Monday, December 22, 2014

Christmas in Thailand

The holiday spirit is alive and well in Thailand this festive season. Here are three good reason to celebrate Christmas in the Land of Smiles.

Thais don't need much encouragement to celebrate an occasion or throw a party, with the trapping of Christmas - the lights, the decorations and the shopping - all embraced wholeheartedly by this Buddhist nation. Bangkok in particular is adorned as brightly and as festively as any Western city, with trees, snowmen and Santa sleighs galore. Western hotels and shopping malls are the main perpetrators, though small shops, marketplaces and even tuk-tuks are clad in tinsel and lights to spread the Christmas joy. Hotels such as The Peninsula and Four Seasons have beautiful displays, but for a one-stop gawk, head to the mega-malls around Siam Square which are smothered in decorations, including Bangkok's biggest Christmas tree outside CentralWorld.

Pic: Bangkok Post

While you're unlikely to get a 'white Christmas' in Thailand, the temperature in the north of Thailand does drop considerably in December - so much so that locals complain constantly about the cold and rug up in sweaters and balaclavas. For those of us from less tropical climes, the temperature is just perfect - warm during the day, but a chilly but comfortable 11-15 degrees Celsius at night (jackets required, if not winter woollies!) For visitors who want to celebrate Christmas, most Chiang Mai hotels offer traditional Christmas dinners, and you'll always find an ex-pat willing to toast the festive season with a Chang or two!

Christmas elephant outside of Le Meridien, Chiang Mai

Personally, I look for any excuse to get away from the madness of the season ... so why not do it on a remote Thai island? Forget turkey dinners and eggnog - give me a pad thai and coconut cocktail any day, served at a beach restaurant overlooking a tranquil emerald sea. December and January is peak season in the Andaman region - the weather couldn't be more perfect, with cool breezes, low humidity and moderate temperatures, while the mood around Phuket is buoyant and relaxed. Make sure you stick around for New Year's Eve, celebrated in true Thai style with the obligatory fireworks as well as the traditional releasing of lanterns into the starlit sky.

New Years, Thai-style

Sunday, December 14, 2014

A Cooking Class for Reluctant Cooks

Regular contributor Kristie Kellahan loves to eat. Cooking, not so much. But seems she might be a convert...

Cooking classes are one of the most popular activities participated in by visitors to Thailand. I get that, I really do. The thing is, while I certainly enjoy eating Thai food, I don’t really enjoy cooking it (or any other cuisine).

So when a friend signed me up for the acclaimed Spice Spoons cooking school at Anantara Chiang Mai Resort & Spa, the first thing I asked Chef Somchai was for his tips for people who don’t like to cook.

“Go hungry for a while and have nothing in the fridge and soon you will see the beauty of cooking,” he said and roared with laughter.

Spice Spoons offers a fresh market tour followed by a three-hour cooking class for 4500baht per person (minimum 2 people). Participants choose the dishes they would like to learn, from a range of appetiser, main, soup and dessert choices. The team at Spice Spoons does all the hard work, chopping and prepping the ingredients and setting them all out in little bowls by the gas stove stations.

Chef Somchai was my teacher. Born in Chiang Mai, he lived in Bangkok for 22 years and has now happily returned to his home city. His favourite dish is Gang Kae, a spicy curry of vegetables and pork or chicken.

Chef Somchai. Pic: Kristie Kellahan

Chef is showing me how to prepare Tom Yum Goong (spicy prawn soup), Green Curry Chicken, Pad Thai and Mango with Sticky Rice.

He promises the Tom Yum Goong won’t be too spicy, to suit my Western palate. “Just one chilli,” he grins as he slices the hot red chilli into the milky soup.

Busy people who are pressed for time might be able to cheat and buy a pre-prepared curry sauce for the Green Curry Chicken, though Chef says it won’t taste as good as making your own. The secret to good curry is taking your time and making sure all the right ingredients are included in the paste. “Curry cannot hurry,” he says.

“Thai people love green curry chicken with steamed rice,” he says. “It’s smooth and smells good and if you use chicken breast the meat is always tender.”

Green Chicken Curry. Pic: Kristie Kellahan

For the Pad Thai, the all-star favourite of visitors to Thailand, Chef Somchai enlists the help of Chef Thian. “The secret to the best Pad Thai is the quality of the noodles,” he says. Chef Thian fires up a wok and starts cooking up noodles, tamarind sauce, fish sauce, dried shrimp and a rainbow of herbs and vegetables before adding four gigantic river prawns.

Even a cook who is all thumbs (um, me) could make the final dish, Mango with Sticky Rice. Simply slice a ripe mango and serve with coconut cream and sticky rice that has been prepared with coconut milk and white sugar. “Never put the rice in the fridge or it will turn hard,” says Chef Somchai.

All dishes prepared, we were left with the best task of all: tasting the delicious Thai fare.

For details and to book, see