Cooking in Thailand

Dry ingredients for curry paste

Based on great recommendations from my friends Connie and Becky, when I arrived in Chiang Mai, I immediately signed up for cooking classes. Several places in the city now teach Thai cooking, but the Chiang Mai Thai School of Cookery was the first. I was so impressed, I can't imagine how they could be improved. Trust me, I've taken a ton of cooking classes and this place was really special.

I befriended one of the cooking school instructors and happily became his pet. After every dish I prepared, Ollie would come along and say, "Taste. What does it need?"
We'd taste the dish together and discuss the flavor. I'd either get his seal of approval (which was very rare) or he'd say, "You like that?" which translated as "I recognize your personal choice, but do you really like that?"

It was no stretch for me to look befuddled and say, "I don't know. What do you think?"

"I think it needs more lime and just a touch of tamarind juice," which he would swiftly add to my dish.

Then we'd taste again.

He'd smile and in his English with a beautiful British lilt, Ollie would finally give his endorsement, "Yes. That's bettah."

Lessons learned:

- Thai cooking is FAST and mise en place is very important. Have everything cut and portioned before you begin.

- When cooking with fish sauce, try adding it last. Why? The longer it cooks, the saltier it gets.

- Cheap fish sauce is really salty and often made with snails, not fish. For good fish sauce, the darker the color, the higher the quality...and typically, less salty.

- Green Thai chilies are younger...and spicier. (Like people, young chillies have more fire!)

- Traditional Thai cooking uses 3 different kinds of basil:

Holy Basil or Purple Basil has a purple stem and leaves. It has a hot flavor and is used for stir fries. It's added at the last minute.

Lemon Basil has a light green stem and leaves. It has a lemony flavor and is used in soups, salads, and curries--especially those containing seafood. It's added at the end.

Sweet Basil has a purple stem and dark green leaves. It has an aniseed flavor and can be used in all types of dishes including curries, stir-fries and curry pastes. It is often used as a garnish. This is the most common type of basil found.

Here's one of my favorite recipes from the class:

Fried Fish with Chili and Basil
(Plaa Nin Laad Prik Bai Horapa)

from the Chiang Mai Cooking School

10 oz pan fried fish fillets (cod, haddock, plaice, halibut, or red mullet)


2 tablespoons oil
6 cloves of garlic, crushed
1 onion, chopped
5 medium red chilies, thinly sliced (fresh)
1 big red chili, sliced*
1 big green chili, sliced*
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1/4 cup chicken stock or water
3/4 cup sweet basil leaves
1/2 cup coriander, chopped

* Note: These chillies are different than commonly found in the US. For the big red chilli, substitute 1/2 medium red pepper. For the big green chili, substitute 1 small Anaheim or 1/2 medium green pepper.

Deep fry the fish fillets in very hot oil until crispy and cooked through.

To make the sauce, put the oil in a hot wok and add the garlic, onion and chilies. Fry until the garlic starts to turn brown. Then add the fish sauce, soy sauce, and chicken stock. Fry for 1 minute. Add the basil leaves and stir fry well to combine.

Turn off the heat and pour the sauce over the fish. Garnish with the coriander.