Scrub the hands, cinch the apron, corral the hair, and get to work. Time runs short in Sompon Nabnian’s evening master class, where I was greeted by three mortars, three pestles, and three trays of spices aligned on a stainless-steel work station. “Just thirty minutes,” Sompon shouted, and he wasn’t kidding. Peppercorns flew. Lemongrass splattered. Turmeric painted my fingers as I squashed disparate herbs into a cohesive Boombai curry. All the pounding in this sprawling suburban kitchen allowed for minimal talk but much introspection. And smiling—an imperative, Sompon said, or the food would taste like a bad mood. There was no time to take notes. Everything I needed to learn, I learned by doing; anything I forgot, I could look up later in his slick little cookbook. The 15-year-old Thai Cookery School, the first of its kind in Chiang Mai, sparked an onslaught of culinary tourism, but Sompon, the city’s most celebrated chef, still attracts the largest numbers. (By day, he teaches the basics of Thai cuisine. From 4 P.M. to 8 P.M., he goes one-on-one with restaurant chefs, aspiring professionals, and home cooks like me.) With the sun about to set and crickets already singing in the school’s garden, I found myself presiding over a banquet of jungle curry, steaming sweet spareribs, khao soi (northern Thailand’s famous spicy-noodle dish), fish steamed with garlic and lime, and eggplant salad jazzed up with crackling pork skin. Three hours, five dishes—and all accomplished at restaurant speed. (011-66-53-206-388; thaicookeryschool.com; $31 per beginner’s class, including lunch; $79 per master class, including dinner)
What I Learned
Timing is critical when dry-frying spices. Each one cooks at a different speed, and an overcooked spice can ruin the curry.
Sompon’s quick, forceful knife screamed through vegetables with none of the daintiness so frequently found in a Thai kitchen. Yet he still produced the prettiest shallot shavings I’d ever seen.
Before You Go
Know the proper ways to chop, slice, dice, julienne, and fry—swiftly—or you’ll be lost in the master class. If you do not understand the fundamental precepts of Thai cooking, you should take a beginner’s course.
Where to Stay
Bodhi Serene Chiang Mai (011-66-53-903-900; bodhiserenehotel.com; from $217). The best hotel in Chiang Mai’s historic district, with an upstairs pool, widescreen TVs, oversize tubs, and big beds—set in a garden exuding ancient charm.