With spoon and fork in hand, we experience the edible kaleidoscope of fruits and spices that paint the culinary landscape in the land of smiles.
Food is everywhere. Carts reflecting the country’s many ethnic groups line city streets presenting yummy street-style cuisine. Markets of indigenous ingredients, foods and exotic flowers fill up every open square, float on rivers, and even unfurl along train tracks.
Pristine food courts in the malls of Bangkok offer a fresh selection that leaves little room for uninspired fast food. Harmony and balance permeate the five taste senses in each dish: spice, sour, sweet, salty and bitter. Of the thousand recipes passed through generations that make up Thai cuisine, the emphasis is on lightly prepared dishes with a diversity of fresh ingredients, balanced spice, aromatics and visual stimulation. While tasting the local cuisine is a key ingredient to experiencing any culture, in Thailand, culinary tourism includes cooking as much as it does eating.
A long tail boat motors us through canals to the Amita Thai Cooking Class, a fourth generation home by the water. Our teacher, born in this house, shares with us her traditional family style recipes. Together we walk through her garden as she acquaints us with the taste and medicinal value of each herb and plant: cloves for toothache; chives for antiseptic; galangal for digestion; turmeric to protect from cancers—this is Mother Nature’s pharmacy.
During our riverside class we observe and then, at our own cooking stations, prepare Pad Thai, Stir Fry Chicken with blue rice and Tom Kha Gai soup. Using freshly picked ingredients, we determine our own degree of spice. Tasting and comparing our dishes in this quiet suburb of Bangkok, I’m thinking that I’m a pretty good Thai cook.
What do Vladimir Putin, Rod Stewart and I have in common? We have all visited the Blue Elephant cooking school and restaurant to experience authentic recipes with modern flare. We begin in a classroom as our instructor chops and pulverizes ingredients, before we move to a professional kitchen to pound green curry and cook tiny pop-in-your-mouth eggplants. With renowned Chef Nooror Somany Steppe watching over us, we’re feeling pretty confident in our creations—until we dine in the restaurant and taste all the subtle nuances and rich textures that make us wish we could just keep eating and never have to say, “enough.”
One night in Bangkok begins at the Siam Kempinski Hotel Bangkok with Chef Henrik Yde-Andersen’s fearless imagination. Lobster salad with sweet red curry ice cream and lychee foam is presented on top of a bowl underneath which our waitress pours liquid nitrogen. Magically, the whole table is engulfed in ripples of fog. High above the city lights we sip cocktails at the dizzying open-air rooftop Sky bar on the 63rd floor of the Lebua State Tower. My martini with ginger, chili and pink grapefruit sets my mouth ablaze.
A quick flight to the north and we arrive at the luxurious Four Seasons Resort Chiang Mai where we are welcomed into a tropical paradise with jasmine necklaces and a refreshing burst of blended watermelon, orange and pineapple juice.
At its cooking school, nestled in the jungle, we make incense offerings to the Gods and then watch our culinary master at work. Following his demonstration, we pound spices and chop herbs into a luscious bowl of Chiang Mai curry with a cluster of flash fried noodles. Proud of our rich velvety curry that we cannot stop eating, we are rewarded with a multi-course Thai tasting meal under the stars.
Across Thailand, the young generation wants wine, and so a wine industry is emerging on the colder hilltops. There is also much talk these days of The Royal Project. Farmers in the Northern areas that once primarily produced opium are now producing vegetables, fruits, macadamia nuts, honey, tea and wonderfully rich organic coffee.
In Chiang Mai, we watch the sun rise and the jungle come alive—a medley of birds, hanging fruits that defy gravity and a profusion of fragrant flowers. Some opt for breakfast in the rice fields. I choose the meditative activity of planting rice. My culinary experience has come full circle, and provided me a sense of achievement.
Adam Waxman is an award winning travel journalist focusing on food, wine and well being. As well as an actor in film, television and formerly, the Stratford Festival, he is the Associate Publisher and Executive Editor of DINE and Destinations magazine.