We wake at dawn at our resort in the remote Golden Triangle region of Thailand, when the only sound is the occasional trumpeting elephant and the hotel’s views to the Laotian mountains are obscured by an eerie mist that swirls like rising steam. My travelling party of four has signed up for what seems like a straight-forward cooking class: a market visit followed by a lesson and lunch. We rise reluctantly, but sacrificing a sleep-in turns out to be well worth it – what awaits is as much a cultural experience as a culinary one, teaching us so much more than a few ubiquitous recipes.
Bleary-eyed and craving coffee, our group meets our guide for the day, the hotel’s chef de partie, Un. Carrying a woven basket and bouquets of local flowers, Un greets us with a perky enthusiasm that’s to be admired at this time of the morning.
As we arrive at the market in nearby Chiang Saen, a powerful blend of aromas assaults our senses. At first, it’s the smell of grilled fish that wafts from the food stalls lining the crowded pavement. As we enter the indoor fruit and vegetable area, the air becomes thick with the enticing scent of lemongrass mingling with coconut, pineapple and lime.
Everywhere we turn we see stalls heaving with exotic fruits, glistening rice noodles and an endless variety of herbs and green leafy vegetables. Un patiently answers our questions and provides English translations for the more unusual items. One stallholder encourages us to smell her pungent curry pastes, while another demonstrates how fresh coconut milk is made. As we make our way to the meat section, we pass baskets of squirming fish fresh from the nearby Mekong River.
Thai cooks are particularly fond of pork and every part of the animal is on display here, including trotters, offal and even entire heads. With no refrigeration and stray dogs roaming past, it’s not for the faint-of-heart (or stomach, for that matter).
We return to the hotel for a tour of its vegetable garden. Turning a corner, we’re greeted with a wonderful sight – an elephant and her baby enjoying a bath from their mahout. One of my curious companions joins Un for a closer look, startling the mother elephant who charges in their direction. The terrified duo scampers back to the car, while the rest of us fall about laughing.
Next, we make a pilgrimage to the hotel’s spirit house, where we make offerings of flowers and incense. These ornate shrines are designed to appease mischievous spirits, so we can only pray that our cooking efforts pass muster.
We spend the rest of the morning in the swankiest classroom we’ve ever seen, complete with a designer kitchen, personal workspaces and a large teak dining table set for four. After a demonstration from Un, we prepare a three-course meal of fish cakes, a creamy chicken curry and a dessert with water chestnuts and coconut milk.
Under Un’s patient tutelage, nothing is too much trouble – even when a member of our group confuses salt for sugar in the dessert. Oops. Notwithstanding this mishap, our lunch is a success, full of the rich aromas, spicy flavours and contrasting textures for which Thai cuisine is renowned. As the spices dance lingeringly on our tongues, we reluctantly head back to our rooms leaving the smell of curry paste in our wake.
The Lanna Cooking School is at the Anantara Resort, Golden Triangle, Thailand.
For more information, visit www.goldentriangle.anantara.com.