mini dessert crepes

They were like miniature crepes, stuffed with a filling like you’d find in eclairs, and rolled like burritos. The Thai name sounded “like Tokyo,” she said. (Don’t ask me about pronunciation, however…when I tried to tell my Thai massage friends about it later, I said “Tokyo” several times, trying different high-low-middle-rising-falling tones in combination, before they finally figured out what the heck I was talking about!)

I resorted to basic batik techniques to make a pillow case, keeping my elephant friends in mind:

If you have free time in Chiang Mai or are interested in batik, get in touch with Ann. She offers beginning and advanced classes.

The Secret to Those Delicious Pancakes

December 2, 2009

During my cooking class at May Kaidee’s Vegetarian Restaurant in Chiang Mai, Thailand, one of the other students asked Duan, May’s sister and the woman in charge of the shop, what the secret was to their pancakes.

“We use a mix,” she replied, “and coconut milk.”

“Ah, it must be the coconut milk,” my co-student answered.

I hadn’t tried the pancakes yet, so I added that to my list of must-try’s.

Two mornings later, I was in the mood.

Pancakes with a tropical Thai twist

The cake was crisp around the edges of one side, and where it had soaked in honey, it tasted almost like coconut custard, even though the texture was completely different.

The honey had a fragrance of jasmine (pikake in Hawaii) flowers, a surprisingly light yet complex addition to the dish. I asked and found out it was longan honey, from the blossoms of the longan tree. Fruits are like chocolate brown, ping-pong balls and have a texture and taste similar to lychee.

The slices of mango, juicy and slick, made the cake feel not so rich, yet still luxurious.

Unfortunately, a trio of Brits sat at the table next to me and began smoking, which totally destroyed the delicate flavors and aromas.

I moved to a table far away, but all I could smell was cigarettes, so I gulped the last three bites down and left. No faster way to ruin a meal than cigarettes. What a shame, since I had been enjoying myself completely.

Oh well. I’ll have to try to re-create the dish at home and see if I can make it with whole-grained flour and no eggs.

Animal Cruelty and Animal Love

November 27, 2009

I chose to spend my Thanksgiving holiday by “volunteering” at the Elephant Nature Park.

I was picked up by a van at my guesthouse and rode with ten other tourists from Canada, the U.S., Brazil and the U.K. for an hour and a half to the sanctuary.

Once there we were given a safety talk and went to watch the elephants from the viewing platform in the main building.

The elephants knew that feeding time was fast approaching, so some of them were already lingering around the building, hoping for early handouts. At 11:30, the klong klong klong of a bamboo being struck signalled food!

We were allowed to feed them by handing them pieces of their food: watermelon, pumpkin, corn, sugar cane, pineapple, and banana. Each elephant has its food parceled and weighed into a basket.

The personalities of the different elephants was amusing. One of them took a piece of food (a wedge of pumpkin, a six-inch length of sugar cane, ten bananas, still in the peel), backed up, put the food in its mouth, and came forward again for more.

Some of them clearly had a favorite food, taking but then dropping the pumpkin immediately but gobbling the bananas. Sweet Jokia, who is blind, stood patiently, mouth agape, trunk curled back, as soon as she smelled the food.

Blind (and hungry!) Jokia patiently waits for feeding time.

Her story, like most of the elephants there, is heartbreaking. While working as a logging elephant before logging became illegal, she gave birth. Her baby rolled down a hill and died. Heartbroken, she lay down and refused to work. Her owner shot one eye out with a slingshot and the other with arrows, forcing her to get up and earn her keep.

Before she was rescued, Jokia's owner shot her in both eyes to try to force her to work when she was depressed.

She was rescued and came to live at the park, where she is free to just be an elephant. No more begging on the street for money from tourists, no more needing to haul tourists on her back for hours every day on trekking tours. She does not have to be forced into a breeding program, producing baby elephants, which are cuter and earn more money than adults. She will not have to do tricks, like the elephant which was rescued from a Sheraton hotel, where its job was to greet hotel guests by trumpeting and leading them around the grounds with her trunk wrapped around their wrists.

Jokia and the other lucky elephants can live with the others, forming small groups, caring for the infants, eating, roaming within the bounds of the park, bathing in the river, and meeting tourists like me, who pay money to help support the enormous costs of running the sanctuary.

Each elephant has a mahout, who is with her or him constantly, to be sure she stays out of trouble, away from the flower garden, far from the crops of the farmers from neighboring villages. No hooks are used with them. Voice command and the occasional firm tap with a hand, plus a lot of love and tolerance, are enough to maintain control.

One of three adorable babies at the park, who steal a lot of attention.

Mae Perm, the first elephant to find freedom at the park, adopted Jokia. Now they travel together and are constant companions. I fed Mae Perm and was immediately struck by her gentleness. Many of the elephants pulled the food from my hand, wrapping their amazingly strong trunks around my hand and squeezing, but she grasped everything with gentle grace and patience.

I think she was also the elephant whose side I was scratching when they went to bathe in the river after lunch. The water was cold. Most of them stood for just a minute or two in the river, while tourists doused them with bucketsful of chilly water.

Scratching Mae Perm after a quick dip in the river. Beside her is blind Jokia, her constant companion since she adopted her.

I had a brush but had put it down to take photos, so I simply used my hands to rub her side. She must have enjoyed it, because she stood there and leaned against me. I was afraid she’d fall over and crush me, but of course, they are in control of themselves and have no reason to harm me.

One of the elephants (I think it was Mae Bua Loi) had a disfigured rear right leg and broken hip due to first a logging accident, then later being forced to be bred with an enormous bull elephant. When he mounted her, he broke her back. She limped along slowly and was probably in a lot of pain.

This elephant had a broken back and hip after being forced to mate. You know how you feel when your leg hurts? Imagine weighing over 2000 pounds and feeling the same way!

I heard from a long-term volunteer there (many come to stay overnight or for several weeks, helping with the care and feeding of the elephants) that her walk had improved considerably over a year’s time, so that was a hopeful thing.

We had to watch a documentary that showed how the elephants are broken in as youths. They are trapped in a cage where they can’t move. Men, and boys who are copying them and learning from them, beat the elephants for three to seven days, until their fighting spirit has broken and they listen and try to obey. Naturally, the elephants put up a mighty fight. The men use nails on the end of bamboo poles to stab the elephants’ feet and inner ears, where they are more sensitive, as well as beat them with sticks.

Since I had been to the park four years earlier and already seen the abuse, I turned away, still crying, so I wouldn’t have to watch. But I could hear the agonized screams of the elephants as they were tortured.

Because logging is now illegal in Thailand, the 3000 domesticated elephants that used to log are forced to work in other ways to bring in money for their owners. But logging is still legal in neighboring countries, such as Burma, where most of the mahouts at the park are from.

Many of the working elephants suffer from landmine explosions, mental and emotional problems, and starvation, in addition to just being forced to work no matter if they feel like it or not.

Not all owners are cruel, but the reality is that it takes a lot of money to feed and properly care for an elephant, and money and jobs are hard to come by. Most do what they can to get by, and when money is scarce, the elephants suffer.

The fact that those elephants that are rescued are able to live a life of peace at the sanctuary is a blessing. I thought it was only appropriate that on the holiday reserved for giving thanks, I reminded myself of some of the ways humans could make a difference for the better in the lives of these animals.

Those lucky elephants (see the two dots on the right?) rescued and now living on the park are free to just be elephants, as they should be.

There is no humane society in Thailand. Domesticated elephants have no laws to protect them and are treated as livestock, abused or starved at will. My massage friend here said she often has called the police in Chiang Mai, asking what can be done to stop the begging elephants she sees pass the shop every night. They swear at her and tell her to mind her own business.

So my Thanksgiving Day was full of sadness and joy, despair and hope, cruelty and love. I gave thanks for the volunteers and people who help the elephants (and the stray dogs and cats that are fed and cared for, fairly well, here.) In the spirit of the holiday, I counted my blessings and was grateful I am in the position to help, with the money I spent to visit the park, as well as by spreading the word and helping to educate and enlighten people.

If you would like more information about the park or any of the elephants, including the three babies–too cute for words!–, visit The Elephant Nature Park Website.

May we all be free to roam, eat, and bathe in the river!

Thai Thanksgiving Feast

November 27, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving to you all back home in the U.S.!

It’s a day ahead here in Thailand, so my Thanksgiving was celebrated one day before the U.S.

I went to visit my two Thai massage friends at their shop and took some Pad Thai, Penang Curry, and rice from my favorite vegetarian Restaurant here in Chiang Mai, May Kaidee’s.

They had raw cucumbers, blanched cabbage and oyster mushrooms, sticky rice, nam phrik, (hot chile paste, made by pounding chiles, garlic, salt and sugar and frying it for a short while), and egg omelette.

My kind of Thanksgiving spread--vegetarian, mostly organic, and international

We shared food. The nam phrik on the omelette was really spicy, and they laughed at me as I coughed.

They hadn’t really heard of Thanksgiving. I tried to explain it’s a holiday when people eat turkey and just eat too much.

But I had decided to come to Chiang Mai instead and visit the Elephant Nature Park, to remind me to be thankful, which is in line with the true spirit of the holiday.

(I’ll post the sad and happy details of my visit to the elephant park in a separate post.)

I tried to say, “You are my Thai massage family.” That resulted in a lot of confusion and laughter, and they eventually understood me.

My friend June has a northern accent, so her pronunciation is a little different than so-called standard Thai at times. But her animated personality and boundless energy make for a lively time, whether we are discussing politics, massage techniques, animal cruelty and the complete lack of regulation and protection for animals here, or how to eat sticky rice.

She insisted I eat it the traditional way, balling it in my hand, then dipping it into the curry or nam phrik. When she was a child, she used to roll the rice between two palms to create a dense ball that was then too chewy and hard to eat easily.

Kids will be kids the world over.

It took two of them, plus pantomime, to explain how they used to squeeze the essential oils out of a piece of orange peel onto a ruler. Then they touched the ruler to the palm of their hand and pulled it away repeatedly. Eventually the oils created spider-web-like strands. The mandarin oranges we had for dessert (along with apple bananas) didn’t have enough essential oil in the peel to make it happen, so I had to take their word for it.

I laughed so much, I was getting a headache from my cheek muscles contracting. That, plus a sore face from smiling, crying, and trying not to sob at the elephant park, were not helping.

They gave me a kaffir lime (ma kroot) to sniff the peel, which is supposed to help with headaches.

Kaffir Limes, Ma Kroot in Thai

It did, until my friend said she wanted some of my extra weight, because she is too skinny and runs out of energy. I told her to take all she wants, and that the reason she is so skinny is because all her movements are vibrant, full of energy, and overexcited.

I imitated her, and we both laughed until our stomachs hurt. She told me she never guessed I’d be a mirror to her behavior.

Then I had a headache again.

They fed the stray dogs outside, named Ding Dong, Long, and Kencham, then put out a hot water bottle so Ding Dong can sleep on it.

Ding Dong, an old street dog with mange and aching joints

He is old and gets stiff after sleeping when it’s cold like this. When he gets up, he shrieks in pain for a few minutes, until his joints warm up and stop hurting.

Sometimes they massage him, to relieve the pain.

“Khon jai dee,” I tell them often. Good, kind people.

Long sleeps hidden in the plants fronting the shop, two feet away from the mopeds, cars, and traffic.

My Thanksgiving dinner was an international celebration, and I was happy to spend it with my Thai “massage family” of therapists here in Chiang Mai.

And although my time at the Elephant Nature Park earlier in the day was emotional, it reminded me of many things I am grateful for.

This Thanksgiving was probably the nicest one I’ve ever had. Ironically, there was no turkey, no stuffing, no overeating, no blood-related family, and I wasn’t even in the U.S.

I hope yours is as full of warmth, love, and good eats as mine was. Happy Thanksgiving, and please remember to give thanks.