As I type this, Chef Yui is in America teaching other chefs how to cook Thai food. She has been a judge on The Food Network’s Extreme Chef. She is a well known TV chef in Thailand. You may have read about her in the Boston Globe, the Bangkok Post, Apple Daily in Hong Kong…or spotted her on Poh’s Kitchen or Gordon’s Great Escape.
You might think, after reading of all these star studded appearances, that a trip to A lot of Thai Cooking School would be a commercialised, inauthentic, perhaps even impersonal experience. You might not believe that the woman I described above, is the same woman who shares her home in Chiang Mai with 3 generations of her family, picks you up from your hotel in her green 1967 Mazda 1500 (or her 1974 VW kombi van) and personally teaches all classes, 5 days per week. But, as one quick visit to Trip Advisor will confirm, you would be wrong.
A lot of Thai is currently ranked #1 out of 203 activities in Chiang Mai.
There’s a reason why all of these people are talking about Yui and it is the great fortune of those that attend one of her classes to have access to her wealth of knowledge and skills in an intimate and most certainly authentic environment (all classes are limited to 8 or 9 people and held in Yui’s own home), not to mention the pleasure of her company. I knew, when she started off by introducing herself to the predominantly Aussie class as “Yui…like chuck a u-ie!” that we were in for a good day.
This is a woman who thinks and not only about food. She is vocal about her opinions but not preachy or pushy in any way, has a good sense of humour and a special kind of presence about her. She explained that, in a way, she feels like she chooses her students by attracting a certain type of visitor who, in turn, attract others of a similar nature and way of thinking.
During our class which started at 9.30am (I think we got picked up about an hour before) we cooked Pad Thai, Green Chicken Curry, Tom Yam Soup, Chicken with Cashew Nut (recipe below), Spring Rolls and Sticky Rice with Mango. And yes, we ate it all too but there is a take away option if you can’t fit it in!
As the day went on, the basis of Yui’s success became more and more apparent. First and foremost, she is full of passion. She is free spirited but also precise, reminding us several times throughout the class of the importance of understanding science if you want to be a good cook.
“Cooking,” she says, “is 80% science, 20% art.”
She jokes about breaking the rules and rewriting the methods of others who strive for perfection.
It is obvious that she has spent a great many years studying and refining her craft, and while it is true that some of her methods may differ from more traditional ones, the results are nothing short of perfection. No deviation from the norm went without explanation and obvious consideration. Her preference for wrapping spring rolls, for example, with the rough side out instead of the smooth side preferred by most chefs, because having the smooth side on the outside results in more stress on the surface and consequently more cracks and flakey spring rolls.
We picked up so many great tips throughout the class that I couldn’t possibly list them all here but I’ll do my best to share some (and more in the recipe below). They may seem a bit random and obvious to some but might just be the one tip you need to perfect that dish you love:
1. Generally speaking tofu in the west is not as firm as that found in Thailand so when cooking it cut the pieces a bit bigger than a Thai recipe might specify
2. If a recipe calls for garlic chives, which look like the green part of spring onions but flat, you can substitute the top of leek (the dark green part)
3. Vegetables should be cut thinly on an angle to increase the surface area in contact with the heat (see photo of Yui slicing lemongrass below)
4. Coconut milk/cream – Yui warned us against buying low fat coconut milk (guilty) which basically just has more water added to it and usually costs more! Instead you should go for the coconut milk that has the highest percentage of coconut in it. We also learned that you can combine equal amounts of coconut cream and water to make coconut milk. Simple right? WRONG!
On my return home Yui was kind enough to try and help me work out whether the brands I could find were the correct consistency for her recipes (e.g. you may have noticed that you can find coconut milks that claim to have anywhere from 50% – 100% coconut milk in them which is quite a variation. She said that this was the most common question she gets and that different brands all have different contents and different names. Her guidance was that you need to check the consistency and if “it’s thick like double cream then that is 200% coconut milk and needs equal water to make normal coconut cream in my cookbook. If you add 2 times the amount of water it will be coconut milk.”
My general experience has been that in Bahrain at least the coconut milks and creams are what they say on the can but I always try to buy products made in Thailand. And I don’t buy low fat anymore!
5. Spring roll pastry should be elastic when defrosted. If it breaks, don’t use it. When frying, if the the bubbles in the oil are too small it’s not hot enough which will make them greasy and if the bubbles are too big it’s too hot and they will burn. Ideally you want bubbles of about 1/2 cm diameter (there’s that precise approach I was telling you about!)
6. Use a toothpick when deveining prawns to keep their shape intact (see below)
After a morning of cooking and learning we set off for the local market (this is only included in some classes and I highly recommend it). Despite her international success, it was clear that Yui has not forgotten where she comes from. As we entered the market, she was greeted affectionately by stall holders and punters alike and treated them all with humility and respect.
Yui took the time to show us all the different Thai ingredients and what they are used for and it was a great opportunity to pick up some things that are hard to find at home – I got some daikon (preserved radish used in Pad Thai), palm sugar paste and a beautiful decorative ladle. The market wasn’t very big and it was a fairly short trip but it was great to be able to experience it with someone so knowledgable and in a less touristy environment.
We headed back to Yui’s house to get cooking again and sat down with the group to enjoy a second feast. Everyone in our class stayed for the full day and we even had some younger chefs among us who did a great job! The class is child friendly (for older kids) but in no way did it negatively affect our experience – the girls in our class were very well behaved (and cute as you can see!)
Within this authentically Thai experience, Yui and her husband Kwan (the design brains behind their business) have also given consideration to details that may be overlooked by others – the environment, a healthy and balanced diet (they serve brown rice), quality cookware and above all else, fresh, top quality ingredients.
I would highly recommend the class both to those keen to expand their knowledge of Thai food and cooking in general, as well as those who are just looking for a fun and interesting experience to add to their itinerary. If I ever return to Chiang Mai, which I certainly hope to, I will definitely be visiting Yui and Kwan for take 2!
Yui very kindly agreed to share one of the recipes from the A lot of Thai cookbook (which is full of tips and detailed info about different Thai ingredients and is included in the class price). The dish I have made the most since returning home is Chicken with Cashew Nut – it’s quick, easy and loved by all. I’ve also added in some more of Yui’s tips along the way.
Full day and half day classes are held 5 days per week, Mon-Fri, when Yui is not travelling. Visit the website for more information about prices and the different menus and activities available – sometimes classes include vegetable carving or a lesson on making curry paste instead of the market visit. Advanced bookings are required. You can also follow A lot of Thai on Facebook, Twitter & Instagram.
[Disclosure: I attended the cooking class at my own expense and was not asked to write a review. All views expressed are my own.]
Chicken with Cashew Nut (Serves 2 – see notes below)
INGREDIENTS2 tbsp cooking oil (I use groundnut/peanut oil) 1 tbsp garlic, finely chopped 200g chicken breast, sliced 100g onions, cut into pieces (see photo above) 1 tbsp fish sauce (Yui recommend Squid brand as it is not too salty. It is available in Bahrain) 1 tbsp light soy sauce 2 tbsp oyster sauce or mushroom sauce 1 1/2 tsp palm or brown sugar 1/4 cup water or chicken stock 1/2 – 1 large red chilli, sliced 4 spring onions, cut into 3cm long pieces 1/2 cup cashew nuts, roasted or fried
Heat the oil in a wok over low heat. Add garlic and cook until light brown. Add chicken and cook for 1 minute, then add onions. When the onion looks shiny add fish sauce, light soy sauce, oyster sauce and sugar and stir until well mixed. Add the stock and bring to a boil. When boiling add chilli and spring onion. Cook for a few seconds then stir in the cashews and take off the heat.
- I realised after taking Yui’s class that I had previously been cutting my pieces of chicken too big. They should be small bite size pieces so they cook as quickly as everything else.
- Prep all of the ingredients before you start any cooking as the actual cooking time is very short and once you have started you won’t have time to do anything else in between
- The recipe can easily be doubled or made larger by adding more vegetables or meat. I often struggled to get my sauce quantities right and ended up with too salty or too bland but Yui gave us some very useful guidance. She said to imagine that the fish sauce related to the meat, the soy sauce to the veggies and the oyster sauce to both (2tbsp so 1 tbsp for the meat and 1 tbsp for the veggies). When you increase the quantities you should also increase the corresponding sauce so, for example, if you doubled the meat you should add another 1 tbsp of fish sauce AND another 1 tbsp of oyster sauce. If you doubled the veggies you should add another 1 tbsp of soy sauce AND another 1 tbsp of oyster sauce.*
- When simply doubling all ingredients you should NOT double the water/stock, just use 1/4 cup.
- If you have a thermomix you can buy raw cashews and roast them for 7-10 minutes, varoma temperature, reverse, speed 1 with the MC off.
* I hope I wrote that down right! Yui if you’re reading, please let me know if it’s wrong!