You are certainly spoilt for choice when it comes to cooking classes in Chiang Mai. Whilst comparing various cooking schools I discovered that most offered exactly the same 6 or so dishes. Then I stumbled upon Thai Akha Kitchen. What makes the ThaiAkha Kitchen different is that Niti, the owner, is from a nearby Hill Tribe and includes some traditional Hill Tribe dishes amongst the Thai ones in her classes. When I read that she grows her own coffee which you could sample during the class I was sold.
Niti picked us up from the meeting point and lead us to a market which fortunately was under cover as a torrential downpour was underway. As we made our way through the narrow passageways she pointed out that the live fish in the market were enjoying the rain as you could see them moving around through the bags they were in!
We visited several stalls and Niti explained what ingredients she was buying for the class. The market was an incredible feast for the senses with many unfamiliar sights and smells for us tourists. As Niti said when we were in the meat section ‘Welcome to the smell of Thailand!’.
First we were treated to a cup of her homegrown coffee – sublimely mellow and unlike any coffee I’ve ever had, I totally appreciate why when she returned to Chiang Mai she decided to grow her own.
Niti introduced herself and gave us a brief background to the Akha Hill Tribe and explained what we would be making in our class. Having spent time in the US she speaks fluent English which was a relief as at 2 weeks into my visit I knew about 5 Thai words.
As well as being passionate about food and wanting to share her culinary knowledge she also has an amazing life story to tell which she should probably write a book about.
The format of the class was that Niti demonstrated a technique or dish, then it was our turn to cook, after which we then we sampled our creations before moving on to the next dish. The outdoor kitchen is very organised with each guest having their own gas ring and all the ingredients clearly labelled in individual racks on the table plus pots and pans hanging above. Niti prepares the meat/fish needed in advance and gives the appropriate amount to you at exactly the moment needed depending on which dish you have chosen to make. This means you can focus on enjoying the actual cooking knowing that you will get all the recipes at the end of the class. Niti or one of her friendly staff were always on hand to guide or answer any questions. Niti limits the class to 10 people so she is able to give lots of individual attention. Working together as a small group (six of us in our case) made the day very sociable too.
Niti explained that the Thai way of eating was grazing- having several mini meals a day rather than 3 set meal times as is common in the west. She taught us how to balance the key flavours of sweet, salty and sour in the dishes whilst explaining that it is still up to you to decide how you like it. This meant that although some people were making the same dish the results were ‘same,same but different’ as Niti put it. One of our party had a very sweet tooth and so the concept of Pad Thai as a dessert was born.
We worked our way through delicate clear and spicy soups, creamy coconut stewed pumpkin, the holy trinity of Thai currys: green, red and yellow, the famous Pad Thai and then Niti introduced us to some Hill Tribe classics.
Niti talked about the foraging traditions of the tribespeople and how much of the food is eaten raw and simply seasoned with ground nuts used to add protein. We learnt how to make make a typical Akha salad and Sapi Thong which is a tomato based dipping sauce for fresh vegetables like baby aubergine and bamboo shoots, both dishes tasted fresh and delicious.
We finished our day round a big table in Niti’s dining room enjoying the main dishes and dessert that we had prepared. At the end of the meal we each got a recipe booklet plus a small culinary gift.
I was surprised to learn that this was only the 3rd week that Niti has been running her cooking classes, due to the professional set up and very clear instructions I thought she must have been doing it for years. Even if you only have a short time in Chiang Mai make sure that you attend one of her classes! It has been the highlight of my stay.
By Elizabeth Avery