Cooking Up a Storm in Chiang Mai

Cooking Up a Storm in Chiang Mai

The bustling university town and tourist center in northern Thailand, Chiang Mai (population 160,000), formerly capital of the northern Thai kingdom, receives 5 million visitors annually. In addition to offering cultural and tourist attractions in-town, it is a jumping off point for local excursions: trekking to see the nearby hill tribes, trips on elephant back, by river raft and swinging through the jungle canopy on a zip-line.

In-town, Thai cooking classes have long been popular. They provide an easy and quick way of learning the basics of Thai cooking while having some fun and enjoying a meal. I had been meaning to take a cooking course on previous visits, but this time I took the plunge and asked Roy Hamric, ex-editor in Alpine, now resident in Chiang Mai, for advice. He immediately recommended Permpoon Nabnian, an owner/chef. I signed up for the 7-hour class the next day, costing $30.

Thais love to eat. They call snacking Kin Len (“play eating”) and the term for eating is Kin Kaol (“eat rice”). Thai cooking influences come from China, India, Laos and Malaysia. The main ingredients are peppers, garlic, lemon grass, coconut milk, Chinese celery, eggplant, ginger and rice. The basis is a chilli paste (Nam Phrik) which is often used, especially with dried shrimp. For their curry, Thais substitute coconut oil for ghee and fresh herbs for spices.

The next morning, punctually at 8.30 am, a car arrives at my $15/night guest house. The driver, aged in his 40s, dressed in white shirt and black pants, is Permpoon himself, and he tells me to call him Perm (“just like my hair,” he jokes).  We head off to pick up the other students in our class. They turn out to be two young Taiwanese, studying in China and on a brief vacation in Thailand.

We are only three students since some Chinese have cancelled because of illness. Therefore we will each get more personalized tuition and also the class will end earlier, maybe around 2,30 pm. Perm explains we will first go to the market and learn how to identify the best eggs, rice, vegetables and fruit. We will then go to his home where the class takes place. As we drive, Perm reflects on the smaller numbers of students he has been getting recently, which he puts down to an increase in the number cooking schools; he feels he has lost out on internet bookings.

We go to a produce market, and prowl around the vegetable and fruit stands for 15 minutes while Perm makes some purchases according to what we have already decided to cook. Each of us has had a choice of .three options for three different dishes, also spring rolls. I have chosen pad thai (a classic Thai dish of noodles, tofu and bean sprouts), stir-fried mixed vegetables, green curry chicken, plus  spring rolls with plum sauce, and sticky rice with mango.

From time to time Perm stops and tells us how to judge the produce by size and freshness. Smaller eggs are better. We learn there is rice and there is sticky rice; how to test freshness by looking at the color and also squeezing the produce. I notice another cooking group with a young girl as teacher, so I think we probably have a good choice in Perm who has been doing this for 20 years.

We drive to his home in the suburbs, a two-story house with a large open-air kitchen in back. Everything is spotless and all the equipment looks new. We each take one of the cooking stations, where there are various pans and utensils, and a burner. For someone who has done daily cooking classes for 20 years, Perm seems remarkably enthusiastic, making frequent jokes. He explains that, before starting to cook, we will go out to the garden behind the kitchen and pick beans, peppers and lemon grass.

After picking the vegetables, we each put on an apron, as does Perm, while he explains how to handle the utensils and outlines the cooking sequence for the next three hours. We get prepared to some keen chopping, pounding and blending even before we light the stoves. The curry paste for example has 7 ingredients.

The Taiwanese students obviously have some cooking experience, and I´m enjoying myself so much that errors I make, which Perm quickly points out, don´t worry me. Perm leads us in the prep drill, chopping up broccoli, mushrooms and Chinese cabbage and occasionally he throwing a morsel to a tame white rabbit, which apparently lives in the house. Perm stands at his own cooker, leading us by example, and occasionally breaking off to come to one of us to make a correction or a joke. As we finish cooking a dish, we put it underneath the work counter for later reheating and consumption.

We take a break after two hours and sit down on a mat while Perm demonstrates with a tiny carving knife how to carve a delicate rose out of a tomato. Then it is back to the wok and the completion of our chosen dishes, including the flambé routine when Perm has our cameras ready to record the big flames as we engage in vigorous stir-frying. Finally, around 1:00 p.m. we carry our cooked plates out front to a veranda and sit down for lunch. I have trouble finishing, but am tempted by the fruits Perm has brought as dessert: rambotan, which look like a hairy strawberry, and a round fruit with a back skin (mangosteen), both of which are opened up with the fingers to reveal a small oblong white fruit, refreshing and delicious!

We´re tired and hot, and now over-fed. Perm signs a certificate commemorating our one-day course, gives us a copy of his printed cook book as a souvenir and drives us back into town. We´ve had a good cultural experience with an experienced, fun teacher – for $30. If you are in Chiang Mai, check

Jim Glendinning About Jim Glendinning

I am a Footloose Scot who has traveled to 136 countries. "I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel's sake. The great affair is to move." Robert Louis Stevenson
Read about Jim Glendinning and his book Footloose Scot: Travels In A Time Of Change


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    • Jim Glendinning Jim Glendinning says:

      Thank you, it’s always nice to get positive feedback. More stuff coming up soon: a new book, an article on Camping on the Rim, and on a Singing Bus Driver named Campbell!

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