Cooking schools are the latest travel trend to hit Thailand, with every hotel worth its salt opening one. Here are three of the best.

Thailand is a kingdom of gastronomic wonders guaranteed to delight travelers to the land of smiles. Sweet, sour, spicy, garlicky, lemony, whether it be a simple tom ka (coconut soup) gently infused with lemongrass and intensified with green chilly, or yam som o, a refreshing flavor sensation mixing pomelo with chicken and prawn, Thai food has long fascinated lovers of Oriental cuisine.

Cooking schools have become the latest trend on the Thai travel scene, and every hotel worth its salt is joining the fare. Employing some of the best chef’s in the country, they give travelers an opportunity to peek inside the vast world of Thai cooking, teaching not just technique, but how to choose the best ingredients, etiquette when dining with locals and insights into a society that lives to eat.

The Cooking School at the Four Season’s Chiang Mai

It’s another glorious morning in the hills of Chiang Mai, with a soft yellow sun filtering through a mass of lush greenery as guests gather for head chef Pitak Srichan’s Chef’s Choice Cooking Class”. Housed in a large air-cooled sala designed by hotel guru Bill Bensley, the school has individual cooking stations at which guests can strut their new skills.

Selecting his favorite five dishes, Chef Pitak is about to take us through a morning filled with chopping, stirring, note taking, mess making, and finally eating. But first things first: for newcomers to the sport, Thai cooking can be a little perilous, which is why the Four Season’s has installed a Buddha House next to the school.

“We give offerings to bless the spirit of our ancestors, grandmother and grandfather” says Chef Pitak. Already bejeweled with fresh flowers, a croissant, two pomelos and six rambutans, one by one we add bunches of burning incense sticks. “Nine in each bunch for luck, to protect you from the kitchen”, says the jovial Chef with a giggle.

Then comes a walk through Thai cooking’s most intoxicating ingredient: fresh herbs. Ensuring a constant supply of the organic type, the resort grows its own. There are neat rows of lemongrass and kaffir lime bushes, prized for its citrus scented leaves. “If you can’t pronounce ka– meaning lemongrass in Thai language, then have a shot of vodka. Or maybe even two. Really! It makes it much easier to say!” says Chef Pitak.

We pick a bunch of sweet basil for the sumptuous roast duck red curry on the “to cook” menu and then it’s into the kitchen. Chef Pitak begins each dish with a demonstration, explaining cooking skills, what to substitute hard to find ingredients with and how to select the best while the class sips on fresh lemongrass tea. It’s a long day, but we are rewarded with a fabulous best roast duck red curry- spicy, creamy and rich.

Classes run from 7am to 2 pm Monday to Saturday, each day featuring a trip to the market and different kind of Thai cuisine; Monday, spicy salads, Tuesday, soups and noodles, Wednesday, freshwater fish, Thursday, curry, Friday, appetizers; Saturday, the Chef’s choice. A trip to the local wet market and lunch are included.

Three Four Season’s three-night Essential Thai Cuisine packages including breakfast and two days of cooking start at HK$13,860 per couple. Non-resort guests are welcome to join for HK$1,170, but must book in advanced. Regular classes take up to eight students; larger groups can be catered for by arrangement.

+66 (53) 298 18; www.fourseasons.com

Chiva Som Hua Hin

Head chef and instructor at Chiva Som’s weekly cooking class, Paisarn Cheewinsiriwat, champions’ wholesome foods that heal. His students learn how, and more importantly why, to cook food that is “low in fat, sugar and salt, high in nutrition and big on taste”.

The food at Chiva-Som International Health Resort, which was recently added to British Airways’ first-class menu, reflects its wholesome-living philosophy. Forget ducking out for a quick pizza here: the resort is miles from anywhere and only the healthiest of cuisine is offered at their two restaurants. “Chiva-Som is about health- we grow our own organic vegetables, use free range chickens and employ a family of fishermen to supply us with their daily catch”, runs the blurb. There is no sugar, no fat and definitely no excess boozing; guests are limited to a glass of red or white wine a day. But the regime isn’t exactly punishing; Chef Paisarn knows how to cook tantalizing food without its attendant evils- and daily board includes a daily Thai massage.

“Oil”, he says “is the chief assailant”. We are cooking red curry and there isn’t a drop in sight, nor any coconut milk, the king of ingredients has been substituted with low fat milk instead.

“Only use nut or olive oils, and then just a little. Swap the salt for the soya sauce and the sugar for this” he says, adding an apple concentrate with the consistency and sweetness of honey, simply made by boiling apple juice. “But, its still essentially sugar, so not too much”, Chef Paisarn tells the class, many who have been on the “programme” for a week plus. Cooking is hands on and the menu includes red beef curry, spicy chicken salad, stir-fry king fish and cucumber and egg soup.

Two-hour classes for a maximum of six students are held every Wednesday 4- 6 afternoon and cost HK$500; private tuition can also be arranged. Classes are open to hotel guests only. Three night full-board packages including daily massage and participation in health and fitness activities start at HK$10,800 per person.

+66 32536536; www.chivasom.com

The Peninsula Academy Cooking School

Etiquette is a big part of Thai dining, as Ms Saipin Loaharanu, director of social affairs and protocol and at Bangkok’s Peninsula Hotel will tell you. No talking with your mouth full? Elbows off the table? No reaching across your companion’s plate? All of that and more.

We are sitting in the basement kitchen of one of the hotel’s restaurants, where guests can graze after a morning spent cooking with the hotel chefs. The scene is slightly surreal; a lone, elegantly dressed table surrounded by industrial stainless steel benches and carving knives, two silver service waiters and a mountain of food our class prepared after a morning visit to the market.

The heart and appetizing soul of the Thai community, the local talaat, market, was abuzz with activity; the mornings catch was spread out on tables of ice and fanned with plastic bags by aging women with few teeth as the cities restaurant buyers hustle for the prize fish. Driving us through an atmosphere thick with pungent herbs, nose tickling spices, gossipy whispers and raucous bargaining, Saipan had explained the most important part of learning Thai cuisine: finding the plumpest and freshest ingredients available, and buying them daily, so they remain that way.

“Traditionally, eating is a social event. Thai people like to entertain while they feast”, Saipan explains. “To maximize the party, we share. Dishes are placed in the middle of the table and everybody takes a spoonful, one dish at a time, before moving onto the next”.

Selecting a variety of dishes, the Thai meal is punctuated with taste and spicy intensity. Gracious and generous hosts, Thais will also make sure their guest is full, usually by ordering too much. “In Thai culture, rice has a Goddess- we pray to the rice and the hardship that has gone into producing it”, Saipan says. “And finish your food. The Goddess of Rice will cry if you don’t”.

Classes are supervised, with limited hands-on cooking. Half day classes are held in the mornings and include a trip to the local market. On the menu are spicy pomelo salad, spring rolls, roast duck red curry and sweet angel hair of egg yolk on the menu. Prices start at HK$935 a class. They are also part of the Thai Culinary Experience package that includes two nights’ accommodation, meals and classes in fruit carving and Thai desserts for HK$8500 per person. Bookings, which should be made at least two weeks in advance, are essential.

+66 28612888; www.peninsula.com

This article appeared in the February 15 2005 issue of the South China Morning Post’s Travel.