As a traveller, I found Chiang Mai a bit disappointing. Perhaps it was all the hype. All that talk of Chiang Mai being a vegan paradise/oasis (pick your metaphor). It’s not that it isn’t, but rather that coming from Berlin, I am just too accustomed to accessible vegan food at every turn. I’ve been spoilt. Thanks, Berlin.
Or maybe it was my own expectations. I envisaged Chiang Mai as a sleepy little hippie enclave and was looking forward to gearing down for a few days after the madness of Bangkok.
While in many respects Chiang Mai is certainly a notch lower than Bangkok on the insanity scale, traffic isn’t one of them.
Particularly around the ancient city moat, less so in the centre, cars and bikes thronged day and night (just as in Bangkok, rush hour lasts around 16 or so consecutive hours. Maybe more) and unlike the Thai capital with its footbridges and occasional crossing, Chiang Mai required you to step out confidently into the road and hope the traffic would either slow or swerve.
After Ayuttaya, I just found Chiang Mai a bit uninspiring. I’d walked most of it in a day and it all struck me as somewhat suburban. There were, however, some highlights.
Wherever we go, especially in Asia, we always try to find local vegan places. Not only does the idea of eating tofu burgers and pizza in a country with some of the best cuisine in the world (the flavours!) fill me with horror (it’d be like ordering beans on toast in Rome), but eating like a local is a godsend for budget travellers and gormands alike. Chiang Mai boasted more than a few Thai vegan restaurants and unlike Bangkok, they were concentrated far more locally.
The best curry I had in Chiang Mai, however, was cooked by my own fair and usually-pretty-average-in-the-kitchen hand, with a little help, of course.
May Kaidee is an internationally recognisable brand when it comes to veggie/vegan Thai cuisine (her restaurants are a strictly vegan affair, but eggs are available for some reason in the cooking classes for the Pad Thai, if you are veggie), and with restaurants and cooking schools in Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Cambodia and New York, we couldn’t resist signing up for a class.
Our instructor for the session was the lovely Nim. Despite apologising early on for her English, it really wasn’t necessary. Not only was her English up to scratch but Nim took us on a rollercoaster 2 or so hours, packed with various dishes, brimming with flavour, crammed with tips, much merriment and too much good food, that all really defied language.
We started with the basics, a chilli paste, that we proceeded to use for the remaining savory dishes. Next up Nim explained the 5 elements of most Thai dishes and we were encouraged to sniff, bite and chew the raw ingredients to get a sense of the flavours we’d soon be unleashing upon our tastebuds. We prepared a Tom Yam soup for those who liked a bit of spice and the creamier Tom Kha for those averse to it, which Nim helped us tailor individually to our own tastes.
It’s at this point that I suggest, if you take the May Kaidee cooking class (and I strongly urge you to), not to eat for at least a year prior. We’d stuffed ourselves mid-morning thinking we were safe as our class wasn’t until 3pm. After the Tom Yam soup I was full to bursting with two more courses and pudding still to come.
Despite my splitting sides, Nim guided us through a Massaman curry, helping us to fine tune the flavours at the end. I couldn’t believe this dish was something that I’d had some small part in creating. I was merely allowed to taste it, before being ordered to set it aside and return to the kitchen. There was work to be done.
Pad Thai was never my favourite dish. I’ve eaten a few that were swimming in oil and I find eating a bunch of noodles uninspiring. Or I did. Nim took us artfully through Pad Thai preparation, from ensuring the noodles were correctly soaked, to how to veganise the dish and avoid using egg, all the way to helping us get the most out of it flavour-wise.
For dessert, we made mango sticky rice. A seemingly simple dish yet one that requires patience, balance and consideration to perfect. Nim’s right hand man took over and despite a slight language barrier, joint love of food became our lingua franca, and we were soon scraping decorative fresh coconut flakes onto a pile of chopped mango, coconut sauce and blue sticky rice, before retiring to the table to tuck into all three courses.
I can’t recommend May Kaidee’s Chiang Mai cooking school highly enough. It was a packed couple of hours, Nim (& co.) were passionate, dedicated and really gave us more than just a grounding in some of the finest cuisine in the world – the results were staggering. It’s one thing to be a talented chef, as Nim evidently is, but to be able to impart that wisdom and help others create such tasty food is truly something else.
If you are ever in Chiang Mai (or their other locations), do yourself a favour, and book a class.