The market was dark, smokey; the air so thick with flavours as to be almost indecipherable, charred fish and bright citrus and a low, steady hum of spice. All around our little group, vendors barked and chattered behind stalls piled with a cacophony of vegetables. Tomatoes burst with scarlet juice, fragrant kafir limes rolled in shallow wooden bowls and mushrooms bent their delicately rippled hoods. Hemp sacks spilling with a hundred varieties of rice lined long trestle tables, and silver fishes crackled with salt on grill fires.
We had made the short walk to this local food market in Chiang Mai, down narrow alleyways hung with graffiti and lines of washing, from the Baan Thai cooking school, to hunt out provisions for our evening class. Our doll-like guide extended a delicate hand to each ingredient in turn, giving its name and uses in the Thai kitchen, and by the time we returned we each had bags of fresh ingredients hanging from both wrists like bunches of ripe bananas.
The school was laid out in a labyrinth of rooms, each painted in bright green and yellow and fragrant with lime leaves. I wrapped a blue and white apron around my waist and headed for the kitchen, where burnished woks sat on low burning flames next to bowls of the fresh ingredients I could now identify by sight and smell. Excited to learn how some of my favourite Thai street food is made, I had chosen to cook Pad Thai; reasoning that eating around 30 plates of it in the last two weeks probably qualified me to learn how to make it myself. I tossed spices, chicken, vegetables, eggs and noodles into hot oil, stirring all the time, and within about eight minutes I had produced a steaming plate of sticky, sweet-and-hot noodles.
I learned how to make coconut milk; squeezing and straining shredded coconut through muslin cloth. We chopped fresh lemongrass, garlic, ginger, chillies and coriander on heavy wooden boards, dropping the fresh ingredients into the milk in handfuls. After a few minutes stirring in heavy bottomed pans over the heat we found ourselves with bowls of delicately fragrant soup, full of chicken and unguent mushrooms.
I learned how to fold pastry in an envelope around a filling of glass noodles and chilli-warmed vegetables, closing up the ends tightly to make neat spring rolls. We turned them in a heavy wok full of hot oil, watching them as they fizzed and turned brown; and snatched them out before they burned.
Finally, I wielded a butchers knife in each hand to chop and pound a huge pile of red chillies, reducing them to a sticky paste on my stone block. They were added to the huge pestle and mortar in which our teacher was pounding together a red curry paste, showing us how to build the complex flavours in layers. We used our paste to fry with delicate slivers of chicken, adding some of our coconut milk to make bowls of soupy Chiang Mai noodles toped with coriander, fresh lime and crunchy fried noodles.
With full stomachs and empty bowls littering the table, we sat and sipped steaming cups of green tea and flicked through the recipe books we had been given. All of us strangers when we walked in, we laughed easily and shared stories about food eaten and adventures had, friendships made instantly, as ever, by the sharing of food.
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The Baan Thai cooking school in Chiang Mai runs courses daily in the morning, afternoon and evening for around 1000TBH per person including all ingredients, snacks and the market tour.