Aoi’s homestay cooking school in Northern Thailand

Guide Soon helps Swiss guests Andrea and Jasmine pound their curry pastes

One of the most memorable experiences of my recent trip was an overnight homestay in a traditional family compound in the village of Baan Mae On, around 45 minutes from Chiang Mai in northnern Thailand.

Somket Silphisuth - or Aoi as she is generally known - offers cooking classes at her homestay in the village of Baan Mae On, 45 minutes from Chiang Mai
Somket Silphisuth – or Aoi as she is generally known – offers cooking classes at her homestay in the village of Baan Mae On, 45 minutes from Chiang Mai

The experience started in Chiang Mai, where Amy, a member of our host family, took us to the JingJia farmers market to stock up on ingredients for the cooking class that was the central activity of the homestay.

On arrival at Baan Mae On, after settling in to our traditional accommodation in teak longhouses, we set to work with Amy, her mother Aoi and numerous other members of their extended family in whose home we were guests.

Guests Liz, from London, Jasmine from Switzerland and Jeevan from Canada cut banana leaf ready for wrapping sweet sticky rice desserts
Guests Liz, from London, Jasmine from Switzerland and Jeevan from Canada cut banana leaf ready for wrapping sweet sticky rice desserts

Curry pastes were pounded, ingredients chopped, fried, steamed and simmered throughout the afternoon as we prepared the daunting menu. Fortunately many family members dropped in to lend a hand, their experienced hands making up for the slow pace of we guests.

The lengthy menu appeared daunting to inexperienced Thai cooks
The lengthy menu appeared daunting to inexperienced Thai cooks

The kitchen was an impressive and attractive setup, in a covered pavillion with open sides. Gas powered cooking stations for all twelve guests faced towards head cook Aoi and as we worked, she and other family members along with our Intrepid guide Soon kept an experienced eye on use, ensuring that we were preparing our meal in the correct and traditional manner.

Your humble correspondent at work in the homestay kitchen
Your humble correspondent at work with fellow guest Elaine in the homestay kitchen

In addition to the step-by-step instruction, Soon had assembled all the recipes cooked on this occasion, along with those prepared at a previous cooking class in Kanchanaburi, into an attractive booklet, which has become one of the go-to sources of recipes for dinner parties since my return home.

Guide Soon helps Swiss guests Andrea and Jasmine pound their curry pastes
Guide Soon helps guests Andrea and Jasmine pound their curry pastes

The results of our efforts were well worthwhile, and as we enjoyed them in traditional style seated on the floor of the family’s living room, while being royally entertained with traditional music peroformed by students of the local school, led by their teacher.

Some dishes of the meal prepared during the homestay
Some dishes of the meal prepared during the homestay
Entertainment during dinner is provided by local school students and their music teacher
Entertainment during dinner is provided by local school students and their music teacher

When we had finished eating, we were invited to have a go at playing some of the instruments. My efforts on a traditional stringed fiddle produced sounds that would curdle blood, inspite of the patient instruction of my young tutor, who responded to this cacophony with unfailing courtesy and praise of my talent! Other guests with more musical talent than I fared much better.

We were then led to a candle-lit grotto in the garden where more young locals performed traditional dances for us before we were invited to write our names and good wishes for the future onto delicate paper lanterns, which were launched to carry our prayers into the night sky.

Local school children perform a variety of traditional dances following dinner
Local school children perform a variety of traditional dances following dinner
Local school children perform a variety of traditional dances following dinner
Local school children perform a variety of traditional dances following dinner
Lighting prayer candles
Lighting prayer candles
Lighting prayer candles
Lighting prayer candles
The khum loy lanterns are released, carrying our prayers into the night sky
The khum loy lanterns are released, carrying our prayers into the night sky

The next morning we were back in the kitchen to prepare traditional Thai breakfast dishes, including fried rice and fresh fruit, which was added to the sticky rice dessert dishes that we had been far to well-fed to consider eating the previous evening.

Soon demonstrates the correct preparation of breakfast fried rice
Soon demonstrates the correct preparation of breakfast fried rice
The finished dish - breakfast fried rice
The finished dish – breakfast fried rice

The homestay is a fantastic experience, thoroughly recommended and was easily the highlight of the week long food tour of Thailand operated by Intrepid Travel. In addition to the opportunity for immersion in traditional Thai culture and hospitality, they provide an important supplement to the income of this farming community.

Fairfax Media in Australia recently published a story on Aoi’s homestay experience.

Our names and best wishes for the future are written onto a paper khum loy lantern

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