Learning to Cook — and Live — at a Cooking School in Thailand
|Sampling our creations in the open-air kitchen at the You Sabai cooking school deep inside Thailand..
We recline on woven mats in the stifling heat, fanning ourselves to ward off the flies and bees. An orchestra of cicadas and crickets fills the gentle sloping hills that cradle us, and a chorus of laughing children drifts up from the valley below. Fields of rice and citrus form the vast panorama, and the occasional Thai farmer clad in a broad straw hat moving about his fields breaks up the still monotony. A giant spider tenderly creeps by behind us, aiming not to be seen. A welcome breeze provides a puff of relief from the still heat, while rustling the banana tree leaves to sound like the light patter of rain. I take a sip from my mango smoothie, discovering with delight that I actually like mangoes and never truly experienced a real mango back in North America.
This is what break-time looks like at our cooking course in paradise.
When visiting Thailand, you will be induced by brochures, set upon by local passers-by and even taxi drivers promoting cooking courses. With the increasing popularity of Thai fare around the world, the best place to learn to cook the real thing would understandably be in Thailand. You can generally expect the course to last one to two days, be centrally located, relatively inexpensive, and cater to large groups of tourists.
The You Sabai Cooking School
You Sabai is a Thai cooking course that incorporates a way of life into the fray. Catering to small groups and eating up (literally and figuratively) four days, it is designed for travelers who want to get more than just cooking from the experience.
On Monday afternoon, we are whisked away from Chiang Mai and taken to a small organic farm and permaculture property about 50kms outside of the city, nestled deep in the beautiful countryside and away from all sounds of traffic and smells of exhaust. A quick stop at a local market floods our senses: sounds of shopkeepers calling to one another and negotiating with customers, smells of everything from fresh fruit to rotting fish, colorful sights of tray after tray of produce on display, fingers running over everything from silk to cacti, and the taste of just about anything you dare to try. We learn how to identify quality produce in a local setting that sees very few tourists.
Another short ride later the truck pulls off the main road and onto an uneven driveway that would give pause to even avid 4WD drivers. But here in remote Thailand, cars, trucks, and (more commonly) motorbikes navigate conditions many drivers back home in North America might think about twice.
Minutes later we arrive at You Sabai; a little corner of paradise run by Krit and Yao, a beautiful and kind Thai couple.
“Relax, take a walk around the property, have a nap, come by the shop for a coffee or smoothie, whatever you like. We’ll have dinner at 7:30,” Yao says, after she shows my boyfriend and I to our natural earthen hut which is to be our little home for the next three nights. The hut was built by residents at the nearby partner farm, where volunteers and residents learn and practice sustainable living, building, and permaculture techniques. We have everything we need: a romantic bed on the floor adorned with mosquito netting, net-covered holes in the structure as windows, and a few candles for ambience at night. A peek out the window reveals miles and miles of untouched greenery, gradually climbing up a small mountain in the distance. This is scenery most often enjoyed in dreams, not reality.
Adapting to Basic Living Conditions
There is no electricity in the huts (candles and headlamps illuminate the way at night), and the washroom is another earthen hut just up the path. The shower is as traditional as it gets in this part of the world: a large bucket filled with water (all the water here is from a rain catchment or nearby reservoir), with a smaller scoop or bowl to ladle the water all over yourself. And the water is always colder than you expect it to be.
We have not even started cooking yet and my senses are overloaded!
After a fabulous prepared dinner that gives us a small preview of what we are to expect in the next three days, we retire to our hut for the night.
We are in the remote northern Thailand country. You have to expect a few creepy crawlies to be your bedmates. We hear the stifled yelps of other course attendees as they discover a variety of large critters in their own huts, while we scour our own. Our search is rewarded; the spiders are easily 5cms wide (and those are the small ones), and we immediately spot two different (and alarmingly large) types of scorpions. We are mildly sedated with the knowledge that nothing “too venomous” lives in the area. However, not being used to sharing our abode with these nocturnal companions, sleep does not come easily, even with the mosquito net creating a protective bubble around us.
At least the sounds of nature and not urban sprawl keep us company, and eventually we drift off to sleep with a chorus of strange and foreign animals singing to us.
Morning Yoga in Paradise
Bright and early the next morning, we gather for yoga in what has to be the most inspirational setting ever. The sun is rising over rolling mountains beyond, and we lay our yoga mats out on a small patch of dirt directly in front of a misty valley. We are a small group that has risen (literally) to the occasion: there are just six of us. With one attendee a certified Yoga instructor, and another being an avid practitioner of Chi-Gong, we enjoy a multi-faceted approach to relaxing into our day.
| An inspirational setting for sunrise yoga.
Let the Cooking Begin
But we are here to cook. After a quick break and breakfast of fresh fruit, it is down to business.
As a group (we are seven in total), we must choose 12 of the 20 vegetarian Thai dishes offered to prepare. It is not too difficult, and it quickly becomes apparent that we will have fun cooking together. With the common bond of having choosen a cooking course well off-the-beaten-path, members of the group are excited to discover many similarities.
Before we head for the kitchen and headlong into our lunch preparation, we learn how to make tofu…from scratch. Tofu has always been something of a mystery to me, and often not the protein of choice. Although I do not mind it, I have never found an easy way to cook with it without turning it into an unidentifiable mush. But the tofu we make is firm, delicious, and relatively easy to make. Since the course, I have made tofu many times to the surprised delight of anybody who tries it. Although I do eat meat, tofu is a new staple to my diet and an inexpensive meat alternative as well.
A Bare Bones Kitchen
The kitchen is not what we are prepared for in an open-air paradise, overlooking the open valley and distant foothills. But with little more than a few posts and a roof, we question our cooking course selection when we see the four lonely wooden stands holding propane burners and a long cement table. Acquiescing to circumstance, we eager students take seats before a basket of fresh ingredients on the table. With seven sets of hands to chop, dice, and mince (plus the very capable hands of Krit, our instructor), easy work is made of the initial preparations.
Shortly thereafter, we start cooking; Krit prepares a dish, which we all taste it (no cooties here – everybody dips their spoon in and shares communally), then in two shifts, we try our own hands at replicating Krit’s masterpieces. We quickly realize that we can prepare excellent food in this bare bones kitchen with simple ingredients; in fact the food tastes even better given how natural the setting.
Fresh spring rolls, pad thai, panang curry, sweet and sour pineapple, green curry, sweet mango sticky rice….the list goes on. Everything is made from scratch, and with nothing but organic and fresh ingredients, grown onsite or purchased locally. What a treat! And although the majority of us are not vegetarians, we all agree that we do not miss meat in the slightest.
And so it goes Tuesday and Wednesday; yoga in the morning, a (thankfully) small breakfast, and then preparing three dishes for lunch and three dishes for dinner. Inevitably, by the time dinner rolls around, we all insist that we are much too full to keep cooking and eating, but somehow in our enthusiasm we always manage to keep cooking and eating.
After dinner by light of headlamps and a solar powered bare bulb, we chat, play cards, and get to know each other better, all the while batting away a whole new conglomerate of insects that come out at night. Once the insects get to be too much, we retire one by one, and proceed to inspect our respective huts for unwanted creepy crawlies.
Enjoying a New Way of LIfe
One night we are graced by the presence of a local Thai man with stories to tell. We engage him in illuminating conversation and learn more about what it is to “just be” and not get caught up in the self-imposed rules and hectic pace of modern urban life.
Thursday morning, we are awoken by the sound of music drifting up from the valley. A truck with a loudspeaker (a common Thai way of delivering news and adverts) is driving by the temple way below us, and singing to the hills. The music lingers and creates a slight echo, both throughout the valley and in our own minds. This is one of the best alarm clocks we have ever had, and we try to capture this moment forever as we lay in bed listening to the melodic bells and chimes.
We reflect on our cooking course experience, realizing that most people in the world live as simply as we have over the last few days. To be happy you do not need half the things we in North America cite as imperative to live. What a way to wake up before we head back to the comparative chaos of Chiang Mai.
We ruminate on the three days we spent creating wonderful meals, memories, and friendships. You Sabai’s rustic conditions, fresh air, and friendly people form a unique opportunity to step outside of the normal Thai cooking course, and to experience something deeper: a way of life.
For More Information on the You Sabai Cooking School
Courses run every Monday to Thursday, with free pick-up and drop-off in Chiang Mai.
Check out their website at www.yousabai.com for more information on the program, accommodations, and area highlights.
Only a small number of attendees can be accommodated, so you must reserve a spot in advance by calling within Thailand at 085 720 6201 (outside Thailand 6685 720 6201).