Trying new and interesting food when you travel is one of the reasons to travel. Learning to prepare it takes your experience to a new level. I had never taken a cooking class during any of my travels, shit I have never taken a cooking class in my life. Learning to cook Thai dishes could only be a fun and delicious experience.
I chose Akha Kitchen based on various positive reviews and I really liked the website, lame but true. I did inquire from 3 different highly recommended schools but Akha was the first to respond. Oddly the other 2 did not reply until the next day. No worries and probably a good sign for them that they are busy. Through the 3 or 4 emails to coordinate my joining the next available class I learnt more about Chef Jaruwan. She was a member of Akha Hill Tribe in Northern Thailand and was bringing some of those skills and cooking styles to her school. She moved to Chiang Rai at 15, got a job in a restaurant and put herself through school. After time she opened her school and made sure to hire young girls to work in her kitchen. Girls, like her, who were trying to create a life for themselves as well. She wanted to give back opportunities to other. How could I not chose this school?
The day started with an 8:00 pickup by songthaew. I was the first one of three to be picked up which gave me the opportunity to chat with Jaruwan. She was honest and open about her life and had zero pretension. We picked up a mother and daughter who were from Hong Kong and off we went. They were pretty funny gals and I figured this to be a good day. We headed to the morning market to pick up our supplies while Jaruwan explained the day for us.
The school doubles as Jaruwan's home and it was warm and inviting. There was a nice garden outside where we had access to needed spices and herbs. We started with a welcome drink and talked about our lives and travels. Jaruwan told us more about her journey from a small hill tribe village to where she is today. That deserved a second cup of coffee and quite a few questions from me, happily answered by her.I think my new pals from Hong Kong missed breakfast and were a bit hungry. I could see the "stop talking man, lets cook" on their faces.
Our menu was set. We were going to start with Sapi Tong. A spicy chili sauce that we dipped cooked cabbage, cucumbers and beans into. A delicious start. Next up, we prepared Green Curry Paste that would be used with chicken a bit later in the day. Everything was laid out for us, we just needed to follow the lively directions of our Chef.
Now it was Pad Thai time and I was ready. From the dining room where we devoured the Sapi Tong we returned to the prepared kitchen. The assistants (I wish I would have written down their names, sorry girls) cleaned and prepared each work station for the next course. The deal was you could add as much chicken, vegetables, noodles or whatever to your meal, you just had to finish it. There would be no wasting of food. I liked that rule a lot. With each meal one of the three girls sat with us. It gave everyone a chance to practice their English and the very shy assistants the opportunity to build some confidence in dealing with Farang.
Sitting around the dining room after our Pad Thai we took pictures and chatted. We learned more about the house/school including how and why the building was chosen and the work they put into cleaning and designing it. More coffee, tea or beer if you wanted (we all passed) and a relaxing, not rushed morning.
Next up was Tom Kha Gai, a milky soup that was quite good (surprise) but something I would never have even considered ordering from a menu before today. This was followed by Chicken with Green Curry which was freaking delicious. Finally for dessert there was Mango and Sticky Rice. Interestingly the girls picked a few blue flowers from the garden and boiled them in water for a few minutes. They drained the blue liquid and we mixed it into half the rice. We now had both blue and white sticky rice. There was no flavor change to the rice (the most important I was told) and the display was nice. Seriously mango and sticky rice is a great dessert.
We crushed and mixed spices, cut fresh chicken and vegetables, listened to instructions and cooked our way to full bellies. You can download each recipe by clicking on the name of each food.
Akha School provided us a link with their pictures from the day. You can CLICK HERE to see the day in all it's fun.
There are quite a few cooking schools in Chiang Rai. I am sure they are all very good. My experience with Akha and Jaruwan was a tremendous exercise in both cooking and fun...well and eating. It was also an observation in the humility and dedication of a young woman that while making a successful life she is giving opportunities for others to be safe, healthy and grow as well. Something we should all practice more of.