Common Denominators: Soy Sauce and Chillies

I wake at dawn to do yoga on a mountain top. Mist rises in the valley below as the clouds float into the sky above like a curtain peeling back. I sleep in a mud-and-straw hut with a thatched roof. Orange curtains, the same color as the monk’s robes, hang in front of the fine blue netting which covers the windows.

Cooking classes commence once we’ve all gathered in the Coffee Shop each morning. The Coffee Shop has, technically speaking, neither walls nor corners. There are a woven mats covering the floors, two long low benches molded from the same earthen clay as the floor and counter, shelves of books in both Thai and English, bamboo curtains, pillars made from whole logs (bark intact), dozens of pillows, and – somewhere (I can’t manage to spot it though I’ve tried) – an espresso machine. The cappuccinos are wonderful but the fruit shakes are amazing – as is the homemade bread, still hot from the oven that we eat for breakfast each morning.

The classes themselves cover two full days and are as casual as the Coffee Shop – and equally scenic. A long wooden table with just enough seats overlooks a view of the valley. Umbrellas provide a bit of shade, hanging off the edge behind us and threatening to sail down. A large gas canister connects to several simple steel-frame “cookers” on the opposite side; pots and pans perch precariously on top. Fresh vegetables are heaped on the table. There are no measuring cups or spoons; instead we’re directed to make everything to taste – our own taste. We’re not allowed to take notes but encouraged to experiment.

The food is unbelievably delicious.

The other members of my cooking class are lovely. A Canadian woman who intends to open an organic vegetarian restaurant in Alberta. A British woman with a contagious giggle that I share my hut with – one flashlight and no sense of direction between the two of us we spend an inordinate amount of time wandering around giggling until someone finds us and leads us back. A photographer from Holland on his way to Laos to buy a houseboat, open a restaurant on the roof and a gallery on the deck. (”Maybe,” he couches his dream, “I go to see if it is possible – and if not, I keep on traveling.”) An innkeeper from Baja California with a passion for natural building and self-sustainability. (He introduces himself as Mexican; we all do a double-take at his blond hair and undeniably American accent, at first.) We’re all friends within a few hours, good friends by the second day.

We’d all assembled at Yao and Krit’s restaurant in Chiang Mai. Krit waits tables while waiting for us. (On the grounds of a temple, Wat Suan Dok, the restaurant has the same name as the nearby organic farm – Pun Pun – that You Sabai works with hand-in-hand. ‘The Farm” refers to You Sabai, Pun Pun, and The Panya Project collectively, I gather. You Sabai is “upstairs” while “downstairs” – Pun Pun is down a slick and steep mud path through an orange grove and Panya’s across the way – host internships and workshops on organic growing, permaculture, earthen building, and self-sustainability.) Throwing our packs ahead of us we all climb into the truck-van-bus that runs from the city to the Farm. The ride is an hour or so; outside the city and past successively smaller neighborhoods and towns. Concrete disappears, replaced by old wooden houses and shacks, telephone lines and smog giving way to trees and fields.

Our first lesson takes place at a small market; Krit, several shopping lists clutched in his hand, leads us through. We learn about the rampant overuse of MSG in Thailand and the growing lack or organic produce. He teaches us about each of the vegetables he buys, lectures on soy sauce and noodles. Every item that he spots is another opportunity to share something with us and he often interrupts himself to get back on track when he realizes he’s jumped ahead. The tour of the farm, once we get there, is similar. We see the half-finished meeting hall, the vegetable plots and banana trees (the list of possible uses of the banana tree takes over twenty minutes for him to go through and includes him lopping off a branch, making a hobby horse, and galloping around on it).

We start the first morning off by grinding soy beans and making our own soy milk and tofu. Lunch is Pad Thai and Papaya Salad (long shaved strips of papaya with carrots and tomatoes, coated in a spicy sauce made from crushed green chilies, soy sauce, tamarind broth and more). Spring Rolls, Green Curry, and Noodles in a Vegetable Gravy for dinner. I eat as much food in that one day as I’ve been, normally, eating in an entire week – and I can feel it the next morning at yoga; taste buds, however, win out over my digestive system and I’m cooking again the next day, sitting out only a few rounds. Mushroom Soup (it starts with a broth from lemongrass, garlic, and galanka and continues with as many vegetables as we can fit in our pots). Panang Curry (as with all the curries, we make even the curry paste from scratch and then fry it in oil and coconut milk before stewing the vegetables and tofu). A Spicy Glass Noodle Salad. And then, then, there’s still dinner. Stir-fried Vegetables with Cashews. Pumpkin in Sweet Coconut Milk. Massaman Curry. Sticky Rice with Mangos (topped with coconut cream and roasted sesame seeds).

(And yes, those of you keeping track did read that correctly – the cooking course was vegetarian. My family is probably reeling in surprise and, honestly, I hadn’t quite realized that when I signed up… I can’t say that I minded living vegetarian for a week, but I’m not about to give up – or turn down – meat if it’s available.)

Krit chatters away as he cooks. Jokes and puns, childhood stories, nutritional facts and spiritual tidbits, even gentle teasing pour out over us. His accent is thick but it doesn’t matter; we learn his facial expressions (a variety of smiles) and watch his hands. He passes us things to cut, peel, smash, and prepare. Yao, a string of bells on her ankle announcing her, wanders in out and out for the more technical of the prep work. Her seemingly-stern precision is belied by her incredibly wide smile (it seems wider even than her face and I have to stop, on multiple occasions, to wonder how it fits). Krit has university degrees in engineering and mass communication but, as he explains: “Yao and I – we like to cook.” In addition to running the cooking classes and Coffee Shop and hosting guests at You Sabai, they run a restaurant in Chiang Mai.


[I ended up at You Sabai entirely thanks to Matador and Rucksack Wanderer… incidentally. THANK YOU!]

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