• Kate

Cooking Class - Chiang Mai, Thailand

Updated: Sep 15, 2021

With Thai Akha Kitchen (www.thaiakhakitchen.com).

June 8, 2019

Time: Morning class, 8:30am - 2pm (includes market tour).

Cost: 1,100 baht ($35 USD) per person.

Includes pick-up/drop-off, multi-course lunch, water/coffee/tea, and cookbook.

“Follow me” says Jay as we enter a big open-air market in Chiang Mai. I do my best to not get distracted by the commotion and aromas all around us. Chiang Mai (also written as Chiengmai or Chiangmai) is the largest city in Northern Thailand and it’s considered the capital of the North. It’s a busy city with a population of about half a million people and you can find a little bit of everything there.

Chiang Mai means “New City” in Thai, and it was founded in 1296 as the capital of the Lanna Kingdom. History, culture and scenic landscapes are abundant in this part of the country.

Chiang Mai means “New City” in Thai, and it was founded in 1296 as the capital of the Lanna Kingdom. History, culture and scenic landscapes are abundant in this part of the country. It’s worth your time and a good amount of it too if you want to see waterfalls, temples, hear live music, trek through the jungle and eat lots of amazing food.

Chiang Mai is more laid-back than Thailand’s biggest city Bangkok (435 miles south) and most bars shut down around midnight or 1am. Still, there’s an historic Old Town with its pub street, live jazz clubs, night markets and plenty of hipster bars and expat co-working cafes to be found in the Nimmanhaemin area. Unlike Bangkok, it’s easy to get away and escape to nature, find a cafe on a farm or swim in a waterfall. Our visit was in June, during the low season, so it rained more and seemed extra chill compared to what the high season must be like.

You wouldn’t know it’s low season when standing inside the wet market, surrounded by rows of delicious looking prepared food, crates of fresh vegetables and fruit and the loud whacking sound of machetes on butcher blocks. The market is the first stop on our journey to learning how to cook Thai food. Our guide and cooking teacher, Jay, is holding a handful of long green leaves up to our noses and gives us a moment to guess what it is. We have no idea so he tells us it’s “pandan” (bai toei) a plant with many uses in Thailand. Pandan leaf is often used to turn noodles, sticky rice and sweets into a neon green color which looks totally artificial but isn’t. The market quiz continues as we move from vendor to vendor and sometimes we guess correctly, “coriander! lemongrass! tofu!” Jay, a local Thai from an Akha village, has an impressive vocabulary. He knows every ingredient at the market plus the English translation, and the vendors all seem to know and like him too. Our group is very easy to spot here - one guide, three westerners and we’re all dressed in company branded purple aprons. People smile and give friendly nods as we pass the stalls smelling, sampling and taking photos.

After an hour of shopping for the ingredients to make our multi-course lunch, Jay leads us to the outdoor portion of the market. Typically the outside perimeter of big markets in Southeast Asia are where grains, fruits and vegetables are sold and the indoor section is for everything else - from prepared foods to live roosters. Western cultures know of Asian markets as “wet markets” and the first thing that comes to mind is animal blood and fish flopping about in seawater. There is some truth to that, but in Asia you can find anything at the markets, like cell phone cases, clothing, tupperware and many many spices. Jay takes us to his favorite stall outside the market where we try a few spicy sauces. They give us fried pork skin and pieces of cooked squash to dip into the peppery mixes. I come to find out my taste buds have grown accustomed to the intense level of heat in Thai food and my two Irish cooking buddies who are straight off the plane are looking at me like I might not be human.

The morning market tour ends and with many reusable shopping bags in our hands, we follow Jay to the Thai Akha Kitchen in Old Town. At the school, there are a dozen cooking stations set up neatly on a spacious patio of a nice house. Woks hang from the ceiling and the covered patio is transformed into a great environment for creativity. I see that we’re cooking on gas grills and I’m still sweating from the blazing sun and market trip, but I just roll with it. The set up reminds me of scenes from Top Chef or The Great British Baking Show where contestants run around sweating and panicking and I’m just hoping there are no stopwatches involved.

Jay lines us up at our cooking stations and hands us a menu with pictures and names of all the dishes we will be making. Papaya salad, fried spring rolls, mango with sticky rice, pumpkin in coconut milk, Akha vegetable soup, Sapi Thong (a tomato dipping sauce) and Akha cucumber salad. Additionally, we each get to choose a curry, a soup, and stir fry to make. I’ve been to several cooking classes in my life and this is the first time I’ve had the option of what to make. The four different curry options were: red curry, green curry, panang curry or massaman curry. The soups: chicken & coconut milk, hot & sour prawn soup, or clear soup & egg tofu; and the stir fry options were: sweet and sour chicken, chicken with cashew nuts, chicken with holy basil, and pad thai.

For the next 3 hours we pumped out 10 amazing Thai and Akha dishes. Southeast Asian dishes are known for contrasting flavors of sweet, spicy, sour and salty. The combination of these flavors in dishes makes you doubt being able to recreate something so masterful at home, but luckily the cooking course includes a printed and online cookbook. The only question is whether you’ll be able to find Kaffir limes or fish paste in your local supermarket.

With many cooking class options in Chiang Mai the reason I chose the Thai Akha Cooking School was relatively simple. They have great reviews on TripAdvisor and I was drawn to the fusion of Thai and Akha cuisines. The Akha are one of several ethnic minority groups in Northern Thailand and they immigrated long ago from Burma, China and Tibet and settled in the hills around Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai provinces. The owner of Thai Akha Kitchen, Niti Muelaeku, is a member of the Akha hill tribe and the story she tells of how her passion for food and cooking led her to open a school resonated with me. Niti was not at the school the day of our class so we didn’t get to meet her, but Jay, who is also from an Akha hill tribe showed us pictures of the Akha in their traditional clothing and shared a bit about their culture and heritage with us.

At 2pm we were seated in the main house, in an air conditioned room licking our plates and fingers and feeling very satisfied. A few kids from the neighborhood were playing nearby and we invited them over to help us finish the Sapi Thong dip. Jay gave us each a parting gift of neatly packaged Thai spices, ingredients for the curry we made.

After eating so many wonderful dishes and learning new things about Akha culture and Thai cuisine, I was ready to head home and take a nap. What actually ended up happening was Adam and I went to a waterfall and I got to digest and cool off. ✌🏼🛵💚🍜

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