Wednesday, December 02, 2015

Thailand: Cooking School

When we decided to come to Thailand, one of the things I knew we wanted to do was take a cooking class. At the time, I thought I would just do it with the older kids, but Raphi and Pearl wanted to join in, and Erik thought it would be fun as well. We found a local restaurant that offers private classes and were able to all go together.  We chose four dishes to make and Nok, who runs the restaurant with her partner, Jo, walked us through the whole thing. The kids were a bit in and out, more interested at some times than others, but it worked out well. Raphi was all about pounding our spices into a nice, thick paste with the mortar and pestle! 

Mise en place. This makes cooking so much easier! (I need someone to come prep all my ingredients and clean up after me at home!)

One of our choices was panang curry, a dish we've been enjoying here in Thailand. We started with slices of fresh lemongrass and galangal root (similar to ginger), garlic, shallots, keffir lime skin, dried mild chilies and hot fresh chilies. Lots of pounding resulted in a wonderfully fragrant, thick paste. The addition of a little bit of shrimp paste added to its characteristically Thai smell!

We heated some nice, thick coconut milk to a boil, and when the oil began to separate, added in our curry paste. 

Oh, the delicious smell! Here Poppy stirs the coconut milk and curry paste into a thick mixture, adding coconut milk a little at a time.  

A little fish sauce, some salt, sugar, and chicken bouillon get added to the mix. (I'm pretty sure this is not a traditional ingredient, and wonder if it's got MSG. I will leave it out at home!) Thinly sliced chicken goes in next, stirring until it's all coated and "dry", at which point we dump in enough coconut milk to cover it. 

I add in some kaffir lime leaves, and then we cover and simmer for a while. When it's time for plating, we garnish with thinly sliced strips of more lime leaves and red pepper. Beautiful and delicious, and hey, that was easy! (Having someone do all the prep work and clean-up makes it seem like it, anyway! I know that at home it will not seem so simple, nor will it taste quite as yummy, but that won't stop me from trying!)

Meanwhile, Nok has a big pot of chicken stock simmering, and she's carefully skimming the scum as it rises. She uses it for soups and sauces, including the pad thai sauce that we're making next. I'm a big fan of bone broths, so I'm excited to see this!

The pad thai sauce starts with fresh tamarind simmering in chicken stock. The tamarind gives it a wonderful sour flavor that gets balanced out perfectly with salty and sweet notes from fish sauce, soy sauce, oyster sauce, and palm sugar. While the sauce reduces, Peregrine chops garlic to fry in a generous amount of oil along with thinly sliced chicken. 

Nok brings out a package of fresh rice noodles but includes instructions on how to properly soak the dried ones we buy at home. (And I've been doing it all wrong... maybe that's why my noodles never seem quite right!) The noodles are added in with the chicken and garlic and then you stir, stir, stir until they are soft, adding in the sauce a little at a time as it's absorbed. Nok likes to add cabbage and carrots to her pad thai along with the traditional bean sprouts and green onion. I'm a fan of veggies, so I like that. A little more oil, a few eggs, some peanuts, and chili flakes are thrown in the skillet, and the heat is turned up for one final stir. Mmmmmm..... it looks and smells wonderful!

Erik in the kitchen... now there is a sight I like! He plates the pad thai like a pro, and Nok and some other women rush in with garnishes, fanning out lettuce and bean sprouts. We also made larb gai, a delicious dish made with finely chopped chicken and lots of fresh herbs. I have attempted to make it at home before but was quite disappointed in my results. It has roasted rice, which I did, but Nok taught us to toast uncooked sticky rice along with galangal, kaffir lime leaf, and lemongrass until the rice is brown, then pound it in the mortar and pestle. It gives larb the taste I was missing when I tried it before. 

Last, but most definitely not least, Poppy and Peregrine each make a small pot of warm, sweet coconut sauce to pour over fresh mango and sticky rice. I was introduced to the amazing-ness of this dish on my first trip to Thailand in 2000 by some family friends who lived in Chiang Mai. My life has never been the same since. Seriously, it might possibly be the most delicious sweet treat ever. I'm not kidding. I don't think I've ever made it at home, but really, it's simple. (And it costs $6 or $7 at Thai restaurants in the US, so it's maybe a once a year treat!) But, like so many other things, now that we know, we can make it ourselves!

After all that cooking and sweating (did I mention it was HOT?), we are hungry! I wish I could share the smell, and more importantly, the taste with you! Under Nok's expert guidance, I think we did a pretty good job! It will certainly go down as one of our most memorable meals here, because we made it ourselves! 

I know you're not supposed to feed the wildlife, but.... feed the hungry monkeys! 

Peregrine disappeared for a minute and came back with a tray of soft drinks for everyone. We enjoyed our meal, and our cooking class with Nok, immensely! I'm so thankful for family experiences like this.  

Tuesday, December 01, 2015

Thailand: Snorkeling Racha Island

The beautiful, clear waters off Racha Island. 

Pearl is not quite ready to snorkel, but she had fun trying on fins this morning!  We had to be out the door by 7AM to meet the driver who took us to where we would get on the boa. It was most definitely bright (and hot) and early!

It was about half an hour on the "speed boat" from the southern tip of Phuket to Racha Island. There we found beautiful, clear water and powdery soft sand. The kids were excited to find this big crab, and he actually grabbed Peregrine's fin and held on for a while! 

Do you think this boy was happy to be on a boat?

Another boy who was happy to be out on the water.

After swimming and snorkeling, it was time for lunch! This picture doesn't show how ridiculously hot we were!

There were several cats roaming around the outdoor restaurant, and the kids were thrilled. The staff saw how much they loved the cats and took them over to show them a mama with her little kittens, which the kids got to hold.

Pearl seems to make friends everywhere she goes! There are loads of Chinese tourists here, and they seem largely interested in taking selfies. Lots and lots of selfies. It's a wee bit amusing to watch.

This girl is just on the brink of becoming a little fish like her siblings! She's getting braver by the day. I think that by the next time we go snorkeling, Erik and I will have four strong swimmers and both be able to go out together. That will be fun. We usually take turns going out with whichever kids want to snorkel. I think the only time we've gotten to snorkel together was once when we were in Zihuatanejo, Mexico, and my parents came down for a week. They watched the kids one day while we were all at the beach so we could go snorkeling together.

There were tons of fish just off shore, which made for very fun swimming and snorkeling. Peregrine and Poppy seem to love snorkeling as much as I do. It's such an incredible feeling to be swimming right along with fish we usually only see in aquariums!

On the way back to Phuket, tired, hot, and happy!

 We're so thankful for a fun day out on the water!

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Thailand: Around Pai

After catching our breath for a few days at Suansawan, we were ready to head north. Our first stop was Pai, where we were excited to spend time with good friends. Of course, we had to get there first, so we took a taxi to the bus station in Chiang Mai, and from there got on a mini bus for the three hour ride north to the little mountain town of Pai. The road is only 135 kilometers, but there are over 700 curves and hairpin turns along the way! Erik picked up some motion sickness pills at a ubiquitous 7-11 before the journey, and thankfully everyone did fine. (On the ride back the man behind us was throwing up in a plastic bag. I will spare you any more details.) We arrived in Pai and waited for the shuttle that was supposed to come pick us up to take us to the hotel. They knew we had six people plus luggage, so when the motorcycle with sidecar appeared, it didn't occur to me that it was for us! We continued to wait and finally Erik called them again, only to learn we had missed them already! They sent out the driver again, and he ferried us and our bags back to the hotel. Getting there is always an adventure! The kids have deemed this the Best Transportation Ever and have decided that when we get home we should sell the Suburban and buy one of these. That would certainly be an adventure!  

There is a small river that runs through Pai, and a number of pedestrian only bridges made of bamboo. Pearl was a little hesitant at first to step foot on it, but she quickly realized it was sturdy.

These lovely people are the reason we came to Pai. Fifteen years ago, I first traveled to Asia with a group of friends including Rachel and Chinua. We shared life and traveled together for the better part of a year. They married shortly after that trip, and Erik and I were married a few months later. In the following years, we all had lots of children, and have only seen each other every few years. They now live in Pai, and it was so fun to get to visit them. They warmly welcomed us into their home and it was wonderful to share food and memories while our children deepened friendships with one another. 

Dragonfruit! It's pink!

My favorite sign so far. Don't squat on the western toilets! 

Peregrine's passion right now is filmmaking, and he's had big dreams of the movie he would make during our time in Thailand. Chinua graciously brought out his camera and spent hours filming the kids' post-alien war movie! I will be sure to post it when the editing is done.

It makes me so happy to see these two playing together. Rachel happened to be visiting the day I went into labor with Raphi, and she (and Solo, who was in utero) were some of his first visitors!

The kids were fascinated with this huge, woven palm leaf that was on a trash pile outside of a temple we walked by.

The tip-top of the wat.

I'm always intrigued by marketplaces in different countries. Bicycles and cookware all on the same aisle! Yay!

Rachel is an artist and author, expressing beauty with pen, paintbrush, and words. I own a few of her prints already, and was happy to buy a couple more. (No shipping!) You can check out her etsy shop here. She's running a 25% off sale now through the end of the month, making her beautiful artwork a great deal. I love the detail she puts into her paintings. She is also about to publish her second novel, and you can read more about it on her blog, Journey Mama. (I wrote a review of her first novel here.) She's also published compilations of her reflective blog posts. I'm excited to read her new book, a story about a traveler in India.

Street food is another reason I love to travel. It seems that every culture has its smoking grill of interesting meats!
Stay tuned for more Pai pictures, including a day with the elephants! 

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Thailand: Suansuwan Resort Chiang Mai

The first time I visited Thailand was in the fall of 2000 with a group of friends. We hit the ground running, staying in a bustling guesthouse on Khao San Road and running around Bangkok for a few days before taking an overnight bus north to Chiang Mai. Traveling with four children is a bit of a different story, and I knew that our first order of business upon arrival needed to be rest. I also knew that if we were in the city, I would want to go out and explore! Two days of travel and a fifteen hour time difference is hard on anyone, and I wanted to ensure we had a few days where our main focus was to rest and relax. I found Suansawan Resort online and booked three nights. It was about  a half hour out of Chiang Mai in the beautiful, quiet Mae Rim District, and ended up being exactly what we needed. 

This was our villa, with two bedrooms and room for all. 

The grounds were lush and beautiful, full of flowering trees, orchids, a fish pond, and a little lake. 

This was the path from our room to the restaurant. Being out of town meant I want tempted to go exploring and looking for food! The food was not spectacular, but enjoyable enough. 

Peregrine enjoyed taking the little boat out on the lake.

There were many beautiful seating areas throughout the grounds.
Pearl was happily finding snails! 
Hibiscus in bloom.

There was a fun playground for the little ones.

Ice cream on a hot afternoon is a special treat. We have a tradition of buying Magnum ice cream bars when we travel. I don't think we've ever bought them in the US, but they've been enjoyed in Panama and Mexico. 


Raphael is always on the lookout and notices many interesting things that others may miss. Here is a cicada! We also saw the biggest geckos we've ever seen, and the kids were quite excited about that. The largest one was at least a foot long! 

Even the housekeeping signs are pretty! 

Part of Suansawan's facilities are a Care Resort assisted living community. We got to spend time with a few of the residents and especially enjoyed getting to know Joyce. She's from America's east coast, and reminded me so very much of my Italian great aunt and grandma. Peregrine also really enjoyed visiting with Marianne, a lovely woman from England. (He used his best British accent the entire time, and was excited afterward because he felt that by listening to her he had improved his pronunciation!)

We went out for a walk in the surrounding countryside one day and the children wanted to have their picture taken on the steps leading up to the wat (temple). 

Rice fields!
Beautiful, delicate flowers. 

Starfruit! It's always fun to see tropical fruits growing. 


Pink dragonfly over the fishpond. 

Night swimming.

Our time at Suansawan was exactly what we hoped it would be. We left feeling refreshed and ready to take on new adventures and explore this beautiful country!