My first island stop in Thailand is Koh Yao Noi — the brilliance of which I will describe later — and after sitting on nearly empty beaches, what better to do here than take a cooking class?
I was planning to attend cooking school up in Chiang Mai later in my trip, but then I learned about Mina’s Thai Cookery Class right here on Yao Noi and could not pass it up. She teaches up to four people at a time, and students can customize their menus, so I booked an afternoon class with the expectation that I’d be one of a few others.
I got a private lesson.
First, Mina is absolutely lovely. She’s a single mother of a six-year-old boy who is a complete riot, and she was very open about her past and life on the island and just chatted away in answer to any question I could throw at her. Oh, and she knows a thing or two about Thai food.
Her house is on the west side of the island overlooking farmland, and she grows many of the ingredients used in her food right on her own property. I saw lemongrass, black pepper, and keffir lime trees, just to name a few.
When I arrived, she had a huge spread of fresh fruits, vegetables, and herbs — as well as sauces and spices — laid out on her heavy wooden kitchen table.
After Mina helped me identify everything in the baskets and bowls, some of which I’d never seen before, we set to work making coconut cream and coconut milk. Did you know that coconut milk does not just drip out of the inside of a coconut? The green coconuts we put straws into and drink water out of are different than the ripe brown ones that fall off the trees and provide the fruit for milk. To make coconut milk and cream, you have to finely grate the fruit inside and then press with water. The resulting liquid on the first round of pressing is cream, the second milk. It’s a little bit like the concept of EVOO, I suppose.
I watched Mina use this special stool with a sharp tool on the end, then I jumped in and finished the grating myself. I didn’t take photos of the pressing process because my hands were covered in coconut, but MIND BLOWN.
The next task was making yellow curry paste. We chopped chiles, lemongrass, garlic, shallots, and fresh tamarind, added in some salt and fresh pepper, and then went to work with the mortar and pestle. After a lot of banging, bam, very spicy curry paste.
Combining the coconut milk and curry paste in the wok, we created the base for gaeng catil gai, or yellow curry with chicken.
Meanwhile, we put black sticky rice that had soaked overnight into a rice steamer; cooked it for 20 minutes; combined it with coconut milk, a little bit of palm sugar, and salt; and set it aside for dessert.
Next up was sweet and sour fish, or bla briow wan. Returning to the cutting boards, we chopped pineapple, cucumber, onion, tomato, and spring onion. After adding oil to the wok, we cooked white fish lightly on both sides and added the vegetables followed by soy sauce, tamarind juice, and palm sugar.
Simple, fresh, and delicious.
Our last savory dish was barbecue beef salad, or yam nua yang. To make this, we cooked small slices of beef on the grill and chopped tomato, onion, shallot, lemongrass, and green mango, as well as coriander and celery leaves. Combine all of this with a little bit of lime juice, fish sauce, and palm sugar, and you have a really light and flavorful salad.
Once everything was prepared, I sat down to eat. And eat I did. Everything was full of flavor despite how little seasoning we added, and Mina explained how to get the richest taste out of the freshest ingredients without falling back on a lot of premade sauces. There’s a little bit here and there along with a few pinches of salt, pepper, and sugar, but the fruits, veggies, and herbs are the stars. Mina’s style — the local style — of food is very much based on fresh produce and simple combinations and healthy dishes. Notice that we didn’t fry anything (or make pad thai), a nice break from Malaysia and my experience of eating in Thailand so far.
Mina told me that Southern Thai dishes are much heavier on the coconut and curry flavors than those in the north. I also learned that because Thai people eat several small items at once, dishes are made with varying flavors (sweet vs. savory) and levels of spice to offset each other. So we put extra chile in the curry but made the beef salad relatively mild. It’s a great way to create balance.
Anyway, I wanted so badly to eat every last bite of each dish but just couldn’t handle anymore, especially when I knew what was coming next.
Mango sticky rice, y’all. This dish is probably one of the main reasons people do food tours in Thailand. And the thing is that it’s so very simple to make as long as the coconut milk is fresh and the mango just ripe. Mina told me that sticky rice is also great with bananas or other sweet fruits cooked with a little bit of sugar, cinnamon, water, and salt, and I’d have to agree.
In summary, this was one of the highlights of my trip so far. I’m really glad I did this on Yao Noi because even though Mina’s classes are meant for foreigners (you don’t find Thai people needing lessons), the intimacy of unexpectedly being the only one made me feel like I had just been welcomed into someone’s home for dinner. Actually, that’s exactly what it was. Getting to talk to someone so wonderful for nearly three hours was an experience I wouldn’t get with a large group in a tourist-heavy place like Chiang Mai or Bangkok. And now I can say that the best Thai food I’ve ever had I cooked myself in a small house on a mostly-unknown island in the Andaman Sea.
Go ahead, be jealous.