Thai and You Will Succeed: The Battle to Perfect Pad Thai

How to Cook Thai Food in Thailand: Cooking School Chiang Mai

To toot my own horn a bit, I can cook. I cook well. But the one dish that I love to eat, but always botch up in the kitchen is Pad Thai. Over the years, I’ve found at least fifty different recipes listing fifty different sets of ingredients. They’ve all been wrong. So when I came to Chiang Mai, Thailand, I knew that a cooking class was mandatory. Not only would I finally learn how to make Pad Thai, but I’d get my wife to increase her recipes by five. (Before our Thai cooking class, she knew zero recipes.)

How to Cook Thai Food: The Baan Thai Cooking School


The Baan Thai Cooking School in Chiang Mai looks like a family’s home decorated by someone with quite poor taste–traditional Thai paintings clash with photographs of Marilyn Monroe. Sculptures of regal elephants are the same size as those of feral cats. Long tables, sixteen inches off the floor, occupy the middle of the main dining room. There were three rooms like this. All of the students grabbed a seat on a floor mat and leaned against a Thai pillow.


“You must pick one from each category,” the instructor, Duom, informed us. There was a stir fry section with three offerings, where Pad Thai was an option. Similarly, students could pick one soup, curry, appetizer, and dessert, each with three options, too.


When I eat Thai food at home my order always includes green curry, Pad Thai, and spring rolls, and since arriving in Thailand sweet and sour Thai soup, called Tom Yum Kung, and fried bananas have been added to that gastronomical repertoire. I checked off those dishes and listened to Duom explain the difference between sticky rice and jasmine rice.


“Sticky rice is sticky,” Duom declared. I worried that the rest of the class would be as in-depth as that, but he quickly proved that his sticky-rice-is-sticky comment exhibited wit. He showed us all of the tools and methods necessary for cooking sticky rice, which is actually more intricate than one would imagine. Especially for a Westerner who is used to making rice with a pot, fire, and water. Sticky rice requires those items along with a rice bag and strainer. There are more rules for preserving the carbohydrate, too.


After the rice presentation, we went to the market and learned all about Thai eggplants–bitter ones that look like capers, round ones that look like ping pong balls, and longer ones that look like eggplants–the varieties of basil, the complex versions of ginger, the various chilis necessary for the different curries.


Market Visit Chiang Mai Thailand: Best Pad Thai Recipe

Mouse Shit Chili and Other Things Not Meant for Cookbooks


“This little chili is for green curry,” our instructor said. The Baan Thai cookbook lists ingredients and that particular curry has the desirable name of Mouse Shit Chili. The cookbook also provides unintentionally humorous descriptions of each spice’s properties. For instance, there are numerous euphemisms describing how a spice, herb, or vegetable can remedy bowel problems. Such descriptions include, but are certainly not limited to:


Cinnamon: treats “gastrointestinal problems… diarrhea.” (Something you love to read about in a cookbook.)
Clove: relieves “flatulence”
Nutmeg: “advantage in… flatulent colic”
Galangal: “eject air from intestines”
Sky Pointing Chili: “reduce gas”
Lemongrass: “reduces wind”
Eggplant: “reduce bleeding intestines.”


We selected our varieties of noodles, our lemongrass, our bumpy kaffir limes and our smooth regular ones. We talked about the uses for old coconut (making milk) and ripe coconut (drinking), unripe papaya (salads) and ripe papaya (fresh fruit). And Duom showed us the only acceptable oils–soya, rice, and palm. Peanut oil was never even mentioned.


Cooking in Chiang Mai

In the Cooking School Kitchen


Back at the kitchen we broke into groups. Pad Thai was first on the list. (Sorry this is a true story, otherwise I would have saved this dish for the final challenge in the story.)


“Because the garlic is little,” Duom explained, “you can eat the shell. You just smash it up like this and then chop.” He placed the garlic down on his cutting board, a cross-section of a tree trunk, and began to smash with the flat-side of his cleaver. We mimicked him and then cut up chives, diced our tofu, sliced limes, sprinkled some dried shrimp into our partitioned prep platter and then walked to the burners and woks on the other side of the wall.


On our shelves were the liquids necessary for making nearly every Thai dish–fish sauce–and the all-important oyster sauce, soya oil, and sugar (not a liquid).


“First we start with the oil,” Duom said. He ignited the flame and measured out a spatula full of oil. Since our metal spatulas resembled shovels, all of our measurements were in spatulas. There was no such thing as tablespoons, teaspoons, cups, or pinches. Everything was a spatula or half a spatula.


We browned the garlic, then dumped in the tofu and dried shrimp, cooking it for half a minute. Then we added the chicken. We pushed the salmagundi up onto the side of the wok, added more oil and cracked the egg, scrambling it until it was ready to combine with the ingredients already in the pan.


“Quick, three spatulas of water and then stir around the dried noodles.” Then came the spatulas of fish sauce, oyster sauce, and sugar. A little heat hit the bean sprouts and chives. The flame was turned off and the dish was plated.


We had sweat pouring down our faces, but our creations were delicious.


Making Curry Chiang Mai Thailand


“Thai Wednesdays when we get home,” I told Marissa, though in retrospect I should have said Thai Tuesdays because I rather like alliteration.


I won’t bore you with the details and intricacies of preparing soups and rolling spring rolls, and then taking a nap before pestling curry paste and deep-frying coconut covered bananas. Just know, by the end of the course, you feel as if you could work at a Michelin Star restaurant.


“You know half of us are going to leave here and make the worst Thai food we’ve ever eaten in our lives,” I told my neighbor.


“Everything tastes so good because we have all of the right ingredients that we bought fresh at the market,” she responded.


Cooking School Chiang Mai


If you make it to Chiang Mai, I would recommend Baan Thai, since they offer classes in English with no more than 9 persons per group. Plus my food was awesome.


For those of you unable to book a flight to Thailand, here’s the recipe for great Pad Thai. It requires the least ingredients, most of which can be purchased at home. Best of luck to you. If you can’t seem to replicate this dish, don’t, as I did, blame the recipe writer. I’ve eaten this exact dish and it was perfect Thai food. You’re probably just a terrible cook. But have some faith because if Marissa can do it, anyone–ANYONE–can do it.


The Best Pad Thai Recipe


Recipe serves one:


3 Tbsp oil (The Baan Thai cookbook doesn’t use spatulas. It shouldn’t make a difference)
1 Tbsp chopped garlic (Don’t use skin at home if using big garlic.)
50 g tofu
Dried shrimp to taste (a sprinkle)
50 g chicken
1 egg
1/2 C water
250 g rice noodles
1 tsp sugar
2 Tbsp fish sauce
2 Tbsp oyster sauce
20 g Chinese chives (or spring onion)
30 g bean sprouts
A sprinkle of chopped peanuts and spray of lime


If you want to take the Pad Thai challenge, here are five other recipes, which I found by simply Googling “best pad thai recipe.” Follow the above recipe and one of the five from this list. (In fact, any Pad Thai recipe will do.) Then vote in the comments section on which one makes the best pad thai. Anyone that participates in the challenge will receive a second Thai recipe, putting you one step closer to planning the ultimate date night. The rest of that evening is up to you or Google. (To save you time, here’s the first link when you type “best date night.”

Posted on by Noah Lederman in Asia, Somewhere

8 Responses to Thai and You Will Succeed: The Battle to Perfect Pad Thai

  1. paula

    what fun
    can we expect a family thai dinner some time in september

  2. sam

    you can expect it…..but you ain’t gonna get it.

  3. Eve Lashar

    I’m coming to dinner!!

  4. Lindsey & David

    I can’t wait for Marissa to cook us some yummy pad thai!!! 😉

    Looks like it was a lot fun.

  5. Lester

    … and the perfect wine to go with the sitdown dinner you’ll be making is ….

  6. Pingback: Review: The Shangri-La Hotel in Chiang Mai, Thailand | Somewhere Or Bust

  7. Amalric

    Friday night in my village: sitting in a bamboo hut, drinking Marula fruit cream from a sachet, while friends discuss Nigerian politics.

  8. Alan

    I went to Bann Thai a year ago. Just tried making Pad Thai at home using the recipe book but 250g of DRIED rice noodles is far too much – the other ingredients were needles in a haystack. More like 25g lol.

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