Thai Cooking Tips Learned from Vegan Heaven Chiang Mai
Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand is heaven for vegetarians and vegans. My in-laws are the authors of The Great Life Cookbook, as well as macrobiotic vegan chefs in Ithaca New York. We knew they would love a vegan Thai cooking class from Vegan Heaven while traveling with us in Thailand.
I served in the Peace Corps in Northeastern “Issan” Thailand from 2003-2005. That was before I gave up eggs and dairy and started eating mostly vegan. Eating out as a vegetarian in a small town did have its limits. Eating paht pahk roo-ahm (friend mixed vegetable) got old that first year before I became fluent in Thai, so I started cooking for myself.
I would go to the market, see an ingredient I’ve never seen, and ask the people selling it how they cooked it. Friends would come to my house and make vegetarian versions of dishes I loved in my kitchen. That is the best way to learn. Watch someone use the space and cooking equipment you already have to make their signature dishes.
But not every foreigner in Thailand has that luxury! Taking a cooking class has huge benefits where ever you travel. When I was 25 years old I took a cooking class in Bangkok with famous vegan Thai chef May Kaidee, and that changed my life and my kitchen forever. And I will never stop seeking ways to grow as a vegan cook.
We are so glad Vegan Heaven in Chiang Mai had space for our family group to take a cooking class!
Here are some vegan Thai cooking tips that will help you prepare even more delicious food in your own kitchen:
#1 Lettuce can be your best friend when rolling fresh summer rolls
Laying a single layer of lettuce down on a rice wrapper before adding filling is a great trick for rolling fresh rolls without puncturing the skin. Here are the steps for rolling fresh rolls that will stay together and look great:
- Soak the rice wrapper in room temperature water
- Remove the wrapper from the water before it is completely soft
- Keep the rolling surface wet and the rice wrapper will continue to soften as you fill your roll
- Place lettuce leaves on the paper first ridge side down so you can put filling in the trough they create. This protects the wrapper from being poked by filling
- Roll the lettuce first to line up and shape the filling inside the lettuce leaf. Then bring it to an edge of the rice wrapper and roll.
- If you are adding something you want to be seen through the wrapper (normally this would be shrimp, but sweet basil leaves and mint leaves on a piece of tofu look pretty
- Be creative. The ends of the roll can be open or folded closed. Various ingredients can be used in addition to lettuce leaves, thinly sliced red cabbage, shredded carrot, cucumber sticks, and tofu.
- And be generous with the sweet basil! It’s so delicious.
Here’s the way I rolled summer rolls before taking the cooking class at Vegan Heaven. This way works too!
#2. Sour tamarind is a secret sauce of som tom, pad thai, spring roll dipping sauce
It’s a bit embarrassing to admit because I lived in Issan – the home of som tom – but I never realized it is common to use tamarind in som tom!
During Peace Corps training, I watched my host mom make tamarind paste by squeezing the soft tamarind fruit in water and removing the seeds and other stiff parts. She would do this before making pad thai, and her pad thai was on the moon delicious. All of her cooking was, actually. Having a jar of sour tamarind paste in the fridge is easy and adds a lot to these dishes.
#3. Sweet basil and holy basil are different!
Both have purple stems and leaves that are more narrow than Italian basil, but they are very different. Sweet basil has purple flowers (that are not eaten), and it’s used in sweeter dishes like stir fried pumpkin. Holy basil smells spicy and is used in spicy basil or pot grah-pao and drunken noodle.
#4. You can cook Pad Thai noodles in the same pan as the tofu and vegetables
The gas burners often used for Thai cooking are concave so concave pans can be tilted. This means you have more control of where the pan gets hottest. Not just in the middle! The pan can be tilted after cooking the non-noodle ingredients in pad thai, push those ingredients up, and add a dry pad thai noodles and just enough water to cover them to the little well created by tilting the pan. That’s how you can cook pad thai noodles in the same pan as the other ingredients but keep them separate until cooked. When the noodles soften, you can mix it all together just like the people selling pad Thai on the street do in Thailand. I also learned that thicker pans are easier to control. A thin iron wok cooks food fast, so for people with less cooking experience this can mean the garlic and other ingredients will burn fast.
Bonus tip! Add ketchup to pad thai to enrich the color.
#5. Masaman Curry is an Indian Chinese beauty born in Thailand
Masaman taste like no other dish I’ve had in Thailand. It has Indian and Chinese influence expressed in cinnamon, cardamom and potato, smoothed out with creamy Thai coconut milk and soy sauce. Cut the carrot and potato in big stew-size chunks and cook them until soft. So nice.
#6. Roasting sticky rice takes forever, smells amazing, and makes laap very special
The spicy Issan salad larp is the only dish I know of that used ground sticky rice, and it’s such a nice dish. When I started roasting the stick rice, I stirred it about once a minute. Then some kernels were changing colors and others weren’t. It was time to stir and toss them constantly to make each grain of rice golden. It probably took 15 minutes of almost constant attention, but it paid off when the amazing smell started to permeate the kitchen air. And I love food processors, but when I ground it by hand using a stone mortar and pestle, the blissful aroma was gradually released and oh so lovely. And normally I would think to fry mushrooms for vegan Laap Heht, but we boiled them instead. This made the mushroom flavor milder and made it possibly to showcase the spicy and sweet lime dressing and fresh mint. Bonus tip: Adding fresh mint to savory salads makes them special.
Mortar and pestle are important tools in Thai cooking. The small palm-size ones are used for medicine. The medium size stone ones are used for grinding roasted rice, peanuts, etc. The big mortar and pestle the size of your torso is used to make salads like sohm dtahm (papaya salad), dtahm dayng (cucumber salad), dtahm poh-lah-mai (spicy fruit salad).
#7. When cooking with kaffir lime leaves, remove the center vein
In the US I buy a bag of kaffir lime leaves from the Asian grocery and keep them in my freezer for making dtohm yahm (tom yum hot and sour soup) and dtohn kah (coconut soup). Our cooking instructor showed us that removing the center vein of the leave releases the flavor. You can add thinly sliced kaffir lime leaves to stir fries as well.
I hope you learned something new! If you come to Chiang Mai, be sure to stop by Vegan Heaven and sign up for a cooking class if you can. When you cook vegan Thai food after that, you will taste the difference.