Virtual meanderings

Last day in town. What better than a…

… cooking course?
Mmm, Thai food, yum yum yum!
OK, before we get too ecstatic, let me say that one should not generalize about Thai cuisine. It has quite a few dishes that are tasty (to the European), and quite a few that are not. I had my share of both. But the traditional Tom Yum soup got me hooked like a hippie on LSD, like a teenager on extasy, like a… you get the point.

The delicious Tom Yum soup

The delicious Tom Yum soup

Courtesy: random blog

    When I was preparing this post, I fiddled with the idea of providing the soup recepy. But honestly, why do that if anyone can look it up online in 5 seconds – for example, here? The web abounds of posts that chew over the same story again and again – especially about travelling, and especially about Thailand.

It all started because I remembered about a book I had read. A unique kind of book, where cooking recepies were smoothly integrated into the book’s narrative, becoming a part of the story itself. This was even reflected in the book’s title – “Mock Faustus | Corrected Complemented Cooking Book”. I loved this book for its subtle humor and I was immediately tempted to sneak a paragraph about it into this blog post and claim to be following into its tradition. Wait, what tradition? Who on Earth knows about a Latvian book written in the seventies? Amazon? Amazon, take two?

Amazon says: “Currently unavailable. We don’t know when or if this item will be back in stock.” If I ever saw a sign trying to tell me “never”, that would be it. Not willing to give up without finding at least a small trace in English about the book, I dug some more online, and I was only able found this in a 2003 article from a Latvian “visual arts” magazine called Studija.

“It is strictly required that partridge pate be served only in shells collected in the Balearic Islands shortly before a typhoon,” as Marģeris Zariņš wrote in 1973 (“False Faust, or a Corrected and Supplemented Cookbook”). The hero of the book was an old apothecary, alchemist and pseudoscientist, a Latvianised Baltic German Jānis Vridrikis Trampedahs, who in 1930s Latvia enjoyed for his dinner treats prepared by a servant-woman brought specially from Scotland, each dish being served in the corresponding fine dishes to the sound of appropriate music – after which he visited the outside loo, as is usual in the small towns.”

So much for the book being a masterpiece and a modern classic. So much for its excellent unobtrusive humor. According to online search engines it is as if it never existed – such is the gradual fate of the culture of small countries. Oh, well…

So – cooking, cooking, cooking…

Unlike many tourist destinations I’ve been to, one-day cooking courses are a well-established offering all around South East Asia. All I needed to do in order to get enrolled was mention it to the guy at the hostel. One short phone call later, and I was all set for the next day. As usual, I was picked up from the hostel in the morning and delivered to the cooking course school (a school by day, a residential house with a beautiful yard where the school owners lived by night). Running the whole enterprise was a kind and smiling Thai lady with excellent English in her mid-twenties, helped by her younger brother (who was in fact the one to pick me up in his van in the morning).

      I do not need to tell you what I would eat that day – it would be my own dishes! (okay, I told you).  Within about six hours we would prepare six different meals – a soup, an appetizer, a salad, a couple of main courses and a desert.

    There is no way you could cook six dishes in a day from scratch! – you’d think. Well, in Europe maybe not. Asian cusine, however, is no French. In Asia meals are designed to be cooked fast. Meat! It is never cooked in big pieces that take a lot of time to get ready. It is always cut into small bits – and those take just a minute to cook/bake/boil. Same goes for just about everything – cut it to small pieces, and it cooks in no time.  In fact, the actual time to clean and slice all the ingredients and get the sauces ready takes 80% of the time, while the cooking itself – only 20% (is this another application of the 80/20 rule? I do not know).

Tom Yum Ingredients (part 1)

Tom Yum Ingredients (part 1)

Cut me deep…

Tom Yum Ingredients (part 2)

Tom Yum Ingredients (part 2)

Cut me like a knife…

Preparing the dessert

Preparing the dessert

Sweet dreams…

The best part of the course - eating

The best part of the course - eating

AYCEBYCY – All You Can Eat Buffet You Cooked Yourself

    Mid-day, half way through the course, we paused cooking and went to the main market in order to be shown how the raw meal ingredients actually looked like – an important thing, because to be able to cook six meals meant we got all those nicely cleaned and ready to use. Here is a photo from a random stall to give you an idea:

Random market stall

Random market stall

OK, I lied. Watch carefully – this is not a vegetable stall, it is all fruit there. Now that you are paying more attention, here is an actual vegetable stall for you with some lemon grass in our teacher’s hand:

Some veggies

Some lemon grass

Next thing at the market our cooking teacher played a little joke on our ignorance. She pointed our attention to what looked like hen eggs, only pink – and asked us whether we knew what those were. Obviously no one knew – so she took one in her hand and broke it in two.

Pink egg?

Pink egg?

"Horse pee" egg

Pink egg inside

First of all, those are hen’s eggs too, and their natural color is not pink. They were dyed to avoid being confused with ‘regular’ eggs. Inside they look disgusting , don’t they? So, what’s the deal? Well, here’s the deal. Refrigerators! Remember that there were times without them? Some hundreds of years ago someone figured out that if you buried fresh eggs in the ground and soaked them in horse pee, the eggs could last for six months (!), without changing their taste. (OK, no one ever said they would not change the way they looked…). What a nice hors-d’oeuvre! Which brings us to the eternal East/West divide.

Problem: we need to preserve fresh eggs for a long period of time.
West – “Let us think of a device that does so. Result: fridge.
East – “Let us think of a way  to do so”. Result: “horse pee” egg.

Want some more examples? Here are a couple off the top of my head:
Problem: we need a way for personal protection
Western solution: guns and pistols
Eastern solution: ways of the martial arts

Problem: we need a way to maintain a person’s health
West – pharmacological industry, surgery and surgical instruments
East – holistic medicine, tai-chi, yoga

This tiny difference in the problem solving approach over time gathered momentum and gave rise to the technological superiority of the West. At some point technology transcended the “problem solving” paradigm and became a power in itself – the main of several reasons that enabled the West to colonise the East. And if you never got thinking about this, here is  a book that discusses just that – Treatise on Efficacy: Between Western and Chinese Thinking. The style is slightly academic, but quite readable still and it provides a lot of insight on the “What is efficiency?” question from Eastern and Western perspective.

It seems to me that in the horse pee egg ‘tradition’ you can find the combined influence of Lao Tse and Confucius. Or it could well be the other way round – that Lao Tse and Confucius derived their teachings from phenomena such as the horse pee eggs. Am I being serious here? Make up your own mind…

And by the way – you should not always take such descriptive names literally. While the eggs are indeed called “Horse pee eggs” in Thai, this does not mean that they were indeed soaked in horse pee. Want to know more – here is the Wikipedia article for you.

Our cooking teacher

Our cooking teacher / School owner

To wrap things up – taking this course was among the best decisions on the trip, on a scale of 1 to 10 of how much I enjoyed myself that day, I’d give it eleven. Afterwards I was driven back to my hostel by the school owner herself (while her brother drove the van with the other participants back to their hostels, which were far from mine). As I already said, she was one of very few Thai people I met who spoke good English. That all too short thirty-minute conversation was among the most meaningful conversations I have had throughout the whole journey – an honest, unsweetened account of Thai life, what it feels like to run your own business in Thailand as well as about the recent developments in Thai society.

If you are in Chiang Mai and consider taking a cooking course, now you know where to go.


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