It’s hard not to get excited about food when you walk through the bustling, fragrant streets of Chiang-Mai, in the foothills of Mount Doi Southep.
The city was also the first to offer tourists classes in the art of Thai cooking, when chef Sompon Nabnian set up his Thai Cookery School in 1993. Sompon’s establishment is still a favourite, with visitors flocking to the shady, open-walled compound outside the city centre to learn the basics — and more advanced tricks — of this deceptively elaborate cuisine.
The day begins with a visit to the local covered market to buy fresh ingredients, and it’s an inquisitive gourmet’s dream to have the chef at hand to answer any questions about the mysterious fruit and vegetables on offer.
Back at the school, Sompon and his assistants demonstrate the dishes and students are then sent to their individual workstations to cook.
It’s a cook’s paradise: ingredients have been peeled, chopped and divided into portions, all you have to do is combine them in the wok (which is trickier than it sounds, as these are placed over powerful gas burners).
The red fish curry, spicy prawn salad Chiang Mai-style or steamed banana cake that you’ve created are then eaten at long tables, with conversation sparking up between the guests of different nationalities — German, Australian, American, British.
Many choose to follow a single day, but we opted for a longer course and enjoyed special attention from chef Sompon, whose sense of humour extends to laughing out loud when a student burns their curry paste with smoky results.
Not that you need to worry about poor results as an inexperienced cook —the beginners in our group often fared better than their friends or partners who considered themselves experts.
The only thing to worry about really is that cooking (and subsequently eating) six different dishes in one day means you’re not always keen to sample more delicacies after class.
Top 3 things to check out in Chiang Mai:
Sunday Walking Street
As its name suggests, a street that is pedestrianized and transformed into a market, selling everything from desirable souvenirs to plastic knick-knacks. Plenty of food stalls too. A Saturday Walking Street also exists.
Anusan Night Market
If you still feel like sampling some local cuisine after a day’s cooking, head for this food market featuring many stalls specialising in local specialities and seafood. It’s right in the middle of the Night Bazaar, so you can shop and snack at the same time.
You can’t visit Chiang Mai without taking in some of the numerous Buddhist temples that also make it famous. What Phra Singh is the most famous, but lose yourself among the narrow streets of the walled city and you’ll discover temples of all sizes and ages.
Good to know
Thai Cookery School, 47/2 Moon Muang Rd, Opp. Thae Phrae Gate, Chiang Mai, www.thaicookeryschool.com.
Where to stay: Tri Gong Residence has airy rooms with air-conditioning and teak furniture from 700 baht. Guests can use the outdoor cooking facilities to test their new skills; www.trigong.com.
Where to eat: The Wok restaurant is run by the same team as the Cookery School, if you feel like trying before you buy. 44 Th. Ratchamankha.
Local dish to try: Khao Soi is the local noodle speciality, served with beef or chicken in a spicy sauce with a number of vegetable garnishes. Try it from a street vendor or in one of the city’s many restaurants.
When to visit: The Thoi Krathong Festival during November’s full moon (around Nov. 2) is a great time to visit. Winter months are sunny but agreeably cool due to Chiang Mai’s altitude and Northern location.