Lisu Elephant Camp in Chaing Mai, Thailand
The Morning Market and Farm Cooking School Chaing Mai, Thailand
Thailand is beautiful. It's sights and sounds and fragrances are unforgetable and while you occasionally stumble on tourist sctick, you'll probably love every minute of it. The hill tribes - insular ethnic minorities - put on quite a show for visitors; they have tourist villages as well as those they actually live in. They have wonderful costumes, but when you're not looking they dress much as other Thai. Not everything is for show, however. These tribes have been slow to adapt to the modern world and their health and education has suffered. Elephant camps help them care for the members of their tribal families and they really do take good care of their animals. One of the tribes, the Lisu, operated the elephant camp that so delighted the group I traveled with. When you see the pictures I think you'll see why this is one of my favorite memories of Thailand.
Another favorite memory is that of Thai cooking schools. Cooking schools in Southeast Asia tend to follow a pattern. The day begins just after first light with a stop at the local market to purchase ingredients needed for the day's lesson. Then it's on to classes which start early in order to avoid the intense midday heat. In Chiang Mai the school was in the country and part of a beautiful organic farm. Our instructor was a young Thai chef who brooked no departure from her agenda. She was about 4' 8" tall and if she weighed 85 pounds I'd be surprised. I don't quite know how she did it, but I'm here to tell you she struck fear in the hearts of some members of our group. Most of the men were there because their wives told them they had to be. The guys were known to horse around if cooking or weaving was involved. The highlight of my day was watching her watch them with an unblinking stare that prevented infractions before they could occur. She was there to teach, we were there to learn and learning did not include small talk, laughter or lack of respect for the food. I'll bear witness to the fact that her class was run with military efficiency - all dishes were prepared as directed and lunch was ready at noon. The other class didn't do so well. I heard lots of laughter over there and they were an hour late for lunch. That gave us lots of time to explore the old plantation and talk with the folks who helped with the gardens and kitchen prep work. I had a great time, but when I evaluated the day I became aware of a problem I would encounter throughout our trip - overcooked, dry meat. Today's recipe is based on the Tom Kah Gai recipe from the Farm School. I've reworked it in order to avoid dry chicken. This is a really simple recipe. Most of the ingredients can be found in supermarkets. The two items that might pose a problem are galangal and kiffir lime leaves. If a recipe calls for 3 kiffir lime leaves, substitute the peeled zest of 1 lime. If you are unable to find galangal - also called blue ginger - substitute an equal quantity of fresh ginger. The fresh ginger lacks the musky overtones of galangal, but it's a great substitute.
Tom Kah Gai
2 (14.5-oz.) cans coconut milk
2 (14.5-oz.) cans reduced-sodium chicken broth
6 kaffir lime leaves
3 fresh stalks lemon grass (white part only), bruised
2 teaspoons green curry paste
12 thin slices galangal
3 tablespoons Thai fish sauce
2 cups sliced white mushrooms
1 pound chicken breast or thighs, cut in 3/4-inch cubes
1/4 cup fresh lime juice
Garnish: fresh cilantro, green onion tops
1) Combine coconut milk, chicken broth, kaffir lime leaves, lemon grass, green curry paste and galangal in a large (3-quart) saucepan. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat. Add fish sauce. Simmer for 45 minutes.
2) Remove kaffir lime leaves, galangal and lemon grass. Add chicken and mushrooms. Simmer until chicken is cooked, about 7 minutes. Stir in lime juice. Ladle into bowls. Garnish with cilantro and green onion tops. Yield: 6 servings.