Monday, March 23, 2009

Tom Kah Gai, Cooking School and Elephants

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.


Anonymous said...

Your trip sounds more and more amazing everytime I hear about it. I would never have thought cooking school would be so strict!

Mary Bergfeld said...

Cathy, it's not supposed to be, but she had a lot, a whole lot, to cover. We did 7 dishes in 3 hours.

dp said...

This is one of our favorite soups and since it's not really spicy, my son can eat it. Yay!

You're right, it is very easy to make. I think the hardest part might be finding the ingredients.

I hope you'll post the other dishes you made at the school.

Selba said...

I love Thai food! I wish to visit Chiang Mai someday :)

The Blonde Duck said...

I put an RSS feed and feedburner subscription on my blog! So now you can follow along!

Donna-FFW said...

Mary I am mesmerized by your slide hows. I LOVE them. The cooking school photos are beyong what I ever could have imagined. Thank you for sharing this. It really is thoughtful of you to bring us into your travels. BTW, the soup sounds terrific, but I must go look atyour slide shows again!!

Julia said...

Mary, I recently had a strict cooking instrutor in my Vietnamese class. It's hard to strike a balance between vacation fun and learning things.

I summed up my thoughts on international cooking schools here

I'd be curious to hear your thoughts, too.

Cathy said...

What an enticing recipe. I've seen galangal in my local Asian market but have never cooked with it.

Your trip was amazing. I can only dream of such things. Great photos, Mary. Thanks for giving us a glimpse of such an exotic place.

Netts Nook said...

Oh Mary you did it again the trip just sounds like such a great time thanks for sharing the love.

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful trip!

I love the picture of the pigs heads! That's crazy!

What a great experience...I would love to do something like that someday!

Schnitzel and the Trout said...

What a wonderful trip and you are sharing it so beautifully.

Kiezie said...

Mary this looks really wonderful. I love your posts, your photos and your stories! You bring things to life so well, I can just picture being there!

Mary Bergfeld said...

I do appreciate all of your kind words. Each time I read your words I can't help but think how nice it is to have friends.

Amongst The Oaks said...

I'm loving your blog. The header photo alone sucked me right in. I'll be back.

La Bella Cooks said...

My husband would adore this recipe. Your trip sounds magical.

Sam Hoffer / My Carolina Kitchen said...

Thank you for taking us to Thailand with you. The cooking school sounds like such fun and I really love going to the markets in foreign countries. Seven dishes in three hours is a lot of work.

Mary Bergfeld said...

I hope you all have the opportunity to visit Chaing Mai. Southeast Asia is a beautiful contradiction. I'm so glad we got to go.

Elle said...

What beautiful photos! The dish sounds delicious, too. Thanks for giving information in case we can't find the kaffir lime and blue ginger.

Laura said...

My husband and I spent 3 weeks in Thailand on our honeymoon--this post was quite the walk down memory lane for me! We also did the elephant camp and cooking school near and in, respectively, Chiang Mai. Although we rode elephants down south, in the peninsula, near the jungle. We LOVED it in Thailand.

I find the SE Asian penchant for just boiling meat to be a little odd and I frequently re-work that part of recipes.

I would encourage strongly interested readers, those who cook Thai food a lot, to either mail order kaffir limes leaves (they freeze really well upon arrival) or grow their own.

In case you can't tell, btw, I just found your site and LOVE it!

Mary Bergfeld said...

Laura, I love that you love my site! I hope you'll stop by often.

The Kitchen Masochist said...

I have a pot of kaffir lime leaves growing in my backyard. I love this ingredient and am very much enamored of Thai food. Just the food alone merits a visit to the Kingdom.

Unknown said...

I love Tom Kah Gai, Mary. I worked at a restaurant where our chef was a tiny Thai woman not unlike the person you describe. Our line cooks were young kids who had worked their way up from dishwashers-all strapping teen agers. They were terrified of her, and not one of them could work as hard as she!

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