THE freshness, subtlety, and exoticism of Thai food lead people to think that the country responsible for such food must be beautiful, and of course they're right. When the opportunity to visit Thailand presented itself last year, I pursued my favorite way to understand a country's culture -- through its cuisine. My idea was to take and compare several cooking courses; because Thais are well aware that food is a draw for tourists, I was able to choose from a number of courses taught in English. (In recent months the unstable Thai currency has led to political and economic instability, and so tourists are well advised to keep an eye on international news when planning a trip.) The places I visited to take courses are on the itineraries of many first-time visitors: Bangkok; Phuket, the resort island in the south; and Chiang Mai, an inviting and human-scaled city in the north.
Class-going gave my days structure, and because most classes ended with lunch, leaving the rest of the day free, I could do all the sightseeing I wanted. When I got back to the United States, I was able to relive the trip far more evocatively than I ever could by looking at snapshots -- by making my hands lemony with lemongrass pounded to release its fresh juices, staining them orange with fresh turmeric, and smelling the essential oils of kaffir lime leaves, a flavoring ubiquitous in Thai cooking. Getting the scent of a country's food on your hands helps you get its spirit in your mind.
MOST visitors pass through Bangkok, the wise ones as quickly as possible. I took to traveling by water only, the best way to avoid the notorious traffic. Taking a motor-powered "long-tail" boat or a steamboat shuttle down the Chao Phraya, the wide river that curves through the city, is still enchanting, offering views of gilded, brightly painted temples and the few low white-stucco buildings that have escaped demolition in the city's ceaseless construction (the buildings would be described as colonial-era had Thailand ever been a colony). Fifty miles down the river is Ayuthaya, the royal capital that Bangkok replaced; its extraordinary pylon-like temples, now magnificent ruins on neatly tended lawns, were the models for Bangkok's better-known but relatively mechanical-looking temples. Ayuthaya is as memorable as it is obligatory to visit, and as tranquil as Bangkok is frenetic.
My most pleasurable Bangkok excursion was heading up the river a much shorter distance to a cooking class at the Thai House, a small hotel built in the form of a traditional raised wooden Thai home, with temple-like pitched roofs. Gliding through the klongs, or canals, provides a tour of the city's back streets, where the pace is relaxed. People stroll in and out of the markets and ornate temples that face the canals; children paddle in the water and women wash their hair in it. By the time you arrive on the porch of the intimate hotel, having traversed progressively narrower canals, you feel much farther from the city center than the fourteen miles and forty-five minutes of travel would imply.
Pip and Paiboone Fragrajang, the couple who built and run the hotel, want to immerse guests in typical Thai village life. Even if the immersion is actually into the upper middle class in a suburb of a surprisingly modern city (Bangkok was founded only in 1782), it still seems like a journey into the past. I didn't stay at the hotel, with its traditional grouping of bedrooms around a second-floor courtyard, but I longed to try the teak-lined repose offered by the low beds, away from modern conveniences: there are fans but no air-conditioners in the surprisingly fresh rooms; bathrooms are shared.
Classes here are relaxed, familial, and fun. Students sit around a wooden trestle table and listen to Pip explain in her imperfect but confident English the ingredients for the few simple dishes that everyone will spend the day preparing together. Some mornings begin with a trip to the local market in the village. Demonstrations are outdoors, near the garden and a small orchard where students can pick herbs, mangoes, and bananas. The full course lasts four days, but you may attend a day at a time. If you call a day ahead (the number is 011-662-280-0740), someone will fetch you early in the morning at your downtown hotel, take you by van and boat to class, and bring you back in the late afternoon. The daily charge is about $80, including transportation, and the four-day program, including room and board, costs about $500.
Pip wants students to enjoy themselves and to take initiative, and they do. A fundamental of Thai cooking is pounding chile paste with a mortar and pestle; the ingredients of the paste change by region and dish, but the repetitive motion and releasing of fragrance produces what Patience Gray calls, in her 1986 book "an alteration in one's being -- from sighing with fatigue to inhaling with pleasure." After we had each taken a turn pounding a green-chile paste for kaeng kheo waan neua, or green beef curry -- which included the always refreshing lemongrass, gingerlike galanga, sweet fresh coconut milk, and several pungent fresh chiles -- I happened on an old woman sitting on the concrete path beside the kitchen, making the same paste for everyone's lunch. As she cradled the family-size mortar in one arm and pounded and stirred with the other, she looked deeply content.
IN the city itself the oases are the luxury hotels, including the Regent, the Sukhothai, and the Shangri-La, and -- perhaps the most tranquilizing oasis of all -- the Oriental Spa, which includes a professional-caliber cooking school, just across the Chao Phraya from the legendary Oriental Hotel. Private ferries shuttle between the hotel, which has a stolid British modernity, and the spa's charming turn-of-the-century buildings, which once housed a paper factory. The school has an international reputation because of the curriculum established by its founder, Chalie Amatyakul.
With its chalkboards, fans whirring beneath pitched wooden ceilings, and little notebooks set out for the students on rows of wooden desks, the classroom seems like a set for The King and I. Each day's general subjects are fixed, but don't worry if the subjects for a morning you can spare do not include your favorite part of a meal: as in any well-planned class, the conversation and information dispensed are wide-ranging. Classes meet Monday through Thursday, starting promptly at 9:00 A.M. and ending with lunch at about 1:00. Anyone may register on a day's notice, provided that the limit of fifteen students has not been reached; the cost is about $100 per class. (I had little trouble getting a place in classes, but you can register before your trip: the hotel's number is 011-662-236-0400, and the school's secretary faxes confirmations.) The dishes here are citified and complex, and students don't cook much. The white, servant-filled classrooms discourage getting one's hands dirty -- which is just as well, considering the silk shirts and gold bracelets and polished long fingernails of many of the students. The woks, brassed copper, are of the best quality, as are the ingredients.
So, I should say, is the information -- which is why anyone with a serious interest in understanding Thai cuisine should attend at least one class here. No program offers more nuances of ingredients and technique, or a deeper look at regional variations in recipes and into the Thai style and philosophy of eating. A fellow student of mine had left his restaurant in Sydney, Australia, for a week to come and learn -- quite a tribute from a chef. Also, the school's location in the spa offers the luxurious possibility of getting (at an additional charge) an expert Thai massage or a beauty treatment after a disciplined morning. This may not be quite the same as plunging into a pool or an ocean, but it's utterly relaxing.
COOKING students at The Boathouse, on Phuket, can plunge into the ocean, just outside the dining room, after a morning's work. The island became famous as a rest spot for several sorts of tourists; the beaches are still beautiful, and the red-light district still thrives, though now it is limited mostly to the small urban area of Patong and recreation is generally wholesome, at the vast and sumptuous Club Med and other resorts. This is where anyone who wants to relax on a beach while visiting Thailand (or, for that matter, Singapore, which is close by) heads.
Many Phuket regulars stay at The Boathouse, a small hotel right on one of the island's best beaches, at Kata (the telephone number is 011-66-76-330-557, but you may find it easier to communicate with the hotel through its Internet site, at http://www.theboathousephuket.com). The hotel began life as a restaurant and local guesthouse built by M. L. Tri Devakul, an architect and aristocrat who still owns (and tinkers with) it. In their trim detail the rooms resemble commodious staterooms, and they and the small pool are up to resort standards. But it is the setting and the personal style of management that draw repeat guests. And the food: the restaurant is the island's best, and the wine cellar might be the best in Thailand, where high import taxes discourage the collecting of fine wines.
Every weekend the chef, Tummanoon Punchan, gives two morning cooking classes in the dining room, whose several walls of glass doors open onto the pool and the beach. The classes, which end with lunch, are included in hotel package rates but are open to anyone, at a charge of about $50 for both days.
Punchan keeps things moving without ever seeming hurried. Ten minutes into the first lesson he had every student kneading meatballs by hand. The ground-meat mixture contained all the herbs that he had begun the class by showing both whole and cut up, including lemongrass, garlic, shallots, ginger, and galanga; kaffir lime leaf, which he showed us how to devein, roll into a tight cylinder, and slice into chiffonade to be used as a flavoring and garnish; cilantro; basil both common and "holy," which has a stronger, spicier flavor; and fresh turmeric, which looks like a cross between ginger and carrot and has a pungent but refreshing flavor (and stains everything it touches). The powerful fragrances stayed on our fingers for the rest of the class.
Punchan concentrated on the stronger-flavored foods typical of his home village in southern Thailand, and explained how recipes that might at first glance seem Chinese in fact differed; for example, Thai dishes contain brown palm sugar, and no sesame oil or cornstarch. The recipes were streamlined and easy to reproduce at home -- especially a Singaporean variation of pad thai, which in America has become the Thai chow mein for its irresistible comfort-food combination of noodles, eggs, peanuts, and sugar, along with plenty of salt and hot chile. Other Thai cooks complicate this dish, but Punchan's version was so easy and so good that students kept finding excuses to stir-fry another batch.
CHIANG Mai, in the northern region bordering Burma and Laos, is among the secondary cities in Asia that are far more manageable and pleasant than their countries' largest cities, as James Fallows has pointed out in these pages, and I wished I could spend much longer than the three days I had allotted it. I would go back just to stay at the Regent, my idea of a dream luxury resort, a twenty-mile ride from town on roads as wide and uncrowded as Bangkok's are narrow and impassable. The Regent was built around a working rice paddy, created from fields to be the center of the lushly landscaped hotel, which comprises many small buildings. It takes a day to get used to the idea that the loosely clad workers tilling the fields or shepherding the hotel's family of water buffaloes are there just for atmosphere. (The small crop of rice is harvested and given to the community rather than being cooked by the hotel's chef.) Yet daily encounters with the workers make you feel that you're somehow participating in the true life of the region.
Midway between the relatively tranquil city center and the Regent is the Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School, in the modern ranch house of Somphon and Elizabeth Nabnian, a couple who met when Elizabeth was teaching English in Chiang Mai. Students gather at the school's storefront office, on a central street near the city gates (one of the couple's small children is likely to be playing on the floor), and make the fifteen-minute trip in an open-sided station wagon to the pleasant middle-class suburb of Doi Saket. A full course lasts three days, but single classes are available (the cost is about $60 for three days and $20 for one; the number is 011-66-53-206-388, and an Internet site that features full lesson plans is at http://www.infothai.com/wtcmcr/s/cmcook.htm ). Perhaps because of a listing in the Lonely Planet guide, the class I attended was full of quirky, friendly Americans, most of whom were carrying backpacks.
Classes begin with students seated, shoes off, on patterned woven mats that cover the floor (there are cushioned backrests) in a circle around Somphon, who explains in his scholarly English the ingredients of all Thai cooking and especially those of his native city, Chiang Rai. Hearing his stories of growing up mixing fish sauce into nearly every dish finally began to reconcile me to the salty, dark, slightly putrid yet also sweet sauce, one whiff of which sends you straight to Thailand. Somphon has lived and cooked in England, and he keeps the emphasis on the practical: how to buy the best fish sauce (look at the price, not the label); how to tell if shrimp are diseased (the tails look nibbled on); how long to soak mung-bean noodles; how to soften fresh, molasseslike palm sugar if you're lucky enough to find it where you live; how to wrap and smash a coconut and grate the flesh in a food processor to make coconut milk. The classes move into the small demonstration kitchen, where Somphon cooks with minimal student participation. They continue with lunch, and end with a walk in the garden to see how lemongrass, holy basil, and other herbs grow.
Like the city, the school is modest, straightforward, and up-to-date. In Chiang Mai I felt most thoroughly in another culture, as I visited the handicrafts shops that were part of a royal project to support mountain villages; as I shopped for silk and ceramics, for whose production the region is famous; and as I bicycled to the local orchid and butterfly farms. Now, at home smelling jasmine rice cook, I think of the water buffaloes and the crickets and cicadas keeping the paddies alive through the night.
Corby Kummer is a senior editor of The Atlantic and the author of (1995).
The Atlantic Monthly; November 1997; A Taste of Asia; Volume 280, No. 5; pages 62 - 66.