Q: What’s the next best thing to growing up in Thailand and learning to cook Thai food from your mom?
A: Taking cooking lessons in Chiang Mai from a local Thai chef, learning secrets she learned from her mom and tricks of the trade she’s picked up as a pro in Thailand…and around the world.
Celebrity Thai Chef “Yui” Siripen Sriyabhaya, at her home-based A Lot of Thai Cooking School
Here’s the thing. Much like any spot in the world open to eager tourists, Chiang Mai is chalk full of touted “authentic” experiences. Elephant rides and cooking schools, for example.
Elephant rides? You bet. Show up, pay your money, visit a farm, and pet/brush/ride your way to a happy vacation snapshot. (Pardon my cynicism. See my post on Questionable Ethics of Wildlife Tourism for our backstory.)
Unfortunately, there’s a similar runaround in place catering to visitors clamoring for their own personal Pad Thai moments. Any guest house or tour agency in town provides a fistful of brochures for local “Thai Cooking Schools.”
I was disappointed to find that most are cookie cutter copies, offering a check-the-box line up of whole day/half day, choose-four/six-recipes and pay a chunk of change to lump yourself in with a bunch of other students, watch the instructor demonstrate a few dishes, wield a wok and a spatula for a while, then receive a feel-good “cooking certificate” at the end of the day.
Culinary tourism in Chiang Mai, at first impression, seemed like a bust.
To be honest, I even tried one of the courses, just to see if the real deal was better than the advertisement. I’ll spare the details. It wasn’t.
Enter, A Lot of Thai. My friend Lindsay passed along the name of this home-based cooking school after her summer visit to Thailand. I hadn’t run across A Lot of Thai in any of the standard brochure stacks, so I looked up the website and read the details.
I’d been so grateful for my beautiful day of cooking authentic African food with a woman in Zanzibar, and my hopes were much the same in Asia: to learn traditional methods and credible recipes. The instructor, Yui Sriyabhaya, was noted as “Thailand’s international TV chef,” but the spirit that came through her site was much less celebrity and much more down to earth lover-of-food.
My Australian classmates Tosh and Vi introduced themselves from the backseat when Yui pulled up to my guesthouse and offered me the passenger side. We slid into natural conversation, Yui laughing as she told us stories from her college days and her passion for great flavor and travels near and far. When she learned about Ted’s and my year around the world, she grinned wide and shared her own dreams of heading out with a backpack. “The world is so exciting for me to talk about…my heart is beating so strong!”
How could I not love this woman?
We arrived at Yui’s home in a quiet residential neighborhood a short drive from old town, and met our other amateur-Thai-chefs-in-training.
Unlike many other Chiang Mai cooking schools trying to manage the instructional juggling act of teaching and preparing four, five, or six unique dish choices times ten, eleven, twelve students, Yui has tailored one menu for each day of the week, and each day’s class of no-more-than-eight pupils learn and cook the same recipes together, with plenty of time for her to offer in depth theory, practical kitchen skills, and personalized instruction.
“‘Yui’ means Chubby Cheeks,” she said with a smile at the beginning of class, revealing that her full name, Siripen Sriyabhaya, had been supplanted by a childhood nickname that stuck. “I love eating so much…the only think I don’t like is bamboo worms!” She jumped to a side story about the strange little grubby-looking snacks we’d see later in the day at the market.
At ease knowing there would be no bamboo worms on the menu, we relaxed into our first session of the morning. “I’m really serious about authentic Thai food,” Yui shared. Her background in teaching came to the fore as she explained essential tools, techniques, and ingredients.
No compromises: Tamarind cutting boards and large, sharp knives.
“Tamarind wood is soft and strong. Think about women: delicate but strong, you cannot break us easily…I’m a skinny girl, but I am strong.”
And then she decimated the veggies, shaving lemongrass stalks into paper-thin ringlets, shredding kaffir lime leaves into confetti.
No problem, right?
Would it surprise you to know that she’s an ex shot-putter and volleyball star?
Athleticism, commitment, and determination carried her through high school and university and still serve her well in the kitchen. She giggled, admitting that one of the reasons she loved being on the high school volleyball team was the opportunity to travel through Thailand and eat the regional foods that each league district would serve to visiting teams.
Her love of food came through clearly as she walked through ingredients for the first dish of the day: Kaow-Pad-Sa-Moon-Prai (Fried Brown Rice with Thai Herbs).
Onions and her favorite brown/black/red rice blend.
Kaffir lime leaves and fresh ginger.
Garlic and lemongrass, eggs and soy sauce, sweet basil…
And pumpkin! (My favorite!)
After methodically demonstrating each step from start to finish, Yui sent us to our individual cooking stations and let us have a go…
My fellow classmate mastering the one-handed egg crack…
My Oh-So-Delicious End.
Know what I loved? Yui has so much fun with her food that she’s still taking photos of her own dishes that she’s prepared countless times…
You wouldn’t know it from her demeanor, but this humble, good-natured woman is a Thai celebrity. She’s been sought after by Iron Chef Thailand and flown to far off locations as guest chef in residence, written up in newspapers, invited to judge Food Network’s Extreme Chef 2012, and featured on television productions from all corners.
Far from conceited or corrupt, she does her work for the pure joy of delicious eats and cherished traditions. Her eyes twinkled. “Can you buy me with money? No! But when people say they can buy me by food…I say yes.”
When she shared about cooking in Rio de Janiro, Brazil and then admitted Portland, Oregon is a dream destination, I knew we’d just have to see about finding her an invitation as guest chef somewhere in the City of Roses…
Yui’s been teaching the art of Thai cooking since 1999: knife skills along with physics and chemistry and tradition. She and her husband, Kwan, a graphic designer, established A Lot of Thai in 2001, and still today she personally instructs each class of students attending her cooking school.
A teacher by nature, she volunteered in Hong Kong in the 1990s teaching social science to the expat Thai community, and does her best to instill her love of learning and respect for eduction in her young daughter and son, tying everything back to the basics of life and food.
When her children, tired of homework, ask “Why study?” she answers:
Math…to calculate recipes
Physical education…to be strong to move in the kitchen
History…to learn about products and food
Scouting…to survive and cook without gas
Ethics and religion…to give good things to people
And with this blend of idealism and pragmatism, she led us through our day of learning
My stomach was full from the morning meal break. We aspiring chefs polished off our self-cooked healthy servings of Kaow-Pad-Sa-Moon-Prai and took a seat to again watch Yui teach skills for making the traditional spicy staple food of Northern Thailand, Som-Tam (Green Papaya Salad).
She laughs at the deceptively small and so-called “rat $@#t” chili peppers used to bring fire to the blend of fresh vegetables. “Perfect for Gordon Ramsay,” she giggles. She should know: the two are friends.
The right heat for Som-Tam? “Enough to make you sweat just under the eyes, but no so much that your lips burn and your nose runs.”
The kind of fine line that takes a master to perfect.
“How serious are you?” she asks while demonstrating the quartering of little jewel tomatoes. Imperfections are beautiful: no need to slice that red sphere in perfect fourths. Each piece unique. Each salad unique. Polar opposite of mass production.
When it comes my turn to copy her methods, I try my hardest to balance the fish sauce, palm sugar, and lime juice. The aim is that perfect melding of of creamy-sweet and salty-hot.
Satisfaction builds as flavors mingle in the mortar bowl. I imagine coming home to Portland and putting next year’s summer produce to work. Green papaya may not grow in Montavilla, but a healthy cucumber plants from my community garden plot or a stash of unripe pears from the Portland Fruit Tree Project tree might provide me with just the starting blocks for my own Pacific fusion dish.
Later in the day, as we started our final dish of the day, Pa-Nang-Gai (Panang Curry with Chicken), I listened to Yui explain the differences between coconut cream and coconut milk, and I thought back to my friend Salama and the way she showed me, first hand, how to scrape the flesh of a coconut to shreds and extract the white magic. Each lesson this year seems to builds on itself in beautiful, delicious, unforeseen ways…
Yui graciously allowed me to share the final recipe here with you…
Panang Curry with Chicken
1 cup coconut cream
2 tbsp Panang curry paste (*see below)
300 g chicken breast – sliced
2/3 cup coconut milk
1/2 tbsp palm sugar
2-3 tsp fish sauce
1/2 large red chili – shredded
2 kaffir lime leaves – finely shredded (1mm wide)
20 g (1/4 cup) sweet basil leaves torn from stem
Boil coconut cream in the wok over low heat until the oil appears on the surface
Add curry paste and stir for 1 minute or until fragrant
Add chicken and cook until it turns white (not not completely cooked) then add coconut milk and bring to a boil. Add palm sugar and fish sauce.
At the last moment add shredded chili, kaffir lime leaves and sweet basil leaves.
Cook for 5-10 seconds only.
Remove from heat.
Serve with plain rice.
Notes: Beef, pork, lamb, kangaroo [seriously.], duck, turkey, pumpkin, or tofu can be used as substitutes. Ground roasted peanuts can also be added to taste.
Panang Curry Paste
4 dried large red chili – seed removed, soaked and chopped
1 tsp coriander seeds – roasted
1/2 tsp cumin seeds – roasted
1/4 tsp mace powder
1/4 tsp salt
1 tbsp lemongrass – chopped
1 tsp galangal – chopped
1/2 tsp coriander root – chopped
1/4 tsp kaffir lime peel – chopped
1/2 tsp shrimp paste
1 tbsp shallots – chopped
1 tbsp garlic – chopped
Put peppercorns, coriander seeds and cumin seeds into a mortar and grind them until they turn to a powder form. Add the remaining ingredients except shallots and garlic. Pound until the texture is almost smooth. Add garlic and shallots, continue pouring until smooth.
Notes: Dried chili need to be soaked in cold water for at least 15 minutes
The fasts way to prepare curry paste is to chop up dried chili very finely
Instead of using a mortar and pestle for pounding, you can also use blender
The very best technique secrets and shopping tips are in her cookbook, which she provides to each student upon completion of the class. My favorite? Handy visual cheat-sheets, like pictures of the exact Thai produce and bottles and brands of fish and soy sauce that she recommends. (Oh-so-helpful when labels are all in Thai and I can’t figure out the translations when I’m back at home rifling through unlabeled bunches of herbs and greens or standing in front of the shelves at the Asian Supermarket.)
To complete the day, Yui led us through one last round of hands-on learning at Nong Hoi Market.
Unlike my earlier experience at one of Chiang Mai’s run-of-the-mill cooking schools, we visited the market in the afternoon, after a day of cooking, once we could fully appreciate the ingredients and build on the knowledge Yui gave us during the course. Rather than being paraded quickly through, we unwound and took our time. Vendors, many of them Yui’s friends, were happier to see us and interact, knowing that their busy morning customers were already taken care of, and I felt at ease knowing that we weren’t taking up valuable market real estate or causing interruptions to their critical business transactions by snapping pictures and asking questions.
Yui pointed out her despised bamboo worms among the other more tasteful choices in produce…
As I sipped my bright lime smoothie from Yui’s favorite vendor, I thought eagerly of the day when I could do my best to bring these flavors home with me…
For as much as I found disappointment after disappointment in my survey of cooking schools in Chiang Mai, I found complete satisfaction and culinary inspiration from A Lot of Thai.
Yui lead us through her philosophies on food and life and shared her spirit and her spunk.
And the lasting takeaway, more than recipes or knife skills or chili seeding techniques, was the all-important ingredient that can never be purchased: culinary confidence.
Confidence to return home and create the real deal in my own kitchen, to serve it to friends and family with the same joy that Yui serves her students in her home in Chiang Mai, Thailand.
After class, Yui drove me back to my guest house. On the way, we chatted secrets of delicious fish sauce chicken wings** and I promised I’d be ready to welcome her with open arms when she finally makes that culinary pilgrimage to Portland.
Many, many thanks to Yui and Kwan at A Lot of Thai for hosting me during my time in Chiang Mai, Thailand. I have no reservations saying that the cooking school experience was a top-three activity during my time in Thailand. As always, all opinions, photos, and stories are my own, and, most importantly No Elephants Were Harmed in the Making of this Post.
If you’re interested in more beautiful photos, recipes, and stories from this part of the world, check out one of my favorite library books: Hot Sour Salty Sweet: A Culinary Journey through Southeast Asia in which authors Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid share inspiration from their travels down the Mekong River…
**To be honest, my first taste of Ike’s Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings at Andy Ricker’s Pok Pok on SE Division opened my palate to the magic of Southeast Asian cuisine. Fellow Portlanders and culinary tourists – and people of NYC who now benefit from the Pok Pok’s east coast location – know what I’m talking about: “A bewitching restaurant in one of the country’s great food towns,” said Lynn Rossetto Casper of the Portland classic on a 2008 episode of the Splendid Table. Take a listen to minutes 15-25 in the podcast below and enjoy Lynn’s in-the-kitchen interview with Andy and his great commentary on authentic Thai cooking.
What favorite flavors jump to mind when you think of Thai cuisine?