Tongue Thai’ed: Taking a Cooking Class in Thailand

Posted by - July 27, 2011 | Category: Canteen

I am not a foodie.  And I am certainly not a cook.  I am a food simpleton.  I routinely confuse the words “colander” and “coriander”.  When forced into the kitchen, I’m usually found hovering over the sink, gulleting toast, complaining that it’s not going down fast enough.  Gastronomy?  Surely the study of fuel on distant planets. 

So when my Canadian cohorts suggested we take a Thai cooking class, there was more than a little apprehension on my part.  Would they discover my years of fakery?   Would I burn the kitchen (and its occupants) to the ground?  Would I start having to use words like “flambé” and “reduction”?  I guess there was only going to be one way to find out. 

So up I signed.

Charlie & Lek's Menu, Pai Thailand

Charlie & Lek Restaurant has been serving up traditional Thai dishes to rave reviews in Pai, Thailand for the past four years. Last year, they started offering cooking classes. Here’s how it works – you select 5 things you would like to learn from their menu, they take you to the food market at 9:30 in the AM to pick out the ingredients, then you cut, cook, and eat until 3:00.  Sounds simple enough. 

And surprisingly, it is.

Food Market, Pai Thailand

Not only do you pick out the ingredients, but Lek describes in detail the local fruits and vegetables, and why certain ones are used in certain dishes.

Lek at Food Market, Pai Thailand

Vegetables, Food Market, Pai Thailand

The first thing that we selected was that good old standby – Pad Thai.  It’s what I used to order whenever I went to a Thai restaurant back home. Of course I had no idea what was actually in it.  I thought I had seen pieces of egg floating around, but that could have been tofu.  As it turns out, it contains both egg AND tofu. Hmmpf.Pad Thai Ingredients, Pai, Thailand

We were each given our own individual cooking station. There are no more than four people per class, so there is plenty of time for questions, and in my case, tips on cleaver etiquette.Cooking Pad Thai, Pai, Thailand

Lek lets you know the exact portions and the order to put things in to make it turn out right every time.  So much for my habit of tossing everything in at once and praying it doesn’t burn.  Prayer, it seems, is not a prime ingredient.

Pad Thai, Pai, Thailand

Next on the list was Tom Yum Soup. Now anyone that knows me knows my take on soup – I hate it.  Almost as much as I hate green peppers.  Then there’s celery, lasagne, black licorice – quite an extensive list really, but I digress.

To me, soup is just hot boggy water. It’s swamp in a bowl.

I didn’t actually choose Tom Yum as one of the 5 dishes, but there were other folks with me to consider, and they wanted in on some Tom Yum action.

Tom Yum Soup Ingredients, Thai Cooking Class, Pai, Thailand

Cooking Tom Yum Soup, Thai Cooking Class, Pai Thailand

The result was pretty good – spicy and sour at the same time.  I have to admit though, I picked all the good stuff out and left the swampy bits in the bowl.  But I stand firm on my soup stance.

Tom Yum Soup, Thai Cooking Class, Pai Thailand

Once we were finished with the Tom Yum tomfoolery, we moved onto a Green Curry.  The first time I had this was only a couple of weeks ago, and I was hooked, so I was looking forward to this one.

Green Curry Ingredients, Thai Cooking Class, Pai Thailand

Turns out, the only thing that separates a Green Curry from a Red Curry or a Yellow Curry is the colour of the chilies. Otherwise, the ingredients are pretty much the same.

Cutting Vegetables, Thai Cooking Class, Pai Thailand

The hardest part of this one was that we had to make our own chili paste, which counted as dish number 4.  I had seen a mortar and pestle before (probably at Pottery Barn), but assumed they were either only decorative, or used in witchcraft.  Turns out they ARE used in the kitchen.  Double-hmmpf.

Green Curry Ingredients with Paste, Thai Cooking Class, Pai Thailand

Cooking Green Currry, Thai Cooking Class, Pai, Thailand

This baby was my pride and joy.  I turned out just like the menu version, and even though I was full from the Pad Thai and Tom Yum, I ate every tasty morsel.

Yummy Green Curry, Thai Cooking Class, Pai Thailand

Our final dish was a simple Thai Stir Fry. This one you can pretty much get by with any ingredients – it’s the basil and the chilies that make it distinctly Thai — but it was the chance to put some oomph in the kitchen by putting some flames in the air.

Thai Strif Fry Ingredients,Thai Cooking Class, Pai Thailand

The trick is to tip the wok sideways slightly so that the flame catches the oil on fire, then tip it back and stir quickly.  Lek knows her way around a wok, and it was easy for her.Lek Cooking, Thai Cooking Class, Pai Thailand

I jokingly said that I should move to the middle station as I feared i would burn the slanted ceiling if I stayed on the end.  Good thing I moved.Cooking a Stir Fry,Thai Cooking Class, Pai Thailand

I lost most of my onions to the flames, but the stir fry was still a treat.

Thai Stir Fry, Thai Cooking Class, Pai Thailand

Coming from a newbie, I have to say this was a great beginner course in Thai cooking.  Lek emails you the recipes afterwards, but also encourages you to play with them and make them your own.

Charlie not only quizzes you, but gives fascinating talks while you are eating.  His discussion on Thai rice culture versus the flour culture of the west is an eye-opener.

He also delves into how Thai food has been influenced by India, China, and Burma and discusses the difference between North Thai and South Thai cuisine.

Both Charlie and Lek love food, and it shows. They created a warm, welcoming environment, and made it a fun experience for everyone. 

if you find yourself in Pai, Thailand and are hungry to learn more about Thai food, I highly recommend Charlie & Lek’s.  They will leave your tongue Thai’ed.

Note: I was not paid anything to write this, nor did I receive any freebies.  I just thought it was an excellent class, and Charlie and Lek are awesome folks.

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63 comments - add one
  1. I want to be there NOW!!! Where did you take the class – Chiang Mai? I’m now thinking I’ll take off a bit sooner (late October) and head first to Chiang Mai for a bit before settling into Saigon. I’ll be sure to do the cooking class – how many baht will it set me back?

  2. This is AWESOME!! It looks like you did really well for being a newbie to cooking. I absolutely love Thai food and every attempt I have made at making it has been a flop, so I’m pretty jealous. Ted and I are now adding this to our list of to-do’s for life.


  3. What a great idea taking a cooking class in Thailand. And even better, to read a review from a blogger who didn’t receive a freebie for a change!!

    1. Ha ha — thanks Roy! I’m not above taking freebies mind you…it’s just that no one has offered me any yet. But if it sucked, I would have to say it sucked. This class though didn’t suck… 🙂

  4. I love this! Thai food is a favorite of mine and I love to cook; this is a perfect combination for me. I will add that to my list of things I want to experience in Thailand.

    1. I would have never considered taking a oooking class while travelling, but I have to say, it’s been one of the highlights so far. It’s nice to take away more than just photos for a change…

  5. Looks like so much fun! You picked the right place to do it too… Pai has the best cooking classes in all of Thailand, for a fraction of the price. Love the way you write. You’re my new favorite blog!

  6. Raymond, this was an awesome post!

    That picture with the flame off the wok is incredible. Living in Thailand for a while now, and I’ve actually never taken a Thai cooking class (though my girlfriend does a lot of Thai cooking).

    Great to hear your take, and even though you aren’t a big cook, looks like you had a great experience!

    1. It was a surprisingly excellent experience. I would take another cooking class in a heartbeat if I thought it would be as good.

      You are missing out my friend — take a course! 🙂

  7. What an awesome class! I taught myself how to make Thai dishes from a cookbook I bought in Bangkok and find them to be quite simple, though some of the dishes you have to craft (like spring rolls and appetizer type things), which are more precise and time consuming than difficult. Ingredients are key! Would love to take an actual class though.

  8. Raymond, cool post! I’m in the process of transferring over a post I made last year on my friends and family blog to my new site about the experience I had in Chiang Mai. Given that I’m all thumbs in the kitchen it’s a minor miracle I didn’t burn the place down or cause an International incident 😛 Anyways, looks like you had fun – so did I 🙂

  9. Ah, the irony of this post! Af ew months ago I wrote a post called “3 vacations I won’t take.” It had been months since I shared this post so I shared it again yesterday. I am not a big fan of food when I travel (I eat it but it’s not why I travel) so a food themed vacation was one of those I wouldn’t take – especially a booking class. Glad to see you enjoyed yours though! 🙂

  10. I went to Thailand a few years ago and the cooking class was one of the highlights. It’s sad but in Latin America it hasn’t really caught on as a tourist idea because they don’t think people want to make the food, just to buy it.

    1. That’s too bad it hasn’t caught on — if a food simpleton like me is willing to pay for a course, I’m sure there are far more suitable people out there who would do the same…

  11. And, it looked like you were have a lot of fun, too – which is very important! Such an endearing couple and a great opportunity you had to learn with them. Plus everything looked delicious. You must’ve learned a lot, especially shows with that beautiful bonfire you made.

  12. Looks like a great idea, I would not have a clue where to begin when it comes to cooking Thai food.

    A course like this shows you the basics which you never forget, ie which oil, how hot, which herbs and spices.

  13. It does sound like an awesome class. I have never taken a cooking class but this one interests me. Great article.

  14. What a great way to learn cooking with food shopping! The Thai food that you cook looks really delicious! Seeing all your photos make me really hungry.

  15. In the 15+ years I have know you, I have never been invited over for dinner. I can’t wait until you are back on Canadian soil to taste all your new culinary skills. This is all ‘lick your lips’ good food. Thanks for another entertaining read. BTW Love the flame pic.

    1. I am going to need some mangosteen, longan, and some rambutan to start. Head on out to the Asia market will ya and grab some. Wait, those are fruit — must refer to recipe card…please hold… 🙂

  16. This sounds perfect! I want to learn about the local cultures as we travel and also how to make some of their food! Sometimes it’s tough to find someone who knows about the area, speaks English, and is willing to tell you about it (for not a ton of money!) Also, I’ve made Pad Thai in the US, but only ever from a box – not fresh ingredients. I’m going to put some effort into looking these guys up when we get to Thailand!

  17. Hi Raymond

    Writing a piece right now on Pai, googled “Charlie and Lek’s” (I ate there last night) and this popped up. Absolutely classic! You’ll be pleased to know the restaurant and cooking school are still going strong.

    There aren’t many blogs that make me laugh out loud but that picture of you with the fiery pan was an exception. Hilarious!

    I ticked Thai cooking class off the list long ago but you’ve almost persuaded me to sign up… especially if I get to make fireballs…

    1. You SHOULD do the cooking class! I’m sure it’ll blow that other one you did clear out of the water. 🙂

      Hope you’re enjoying Pai — I really had a lot of fun there. And say hi to Charlie and Lek for me!

      1. Said hi for you! Lek said, “oh yes, Raymond… he wanted to make a big flame!” and showed me the photo that appears on this post, up on their pinboard. She said great to hear from you!

  18. HI, We are going to chiang Mai in a week, wondering how you signed up for this class? We are so interested and I can’t find a website for them. Thanks

    1. Hi Brittany — I signed for the class after eating at the restaurant one day. It looks like Charlie and Lek had a website but it’s currently shut down. It’s located on one of the main roads — just ask around, Pai is not that big. 🙂

      I think I even took the class the day I after I ate there. They’re super-nice, and I am jealous you are going to have so much great food. 🙂


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