Meang Kum by Asia Scenic Cooking School, Chiang Mai, Thailand

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

Other ingredients

  • 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

Instructions:

  1. In a dry wok over medium-low heat, toast the peanuts until light brown and remove to cool and wipe out wok. 
  2. In the same wok, toast the coconut until light brown and remove to cool and wipe out wok.
  3. 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. 
  4. 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. 
  5. 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!

Notes:

·        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.

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