I stopped in Chiang Mai last week to meet my sister Alona and decided that a day in the city would be best spent participating in one of the many Thai cooking classes offered there. I actually did the same thing when I passed through Chiang Mai two years ago, so I had an idea of what was in store. A trip to the market, a few hours of “cooking” (with lots of hand-holding) and an absurd amount of delicious, fresh, filling Thai food.
The course I took two years ago was with Asia Scenic, and the one we did this time was with Siam Rice. We didn’t choose too carefully – each guesthouse partners with a different cooking school and offers discounts and convenient pickup.
The courses are very similar, so I thought it would be fun to compare them in each of the things they offer. Keep in mind that since my experience with Asia Scenic was two years ago, things may have changed.
1. Instruction. I feel awful for not remembering the names of either of the instructors we had, but anyway… both were good and had decent English. I found the Siam Rice guy more entertaining and the woman at Asia Scenic more informative. At Siam Rice there was an assistant which was helpful considering the larger class size. He also saved us from oil fires and knew how to grind a curry.
2. Market visit. Pretty similar – I remember learning more about the different types of rice with Asia Scenic, while we learned more about different vegetables and coconut products with Siam Rice. But in addition to the market visit, Asia Scenic had an awesome organic vegetable garden in-house. And at Siam Rice the guy smeared turmeric on my arm staining it yellow for several days, so that was a bit silly.
3. Cooking. In both of these courses, it’s hard to consider the process of making the food true cooking. The meat portions are already measured, onions are peeled, etc., and the process moves quickly with every step being guided by the instructor. Even though you do the chopping, frying, and grinding, they make it near impossible to mess up any of your dishes. It’s efficient and a lot of fun, but not particularly practical.
I found that Asia Scenic moved just a little bit slower – for example, we cooked the garlic in oil for before adding other ingredients, whereas at Siam Rice garlic was thrown in along with the meat. Siam Rice also added an entertainment/extreme factor, setting several of the fried dishes on fire, which many people may appreciate but which I did not in particular (being sandwiched between three firy woks…) Clearly, I’m not about to start oil fires in the kitchen at home, and given the results, I don’t think it’s the best way to cook food.
4. Food. The most important part!
Each class offered a variety of options for each course. At Asia Scenic, I did a morning class that included SIX courses:
- Appetizer (I made papaya salad, Som Tam)
- Soup (Chicken in coconut milk, Tom Kha)
- Noodles (Pad Thai)
- Stir Fry (Chicken with cashew nuts)
- Curry (Penang)
- Dessert (Mango w/sticky rice)
The small portions at Asia Scenic were appreciated, since after all the courses it’s still a ridiculous amount of food. I ended up so full I couldn’t think about food for the rest of the day, but at least I could finish most of the dishes.
At Siam Rice, we did an evening class with FOUR courses – but I got to try some of my sister’s choices too.
- Soup (Spicy basil – Alona made Tom Kha)
- Noodles (Wide noodles, Pad See Ew – Alona made Pad Thai)
- Curry (Red curry with eggplant – Alona made Penang)
- Stir Fry (Chicken with cashew nuts – Alona made some crazy spicy thing)
The results? The Pad Thai and chicken stir fry at Asia Scenic were some of my favorite dishes I’ve ever had in Thailand. That’s part of why I wanted to do another cooking course! Unfortunately, I didn’t find those two particularly good at Siam Rice – the chicken with cashew nuts was somewhat overcooked and less flavorful after having been set on fire. But the coconut soup at Siam Rice was better, and the spicy basil soup was delicious as well. I think the curries were all about the same, and the process of making curry paste was a lot of fun.
5. Recipe book. Both schools provide a recipe book to allow participants to take home their new skills. The Asia Scenic one was cute, being bound with a cinnamon stick, but trying to use it over the past couple of years, I find the recipes a little lacking in description. I’ve managed to make some basic stuff, but some of the instructions are confusing and the ingredients (“mouse-ear mushrooms”) aren’t adapted to what’s available at home. At first glance, the Siam Rice cookbook is a little bit better, with ingredients like oyster mushrooms and instructions to put all curry ingredients in a blender rather than grinding them up by hand the way we did in the course.
In the end, I would recommend either of these courses but would be more likely to go back to Asia Scenic myself — there’s a smaller chance of my hair catching on fire there!