“Cook with your emooooootion,” instructs Indy, our young Thai cooking teacher, elongating each vowel as she tosses ingredients into the hot oil in one fluid motion.
We stand in front of our own sizzling woks at Asia Scenic Cooking School’s open concept kitchen, trying to keep up. Hammocks are strung around the corners of the room, and the air is so still it betrays the steady hum of a ceiling fan. Indy’s long black hair is knotted on the top of her head in a large bun that bobbles from side to side as she flits around the kitchen. Never missing a beat, she drops one-liners as fast as she chops ginger and lemongrass. “Too much emotion,” she teases, after I dropped twice the recommended amount of fish sauce into my wok.
Too much emotion. Finally, I think, the key to unlocking my culinary incompetence. While my heart is in the right place, my mind is usually anywhere but in the kitchen. I consider not setting off the fire alarm while cooking dinner a success, and consequently most of my meals are served with a side of charcoal. Our days up until this point had been spent searching the corners Chaing Mai for the best Kao Soi in-between visits to Buddhist temples, each more serene and ornate than the next. As I began to fall in love with the city one roadside meal at a time, I couldn’t imagine leaving Northern Thailand without the ability to recreate the magic of a perfectly seasoned one-dollar bowl of noodle soup. I needed to learn how to cook.
And so, one humid afternoon at the Asia Scenic Cooking school, a 20-minute drive outside of the city centre on a quiet plot of farmland, Indy expertly led a group of eight hungry travellers on a six-course culinary journey. Hot basil stir-fry, tom yum soup, green chicken curry, crispy spring rolls, a surprisingly spicy papaya salad and sweet mango sticky rice – my confidence growing with each dish I failed to destroy. I left the tiny organic farm and cooking school that day with a full stomach, new friends, and visions of eating delicious homemade Thai meals for the rest of my life.
Back in Toronto weeks later, overcome by an insatiable nostalgia for the spicy meals and warm smiles of Thailand, I found myself weaving my way through the shops of Chinatown. I collected my ingredients from shelves fully stocked with hard-to-find glass noodle and palm sugar. I starred longingly at baskets of sweet mangostein and rambutan, their price reflecting the distance they had travelled to arrive on Spadina Road. There was a notable absence of horns, hoarks and hollers from waiting tuk tuk drivers, but nonetheless I discovered a new appreciation for this microcosm of Asia pulsating in my own backyard.
Home in my basement apartment, I creased the travel-worn pages of my souvenir cookbook, ready to re-create the magic of Chiang Mai. I readied the wok and lay my newly acquired ingredients out on the counter, channeling my inner Indy.
Ten minutes later, I set the stove on fire. Flames engulf the element, feeding on the oil being used to deep-fry my homemade spring rolls. The fire alarm begins to scream, and I lunge for a frying pan and use it to smother the flames. My landlord calls through the paper thin wall, and I sheepishly reassure him that, no, I am not currently in the process of burning down his house. Too scared to continue deep-frying my spring rolls, I settled on eating the insides like some sort of weird chicken-noodle salad.
My affection for Chiang Mai runs deep, maybe too deep, and I should clearly not be trusted to cook with this much emotion.
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