During my first trip to Thailand, I had no idea what I was going to eat for the next three weeks. Oh sure I'd been to many Thai restaurants in the U.S., but I hadn't ventured much beyond Pad Thai and maybe fried fish. I wasn't excited about the prospect of stuffing fried noodles down my throat for the better part of a month.

Luckily for me the first hotel I chose in Bangkok boasted having "The world’s first menu with serious and learned annotations." The Atlanta is a wonderful budget hotel with a fabulous Art deco lobby located near Soi Cowboy, a red light district where men can meet "bar girls" at clubs named Fanny's and G-spot. The Atlanta posts a prominent sign at the entrance which states "Sex Tourists Are Not Welcome." When I arrive in the lobby, I'm given a refreshing glass of juice with a coaster that pledges "Zero tolerance & sleaze free zone," the perfect place for a woman traveling alone and on a budget.

More important to a picky eater, like myself, was that The Atlanta has an extensive ten page menu with detailed descriptions of each of their northern & southern Thai dishes "“ along with some Western-style fare. As long as I stayed in the Atlanta my gastronomic experience was secure, but what happens when I head north to Chiang Mai?

I found my answer by taking a cooking class at the Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School. I signed up for two days of cooking classes taught by Sompon Nabnian, who opened the first cooking school in Chiang Mai in 1993. I was introduced to turmeric, lemongrass, red and green curry, and shrimp paste "“ along with other ingredients that I would encounter in most Thai dishes. Sompon also told us about substitute ingredients we could find easily when I returned to the States.

The first morning felt more like a wood carving class. We carved festive garnishes. I whittled leaves out of thick carrot slices and lotus flowers out of tomatoes. I even made a rosebud out of a tomato skin. Clearly the Thai pride themselves on food presentation.

What I learned to prepare on my first day (from Course #5):
– Thai hot & sour prawn soup
– Green curry with Chicken
– Thai style fish cakes
– Thai Fried Noodles (Pad Thai!)
– Northern style minced pork
– Water chestnuts with sugar syrup & coconut milk.

What I learned to prepare on my second day (from Course #1):
– Clear soup with minced pork
– Spring rolls
– Red curry roast duck soup
– Chicken with ginger
– Chicken in Pandanas leaves
– Mango with sticky rice

Each class had approximately 8 students and each student had their own cooking station in the veranda of Sompon's home under a canopy of palm trees. The food was delicious and my fellow "chefs" came from the U.S., England, South Africa and Germany. I left the cooking class with new friends, a full stomach and a newfound optimism about my upcoming dining experiences in Thailand.
I also received a cookbook with the recipes for all 5 courses, which I can use to showcase some of my culinary adventures with my friends.
The Chiang Mai Thai Cookery School now offers master classes designed for professional chefs. Average courses run only for about $25 per day. http://www.thaicookeryschool.com/

The Atlantic Hotel
78 Soi 2, Sukhumvit; 011-66-2-252-6069, fax 011-66-2-656-8123

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