Friday, January 16, 2009

The end of an era

For how lovely Phuket and Khao Sok were--and yes, I will begrudgingly admit that even Bangkok had some highlights--it was Chiang Mai that stole my heart.

How could it not when the first people I met were extremely generous and extremely drunk English people who offered us the use of their shower until a room opened up at the hostel?

Maybe they should give Chiang Mai a new city slogan: The City of Hospitality or maybe The Hospitable City. Hmmm...not doing very well with the original name thing. Oh well, if need be, I can attest that every person I met was incredibly gracious and cordial. Aside from the English people, the owner and staff of the hostel we stayed at asked us to join them for drinks and music one evening. And by music, I mean Thai pop songs performed on a classical guitar. It was more than a little hilarious.

Katie had been jealous of my Sapa trekking ever since she'd read my post. Doing some serious research before meeting me out in Thailand, she decided (and I concurred) that Chiang Mai was going to be our best bet in the short time we had in Thailand.

Happily, our hostel's trekking service had a Lonely Planet stamp of approval, so we decided to go with their one-day option that combined hiking, elephant riding and bamboo rafting.

Now, before you ask me if I'm not nearing the saturation point of elephant riding, I beg you to keep in mind that I love riding elephants, and, to go back to my seemingly ever-repeated mantra: One never has enough opportunities to ride elephants (or swim in waterfalls or what have you). Besides, it was part of the package.

The trekking was not the best I've had, since it consisted of an hour and a half on a trail next to a concrete-lined stream, nor were the elephants treated nearly as well as they had been in my previous experiences. Harumph.

On the positive side, the bamboo rafting was a blast.

Remember the bamboo train I told you all about a few posts ago? The one that was essentially bamboo poles lashed together? Well, just transfer those to the water, and you've got the raft that a guide, three other girls and I used to float down a river with rapids. Safety first, I always say.

The highlight of Chiang Mai may not have been our trekking adventure, but I did love the city itself, and had a lovely time at the cooking class we took on Thanksgiving. What better way to celebrate the American tradition of sharing and eating lots of food than to take a cooking course?

Katie and I chose to make reservations at The Chiang Mai Thai Farm Cooking School, after asking advice from this amazing lady.

We were picked up from our hostel, then taken straight over to a market for a Q&A about Thai food products, plus plenty of time to wander and explore. I doubt that I will ever tire of these now ubiquitous but entirely necessary market tours.

Once our marketing was finished, we piled back into the tuk-tuk to head out to the school's organic farm, where we were led on a tour, catching glimpses of about a hundred different kinds of basil, as well as eggplant, banana flower and mint.

We then prepared about five different courses, with Katie and I choosing different dishes from each course to maximize our Thai cooking knowledge with one glaring exception: there was absolutely no way that either of us was missing out on the beauty that is mango with sticky rice.


Other highlights included hand-pounded green curry paste and resulting green curry with chicken, papaya salad and pad thai.

The day after the Thai cooking class, I caught a plane to Jakarta to spend my last few days with my sister before heading back to the States. I managed to have an absolute blast drinking Amaretto cocktails at an amazing jazz club, as well as a disgusting display of over-indulgence in Western delicacies like wine, Steak Diane (with wagyu beef and pumpkin seed brioche, best still my heart!) and cheese at the Ritz's $30 Sunday brunch. My stomach was not nearly as pleased as my tastebuds: it took my stomach about a month to be able to digest dairy and cheese again after my accidental 3 month hiatus.

Katie finally made it home, though the Bangkok protests and subsequent airport closure made it much more of an adventure than she'd ever bargained for.

I'm still not sure if her parents will ever let her vacation with me again.

As for me, I made it back to the States, bleary-eyed and exhausted, but stepping out into the blustery Chicago weather and catching my first glimpse of snow in years put a spring right back into my step as I caught the El over to meet Jimmy.

The dishes I mentioned in the cooking class are incidentally all of the things (plus red curry and fresh spring rolls) that Katie and I decided to recreate once we got home and had a celebratory Thai dinner party in Houston over the holidays.

And yes, it was a big hit.

I'll have to share the pad thai and sticky rice techniques with you all at some point, as well as the green curry recipe, but I thought I'd start you off with a green papaya salad recipe.

Delicious and fresh tasting, it's also surprisingly filling. It may not be exactly what many of us are craving at the moment (it was 8 degrees below 0 yesterday!), but it could make a great counterpoint to a warming Thai-spiced soup.

Oh, and one more note: if you can't find green papaya, cucumber, cabbage, carrot or granny smith apple would be great substitutes.

Green Papaya Salad or Somtam
Adapted from the Chiang Mai Thai Farm Cooking School

2 cups of shredded (peeled and seeded) green papaya -- this is easy to do on a box grater, or you could try it out in a food processor and let me know how it goes
2 Thai hot red chillis, thinly sliced
3 peeled cloves of garlic
1 Tbs. lemon juice
2 tsp. sugar
1-2 long beans, cut into 1/2 inch pieces (if you can't find them, just leave them out)
1 tomato, sliced into 4-6 pieces (can be left out if not in season)
2 Tbs. crushed peanuts
1 Tbs. fish sauce
1/4 tsp. salt

Mash chillies, garlic and long bean pieces in a mortar and pestle until crushed into small pieces.
Add lemon juice, sugar, tomato and salt, then lightly crush until incorporated.
Toss dressing with shredded green papaya.
Serve topped with crushed peanuts.

Serves 1-2, depending on accompaniments.

Note: If you don't have access to a mortar and pestle, just finely chop the garlic and chillies, then whisk in the lemon juice, sugar and salt as if you're making a normal viniagrette. Toss with the veggies and enjoy!

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