My Quest For Enlightenment; First Stop: Baan Thai Cookery School
Monday, August 2, 2010
By Maria Russo
Is it possible to find enlightenment in a bowl of soup? Who knows, but it’s certainly worth a try, don’t you think?
During a two-week journey to Thailand, I set out on a quest to prepare my soul for the preliminary stages of enlightenment. I wished to be free from the vicious cycle of human desire and rid my thoughts of impurities to ultimately find a meditative state of peace. It was a gargantuan task, but I was ready to ward off any temptation that came my way.
Before embarking on my trip, I researched several cultural experiences, hoping to find one that would open my eyes to a simpler, more sustainable lifestyle; leading the way to Sot?panna (the first stage of enlightenment). I came across suggestions like an elephant-back trek through the mountains of Chiang Mai where tourists can visit with local hill tribes, or sharing a meal with monks at one of the many wats (temples) in Bangkok. I even considered a spiritual climb up 1,237 steps to the peak of Wat Tham Sua (Tiger Cave Temple) to meditate before “the footprint of Buddha.”
All the suggestions sounded promising, but nothing caught my eye like the glossy page I stumbled upon in the guide, National Geographic Traveler: Thailand:
Thai cuisine is famous the world over for a reason: Its delectable balance of flavors, the freshest of ingredients, and its exquisite presentation combine to create unforgettable feasts. You can literally eat your way through Thailand, but why not pick up some practical skills, so you can re-create the experience back home? Thailand offers a plentitude of cooking schools, for both novice and professional chef.
And just like that my prayers had been answered. O.K., so I realized that a Thai cooking class would not exactly subdue my hedonistic desire for good food in a country where pungent spices and fresh mango with sticky rice ruled, but I could not say no to my addiction to gastronomy in such an enticing place. I decided I would pursue enlightenment precisely after I had completed my cooking class.
I enrolled in the evening class at Baan Thai Cookery School in Chiang Mai — my hotel suggested attending at a time when the sun’s daggers would be retreating from the stifling streets of the city. I realized it was a very useful suggestion after my husband and I had to wedge our way in between six other students stuffed in the back of an oversized tuk-tuk as temperatures soared to a sultry 95 degrees.
When we arrived at the school, I peeled my black cotton dress from my sweat-soaked body, removed my sandals, and took a seat on a large, paisley- print pillow at the far end of the table. The decor resembled that of my grandmother’s house: odd knickknacks spread throughout, brightly colored rugs, and religious figures and paintings hooked onto walls and makeshift shelving. It was unbearably hot, but I reminded myself that it still might be possible to find the path to enlightenment if I could just erase all negative thoughts and profanities spewing through my mind, and focus solely on the beautiful food I was about to create. Just as I began to clear my head, a flamboyant Thai man strutted into the room and introduced himself as our teacher. “To the market!” he declared, clapping his hands, and off we went into the blazing, crowded streets.
We followed our teacher like blind kittens huddling around their mother as he picked vegetables, fruits, sauces, and fermented crustaceans from open baskets, all while providing us with a brief synopsis of the name, herbal use, and type of dish prepared from each. After our lesson, we were given ten minutes to peruse the market to get a closer look at the different products being sold. Despite the heat I loved being in the midst of such a lively production. The smells and colors of abundant produce and glistening faces of the vendors were enlivening in the most simplistic way. I ran my fingers over the bumpy skin of a “Jack” fruit and scanned the perfectly lined rows of rice baskets. Stands of silvery, pink fish displayed on banana leaves stood next to tables of vegetable oil and fish sauce, fresh eggs, and bags of noodles. It was a smorgasbord of essential ingredients in Thai cuisine.
Ten minutes had passed and the group began walking back to Baan Thai. I returned to my pillow where a bowl of fresh fruit and seasoned nuts were waiting. Conversation broke out after a few bites of the refreshing snack, and I learned that each person at the table came from a different part of the world. Eager to inquire about one another’s interest and excursions in Thailand, we immediately found commonalities to discuss throughout the evening. After reviewing the four dishes we had selected to prepare, the instructor asked us to split up according to the meal we chose and report to different kitchens for preparation. This was a nice touch because it provided another opportunity to meet new people who were taking the same class in other areas of the school.
In the center of the kitchen, a long table was set with small wooden cutting boards, chopping knives, worn dish towels, and bowls of vegetables. Along the wall ran a row of gas burners topped with aluminum woks. Shelves hovering above the woks held powdered spices, cooking oil, sugar, and fish sauce. Our instructor reviewed each ingredient needed to prepare the first dish of the evening: Stir-Fried Prawn with Curry Powder. He modeled the procedures and we followed his lead, chopping, peeling, sauteing, and plating. It was a painless process minus the blistering heat of six woks being revved up simultaneously in a small, non-air-conditioned room. Once finished we returned to our original dining area to enjoy the meal.
The stir-fry was outstanding, each flavor popping off my tongue playfully tantalizing my taste buds. The fresh ingredients undoubtedly made up for my poor chopping skills and unsightly performance on the wok. This was certainly not the road to enlightenment, but I rationed that the extreme temperature and cooking under slightly primitive circumstances dampened the overall gluttonous experience. I was thoroughly enjoying the food, company, and overall home-like atmosphere.
The rest of the evening played out in the same way: report to kitchen, “meet & greet,” chop, sauté, sweat profusely, plate, return to dining area, eat, chat, then repeat. A total of four dishes were prepared, the other three being: Chicken in Coconut Milk Soup, Spring Rolls, and Chiang Mai Noodles in red curry paste (after creating the curry using a mortar and pestle). Each meal was surprisingly delicious, and I felt confident that — with the help of my trusty “Baan Thai Cookery School Cookbook” that each of us students received — I could easily recreate the meals at home.
The night ended with an exchange of personal contact information, sweaty handshakes, and rumbling bellies as we wobbled off the rickety truck to our hotels. I rolled onto my bed like a doughnut on a sheet of flour, and was immediately overcome with peace. I could not tell if it was the enormous amount of food I had stuffed into my body, or the inspiring submersion of an authentic cultural experience, but I was certainly in a euphoric state, unable to think or move.
By Maria Russo
About the Author
Maria Russo is a freelance writer who loves natural wonders, good eats, ethical travel, and boutique hotels. Her work has appeared on the Huffington Post, USA Today.com, People.com and A Luxury Travel Blog, among others.
When Maria is not writing for her all-time favorite site (that would be The Expeditioner), she spends her time blogging about foreign jaunts and delectable food experiences for her site: Memoirs of a Travel & Food Addict. She is also up to no good on Twitter (@traveladdictgrl, @expedmaria).