03 April 2013

Chiang Mai Thai Cookery, Day 2 of 3: Lions and Tigers and Tom Kha Gai, Oh My!

My second day at Chiang Mai Thai Cookery was even better than my first . . . I knew what to expect and felt friendly with Chef Pon. I knew where to find the coffee and felt oriented with my cooking station. We were in the large cooking studio so I had a new cooking station, but the arrangement was exactly the same.

I was joined by a large group of Canadians here in Thailand building houses with Habitat for Humanity, a very cool lady from Germany, and one of the girls from my previous class. Our cooking lessons for the day consisted of Chicken in Coconut Milk Soup (Tom Kha Gai), Red Curry with Fish (Gaeng Phed Plaa), Fried Mixed Mushrooms with Baby Corn (Phad Hed Ruam Khao Pod Om), Fried Big Noodles with Thick Sauce and Pork (Raad Nah Muu), Papaya Salad (Som Tam), and Steamed Banana Cake (Khanom Kluay).

Before we even got to the cooking studio, we were given a tour of one of the local markets. And we got to taste fresh coconut, quail eggs, savory waffles, and the most delicious pineapple on the planet! The pineapples are smaller and juicier in Thailand than they are in the States. And these particular pineapples were being served to us by Chef Pon's sister and mother.

We learned about ant egg soup, which is apparently quite good. You could buy the ant eggs with the ants actually hatching out of their eggs right before your eyes.

Several stalls were selling a variety of fish. I got excited when I saw live frogs and catfish. But while I was talking to them--the frogs and the catfish--I realized the lady behind me was grabbing them up one-by-one and killing them right there on the spot. Nothing like watching life and death happen right in front of you, in a span of about 30 seconds.

Then I turned around and found this pig head. The pig head didn't bother me as much as the frogs and catfish, probably because he was already dead. But as I stared at him, I kept thinking about the horse head in The Godfather. I think I felt like a really great scene in a movie was about to take place. I also thought this particular pig head looked rather salty, and I'm not exactly sure why . . . Do they cure pig heads in salt? To keep the flies off, perhaps?

Walking around this market completely reminded me of my last day in the Philippines. It's always so much fun to go to local markets and see what types of things are for sale: the variety is incredible!! I ended up buying small fruit-filled cookies and brightly colored jellied stars covered in sugar. The cookies were super-good (and they are now gone) . . . But the jellies taste like perfume, so they aren't so great. But they are beautiful to look at!

When we finally arrived at the cooking studio, our first order of business was Tom Kha Gai. I have had this particular soup a million times, but never realized how easy it is to make. This soup had the most intense flavor of everything we made today. Spicy, but sweet. Hands-down my favorite meal of the day. (It seems that I am always partial to our first dish. Probably because I am so excited!!) 

Helping us get started was the founder of the school, Sompon Nabnian. He was wearing a blue shirt and a hat that said Playboy in huge letters. I found him later on in the day, hanging out by the small lake on the back of the property. He wrote the cookbook that was given to me at the start of the program and he is a regular on several cooking shows in Thailand as well as the BBC.

Another dish that we made that I found thoroughly fascinating was Raad Nah Muu. We took very thick rubbery noodles and cooked them all together to create a sort of patty that we poured vegetables over. The flavor was quite salty and spicy. It was really good, but the texture of the noodles was new for me. They were sort of gelatinous. It tasted amazing, just gooey. The dish photographed beautifully!

Before we made our beautiful desserts, we made a mixed mushroom stir-fry. It was pretty standard, but we got to play with decorating our food a little bit. We used our knives to carve stars into the tops of the mushrooms. And some of the students curled their green onion tips into curly ribbon. (Every time I tried this, I would invariably rip off the green onion tip.) Another beautiful dish!

Our dessert was filled with coconut and a pure delight to make! Like preparing banana bread, we squished together a banana and several other ingredients to create this dish. More like a pudding than a cake, the ingredients are steamed in a banana leaf bowl that has been folded and stapled together. We poured everything into our bowls and topped it off with coconut and sugar. Then we set all of our Banana Cakes into one giant steamer and steamed them for 35 minutes. They were delicious!!

My next and final course with Chiang Mai Thai Cookery is on Saturday, the day before I go back to Singapore. Yet again, I am very excited to be cooking a variety of new dishes beginning with yellow curry!

When everyone else left the cooking school to go back to their hotels, I caught a jeepney to Tiger Kingdom. During the entire second half of my cooking course, I had been having severe moral issues about going to see the tigers. I wanted to do it because--as an animal lover--when someone tells you there is a place where you can go and meet one of the most powerful cats on the planet, you go to that place. But I knew I wouldn't like the conditions they were living in. And what's worse, everyone from that day's cooking course kept telling me that they were emaciated and unhealthy. So I was really torn.

I ended up going because I thought I truly needed to experience this for myself. 

The baby tigers were hilarious. The ones that were only a few weeks old kept chewing on my knees and playing with the ties on my pockets. They would take a running start and slide into me, as if they were a big floppy puppy. It was a mess of cute to watch. Their chew toy was a mango that was still too new to eat. So it was hard and easy for them to gnaw on. 

Tigers are cats/kittens and they act accordingly. When I would rub the little tiger's belly, he would push me with his back feet. I really wanted to squeeze his face, but they wouldn't let me get near the tigers' heads. But I did let the baby tigers bite on me, which I got into trouble for twice. The babies moved around a lot, so it was really hard for me to get a good image of them.

When you arrive to each of the cages, the men (yes, only men) inside the cages are wearing short-sleeved shirts and jeans, and carrying sticks to direct the cats with. I was very clear with them about not using the sticks at all, that I wanted the cats to react to me as they would. Only once did one of the guys try to hit one of the tigers, one of the largest ones. It was because the tiger started flicking his head around and he thought his face was getting too close to me or something.

Basically it went like this: I chose to see 3 sizes of tigers and during one of my sessions, a photographer would take pictures of me with the tiger. I chose for my photos to be taken with the largest tigers. I saw the tigers in this order: small (babies), giant (below), and medium. And within each cage, several tigers were meandering about. So really, if one of the tigers decided that this was his chance to take down humans it would have been very easy for him to do so. I was locked in, and they were a heck of a lot stronger than me and the man with a stick.

When I got into the large tigers' cage, it was still as if they were just large domesticated cats. None of them looked thin or unhealthy. And they played with a fierce power, something I had never seen before--especially up so close. You can see in my series of images with Joyia (the big girl above and below) that she is lazing about in a very cat-like manner. (She looks unhappy, but I really don't think she is.) She sees one of the other cats in the pool, raises her head in a very hunting-esque manner, and within seconds she is in the pool and they begin this play-fight: water splashing everywhere and big cat growling. Lots of big cat growling! Once they were done, I found her again and got some more pictures taken with her.

I felt really strange about the whole photography thing. There were some young 20-somethings there acting like they were in a Rick Ross video, using the cats as props. And that's what they sort of tell you to do at Tiger Kingdom. My photographer kept wanting me to lounge on the tiger, play like it was some glorified stuffed animal. But I couldn't do it. That wasn't my purpose. It's a living thing, not a toy.

I actually think that some of the better images were taken with my small camera, when I was in the medium-sized cat area. They were very playful with humans, as they were much younger than the big cats. So I was able to give them big pieces of wood to carry around and they would walk right up to me and plop down in a hey-will-you-pet-me sort of way. While I found it hard to smile during my time visiting with the larger cats, these medium-sized tigers (and the babies from before) provided me the opportunity. I was grinning ear-to-ear when this cat rolled over for me to scratch his belly!

What I liked about Tiger Kingdom: being able to meet tigers and touch them, squeeze their toes and rub my hands up and down their tails. I got to call their name and they would respond. I would watch them eat bamboo leaves and hack them back up again, just like a normal house cat with grass. I got to count their stripes as I rubbed my hands all over their bellies. And, I got to experience something extremely personal and magical that I will never-ever be able to experience again.

What I didn't like about Tiger Kingdom: the grounds were far too small to keep all of these animals here. There is no reason they couldn't have a facility somewhere further out in the countryside of Thailand where the tigers could run around on lots of grass. As it was, they had a small play area with some water pools. It was almost entirely cement with a few grassy spots. And they had to rotate and separate out the cats, meaning that some of them would be in much smaller cages for very long periods of time. (You can see some of the tigers pacing the smaller cages behind me in some of these images.) 

I also didn't like that there were men in cages with sticks, and they seemed to have a very teasing sort of attitude with the tigers instead of respecting them for being majestic animals. I don't know it for sure, but I have heard that these tigers are drugged. I don't believe that we should drug animals to get closer to them. If we aren't supposed to be close to them, then maybe we shouldn't be . . . But I benefitted from this, so who am I to say. 

And even though I paid money to do this, I think the exchange of money for meeting an animal that is caged rubs me the wrong way. Especially when the animals are being used as props. There just seemed to be a lack of education on and respect for the animals as a whole, which really bothered me. It was definitely a money-making scam, and not about educating the public on tigers. I hope that they honestly use the money for conservation purposes and the well-being of the tigers, which is what they claim.

I think by far the worst part of my trip there was seeing the lion. This giant, beautiful creature was asleep on the top of a table in his very tiny cage, back behind a bunch of other empty cages. He opened his eyes when he saw me approach him, but closed them again as if embarrassed. This lion was not being treated like a king, and that made me the saddest of all.

Would I do this again? No, probably not. I do not like zoos, and I do not support the living environment of these tigers. But I'm not sure what the cure to these types of establishments are . . . People should get a chance to learn about animals and experience them in some sort of natural state. But so far, I haven't been anywhere that remotely fits the perfect situation. Perhaps Africa has some places? But then where do we find that kind of big land in other countries? 

Hmmm. Food for thought.

Up next? My first day living with the elephants!

No comments:

Post a Comment