Corbin and I went to an amazing cooking class in Chiang Mai, Thailand. The set-up was terrific; each student had individual, fully-equipped stations for both prepping ingredients and cooking. We made multiple courses, and each student had a choice of what to cook from several options. Our teacher somehow managed to teach 4 different dishes simultaneously to 7 different students of different cooking skills, providing tips, adding an extra dash of this or that, and/or adjusting the burner slightly to make sure everything turned out perfectly. I can’t even carry a conversation about the weather and cook at the same time! Anyway, everything that we made turned out delicious. But before we even started cooking, they served us a welcome snack that is a Thai tradition. It was actually quite simple, and I was honestly pretty skeptical at first but then was absolutely delighted at the explosion of flavors that I ended up eating all the extras. It reminded me of my favorite scene from the movie Ratatouille, when Remy (the rat-chef), describing his love for food to his gluttonous but undiscerning cousin, closes his eyes and sees fireworks when combining ingredients: “Pow pow pow!”
Ingredients for shallot-ginger syrup:
- ½ cup palm sugar, chopped*
- 1 shallot, minced
- 2 cm piece ginger, grated
- 1/2 Tbsp fish sauce
- 1/4 cup water
- 16 betel leaves*
- ½ cup shallots, diced to 0.5 cm
- ½ cup ginger, diced to 0.5 cm
- ½ cup lime pieces, diced to 0.5 cm**
- 8 small Thai chilis, left whole if very small or thinly sliced including the seeds if larger
- ½ cup unsalted peanuts
- ½ cup coconut flakes
- In a dry wok over medium-low heat, toast the peanuts until light brown and remove to cool and wipe out wok.
- In the same wok, toast the coconut until light brown and remove to cool and wipe out wok.
- Make the syrup: simmer palm sugar, minced shallot, grated ginger, fish sauce and water over medium-high heat until shallots are soft and the syrup is thick. Let cool.
- Pour the syrup in a bowl and place all the other ingredients in piles on one big platter, or create individual plates with a bit of each ingredient.
- Instruct diners to assemble their own snack by placing a little bit of every ingredient in the middle of a leaf, pouring a bit of the syrup on top, folding the leaf into a little bundle, and popping the whole thing in their mouths. Enjoy!
· Palm sugar: this is a common form of sugar in Thailand, and is made from the juice of palm fruit, and cooked down to form a syrup, paste or cake. Light brown sugar would be a good substitute.
· Betel leaves: Called bai chaplu in Thai, these glossy dark green leaves (the size of your palm) don’t have a very strong flavor so they really just serve as the edible packaging. If you can’t find these, you could substitute another palm-sized edible green leaf, but I would stick to something like red leaf lettuce, and avoid anything with a strong flavor (e.g. no kale). (Not to be confused with betel nut, which many people in Asian chew, like chewing tobacco, for its stimulant effects.)
· Lime: The Thai limes used in this recipe have very thin skin and are the size of a walnut. If you are using the variety of limes widely available in the U.S., which have a thicker skin, then zest the lime, peel it, cut the flesh into small bits and toss with the lime zest to get a similar flavor without the bitterness of the thicker white pith.