Learning Thai with Noinaa

The last time I came to Thailand I tried to learn a little Thai beforehand.  I got a book and audio CDs: Complete Thai by David Smyth from the Teach Yourself series.  I used a few online resources too.  However I didn’t get much opportunity to use it.  Most of the Thai people I met preferred to speak English.  It did come in handy when I took the Sunshine Network massage course in the Lahu village.  Thai was also a second language for the Lahu family whose house we stayed in and they had no English.

Before the current trip I did a little revision but I was struggling.  My lovely husband proposed to get me some tuition with a native speaker.  We did identify someone, but it was too far to travel and too little time to organise.  Jess, who I met the last time I was staying at the Chiang Mai White House recommended studying with Noinaa once I got here.  A few emails were exchanged and we agreed to meet.

Thai is in many ways much easier than European languages.  There is no need to change the form of the verb to represent the person or the tense.  There are no gender words the like ‘le’ and ‘la’ in French or ‘der’, ‘die’ and ‘das’ in German.  The main problem comes from the use of a different writing system and the fact that the same sounding word can be pronounced with one of five tones, and the vowel sound can be short or long.  Each of these permutations can give the word an unrelated meaning.  For example a word which to my ears sounds close to ‘cow’ can mean any one of white, rice, knee, news, horn, he/she, enter or ‘a fishy smell’.

Studying with Noinaa at the Chiang Mai White House

I met with Noinaa after being here a few days to settle in.  She listened to what I was struggling with and then adapted her lesson to use words which featured the vowel sounds I was finding difficult.  For two hours with the patience of a saint she found ways to cover different material whilst emphasising these sounds.

I would have loved to have had another lesson mid-week, but after massage school each day I was to drained so we met again the following weekend.  This time Noinaa started with a discussion of what I’d eaten for breakfast.  Then she helped me go through the expressions that I might need whilst giving a massage.  “lay on your back,”  “turn on your side,” “extend your leg.”  A discussion of the different ways that the word ‘mai’ could be pronounced, one of which means ‘wood’, and is used for the wooden skewers to hold meat for barbecue, brought us back to the topic of food.

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my sessions with Noinaa and I hope it will be possible to arrange another one before I leave. for anyone spending time in the area I would recommend getting her to take you through the basics so that you can say a bit further than the ‘hello’ and ‘thank you’ that most westerners manage.  Noinaa provides lots of extra resources via her blog and also offers sessions via Skype.

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 Thai Cookery Day

The last time I stayed in Chiang Mai I would often be walking past the Asia Scenic cookery school on my way back from massage school or on my way to get something to eat.  Whatever they were doing in there they seemed to be having a good time!  Knowing that I had a few days to get over my jet lag and settle in this time I arranged to do a full day course with them.

We met at the school just before 9am and were assigned to a group.  We met our teacher, Merry, and headed out to the little local market “Sompat Market”.  There Merry taught about some of the ingredients, and showed us where to buy them.  All the ingredients for the day were supplied by the school but it was helpful to be shown what they look like on the market stall.  Back at the school she showed us the little organic herb and vegetable garden at the back and talked about the various properties of the plants.

Merry shows us how its done

After a quick snack it was down to work making our first stir-fry.  Merry gave a demonstration, made us chant out the proportions of sugar, fish sauce and oyster sauce we should used (proportions of 1:2:3 in that order) and then off we went.  Could we remember everything she did?  No, but it didn’t matter because Merry flew between all nine of us telling us when to add the next thing to the wok, when to turn the heat up or down or off, when to serve it onto a place and somehow within a couple of minutes we were all back at the table tucking in.  And guess what?  It tasted fantastic.  Given that it was still only 11am it’s just as well I had skipped breakfast.

Next in the running order were spring rolls.  Two of us followed Merry’s instructions and stir-fried batches of the filling.  Merry then showed us how to get a perfect roll and the secret to having the perfect fried finish.  (Make sure the the soft surface of the wrap is downwards before you start.)  Then we fried them in batches, served them and ate them too.

Preparing the curry paste

Next Merry had us preparing ingredients for soup, carefully chopping or slicing and placing the ingredients on a plate in groups according to when they would be added in the cooking process.  This was all set to one side and we then prepared ingredients for our chosen curry.  Again these were set to the side under covers whilst we gathered round again to make batches of curry paste.  There were three basic mixes, and then the red curry paste was split and various other ingredients incorporated to make several derivatives.

Finally came the time to cook everything.  More certain of ourselves this time, and safe in the knowledge that Merry would ensure we did the right thing at the right time, the woks started clattering and the currys came together in a few minutes.  We put them back on the table under covers and made the soup – my choice was “Tom Sab” a spicy soup with mushroom and kale.   At last we sat down to eat it all.

Mango with sticky rice

For those who had arranged the half day it was time to go home.  However three of us were booked for the full day.  We then prepared two more dishes.  First we made the coconut flavoured sticky rice needed for “mango sticky rice”  Something I’ve never seen before was using a tea made from butterfly pea flower to colour the rice blue.  (Yeah, blue, isn’t there a law against blue food?)  Olivia, from Istanbul, made banana in coconut milk instead.  Then we prepared the dressing for papaya salad.  This was a bit of a cheat because the papaya and carrot had already been shredded for us.  By the time we had eated all this newly prepared food we could barely move.

After saying our goodbyes I headed back to The White House for a rest.  After chatting to BP, the manager there, I decided to take myself off for a Thai massage at a nearby place he recommended.  It was indeed very good and that meant that I had a great siesta around 5pm as the temperature peaked at around 40C.

It being Saturday there is a night market just outside the South gate to the walled city.  I wandered down there and faced the crowds to pick up some Thai-style cotton 3/4 length shorts as I’ve been finding the Slazenger ones I bought at home quite uncomfortable in the heat.  I certainly didn’t need to eat again, so I picked up a coconut smoothie on the way out of the market and made it back to the guest house for an early night.

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Travel to Chiang Mai

This is my fourth visit to Thailand and my third to the northern city of Chiang Mai.  Each time I’ve taken a different airline.  This was my first time with Oman Air.  The flight out of Heathrow was delayed by about 45 minutes due to the crew not turning up.  Apparently they were stuck in a traffic jam outside their hotel.  It seems that whilst they insist that we mere passengers turn up with three hours to go, the flight crew cut it rather finer.

The change of planes at Muscat was therefore a hurried affair and I was concerned that whilst I had made it with a few minutes to spare, my luggage may not have done.  After a second flight of four and a bit hours we arrived at the beautiful Suvarnabhumi Airport in Bangkok and by the time I had cleared visa control there was my bag going round on the carousel.  Feeling a little jaded by then I lugged it up to the fourth floor and checked it in again for my connecting flight to Chiang Mai.  Bangkok Air have the wonderfully enlightened practice of opening their lounge to economy passengers, providing free snacks and WiFi.  I passed the two hour wait there.  The flight was uneventful and I love the way that at Chiang Mai airport the pilot just taxis up to the building and parks the aircraft.  Passengers disembark, and just walk into the building.  No fuss with buses or sky-bridges here.

It was gone 11pm local time by the time I arrived so rather then try to find a tuk-tuk I just grabbed a taxi.  You can arrange it all whilst waiting for your luggage and then just go outside and find your driver.  About 15 minutes later I was walking up the narrow lane to the Chiang Mai White House, where the night watchman was expecting me.  Whilst he was copying details out of my passport I grabbed water and beer from the fridge and wrote it in the honesty book.  Total time from leaving home to arriving in my room here: 26 hours.  I was ready for bed!

I’d like to give a shout out to Steve, one of my longest standing massage clients.  He gave me this hang-up wash bag for Christmas and it works perfectly.  Being away for three weeks one needs full size containers of things like shower and shave gels and toothpaste.  This was just the right size for everything I needed on that front.  Bathrooms in guest houses very often don’t have much by way of shelving, although the one here does have a small shelf.  But this wash-bag hangs perfectly on the towel rail.  As the showers here are generally wet rooms everything in the bathroom can get wet if one isn’t careful.  However, the towel rail is usually in the place that’s likely to stay driest.  Another related feature of Thai bathrooms is that one usually keeps the toilet paper out of the bathroom to avoid soaking the whole roll.  In any cases Thai toilets come with a ‘bum shower’ so that you can wash rather then wipe after using the toilet.  The toilet paper is used to dry oneself.

So my first full day has been spent getting over the jet lag and getting used to the heat.  I walked to the massage clinic  where I’ll be studying from Monday, had a siesta, went to the nearby temple for a massage, walked around the little local market getting a few bits and pieces and called in at another temple on the way home.  Chiang Mai is full of temples.

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Leek and Potato Soup


Happy New Year everyone.  We’ve had several meals this week using up leftovers from the festive season, often combining them with provender from the allotment.  Last night I diced the remainder of a gammon joint and put it into a black bean stew made with the Cherokee Veil of Tears beans.  Today lunch was home made bread with Leek and Potato soup using chicken stock from the weekend’s roast.  Both the leeks and potatoes came from the allotment.  The leeks are the first I’ve pulled from a row which are looking quite handsome at the moment.  The potatoes are Charlotte, so ideal as salad potatoes.  However they are getting a bit green and starting to sprout in the bag now so we have been peeling them well and using them up.  They’re delicious.

Meanwhile the seed catalogue is already laying about on the sofa and I’m starting to make a list of what we would like for the coming season.  I’ll get the seed box out at the end of the week and see what I have already.  I’ve saved a few sweet potatoes to grow slips from.  It’s tempting to chit the Charlottes from the bag, but one is supposed to start with disease-free seed potatoes each year so I think I’ll be a good boy and do that.

Anyway, here’s the recipe for the soup:

160g leeks (just the pale parts)
160g potato
100g onion
25g butter
1 level tsp dried mixed herbs
1/4 tsp powdered fenugreek
1/4 tsp salt
450ml approx, chicken stock
a little milk
100ml single cream

All of those were weighed after preparation and this made three large or four smaller portions of thick soup.  Fry the onion gently in butter until it starts to go transparent, then add in the leeks and continue to fry until they are also transparent.  If you have a good layer of fat on the stock you could use that to fry in.  Add in the potato and herbs and fenugreek and fry a little longer.  This will take about 10 mins in total.

Add enough chicken stock to cover.  If your stock is very salty you might not need to add salt, or be cautious and adjust at the end.  Bring to the boil and turn down to a simmer until the potato is very soft.  About half an hour.  Allow to cool a little before liquidising.  If the result is too stiff to churn over in the liquidiser add a little milk.  Return the soup to the pan, add the cream and heat whilst stirring to keep it from sticking to the pan.  Adjust salt at this stage if necessary.

You could garnish with chives. I didn’t have any, but the flat leaf parsley is still holding on, sheltering under a seat on the patio so I used a few leaves of that.


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Butternut Thai Red Curry

No posts for a while.  Several were intended but nothing quite made it to the Publish button.  Tonight I’m supposed to be out dancing at an Argentine Tango masked ball with live music, but I’ve had a cold this past week.  Partly I don’t have the energy for a late night and also it seems horribly unfair to dance cheek to cheek with someone and possibly give them a virus for their trouble.  (Although that’s probably how I got it, dancing at the Rivoli Ballroom last Saturday.)  Anyway the upshot of all that is that you get a post on what we had for dinner last night.  Riveting right?

My lovely allotment neighbour gave me a spare butternut squash seedling last spring.  I already had most of my squash and pumpkin planted out so I tucked it in next to the yacon I’d just planted.  It fruited late, as I understand is normal with butternut, and produced four stumpy fruit.  I have a recipe for a Thai red curry using butternut and tofu.  I’ve done it using Crown Prince pumpkin and tofu, but we found the tofu a bit of a let-down.  I have lots of white Spanga Bianco (Bianca?) beans this year so I decided to substitute those.


Quantities for two servings:

100g dried white beans (you could substitute a can of butter beans)
1 tbs oil
1 level tbs Thai red curry paste – or more to taste, all depends on the type you use
450g butternut or other orange squash, this came out at 350g once the skin and seeds were removed.  Cut into cubes.
50g solid creamed coconut
half a veg stock cube in 0.5pt/300ml water
6 kafir lime leaves (I used frozen)
handful of frozen peas

I soaked the beans overnight in water, threw that water away, rinsed them and boiled them in some fresh water until soft whilst I was making lunch earlier in the day.  Keep the water the beans are boiled in as it will act as a thickening agent and can be used to make the vegetable stock for the recipe.  I prepared double the amount of beans I wanted so that I have some in the fridge ready to go for something else in the week.

You can use a tin of coconut milk but a normal size tin will be too much and you would have to reduce the amount of water used to make the stock a little.  The thing I like about the creamed coconut in a box is that it keeps forever in the fridge and you can just cut off as much as you want and include it in your recipe.  Frozen Kafir lime leaves can be found at an Asian supermarket or spice shop.  You get quite a lot so divide the pack into useful quantities and re-freeze in individual sandwich bags.

This is all pretty simple.  Put the oil and the curry paste in a frying pan with a lid or a wok.  Mash it all together as it heats for a minute and then throw in the squash, turn the heat to moderate and stir fry for a few minutes.  Add the stock, creamed coconut and lime leaves and bring to the boil.  The block of coconut will melt and blend in with a little stirring. Cover and simmer for ten to 15 minutes until the squash is just cooked through but not falling apart.  Meanwhile cook some rice.  If the squash is done before the rice just remove from the heat.

Add the cooked beans and the frozen peas, bring the whole thing back to the boil and simmer for about two minutes.  Fish out most of the lime leaves before serving as, like bay leaves, they’re not for eating.  If you like a sharper taste you could add the juice of half a lime, and a chopped red bell pepper would add some more colour interest.  Or even a chilli pepper if your curry paste isn’t that strong.  If it needs more salt use soy sauce to taste, or Thai fish sauce (nam pla) if you don’t want to keep it vegetarian. You could garnish with fresh coriander if liked.


We liked this version a lot better than the tofu one.  It’s super-fast in preparation, even when you are feeling miserable with a cold and it was great for clearing the sinuses!  We have plenty of the white beans and plenty of orange squash so it’s going to be repeated several times this winter.

If you have any other recipe suggestions for those things please do let me have them.

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On Pots and Beans


Here’s a quick update on the ‘Fire Station’ pots finished with the gold lustre on the neck, which are currently on display at ArtSpring Gallery in Tonbridge.

They’ve raised quite a bit of interest and, encouragingly, a sale too.  They are a real departure for me in terms of colour and finish but now that I’ve had a play in that direction I’m tempted to try to re-create the colours that appear on some of the leaves in the garden as they turn red and yellow.

As anyone who grows veg will know – now is the time to be planning the planting of garlic.  It should apparently be in the ground by the shortest day of the year.  I’m not sure whether I’ll grow any this year but there is a good crop almost ready in the pottery.  I’m planning to fire these in preparation for the re-hang of the gallery at the start of next week.  If you’re available why not come along to the gallery on Thursday evening to see the new show?  The gallery is open late on the first Thursday of the month, until 8pm.  This is an initiative led by the gallery (Times of Tonbridge article here) and a number of other nearby retailers are joining in.

dozengarlicsThe Garlic storage jars are the only things I currently make in earthenware, so that they remain breathable.  They’ve been very popular over the years I’ve made them.

Meanwhile on the real veg growing front we have been harvesting the last of the drying beans.  The white Spangna Bianca beans have done particularly well.  I hope to get to the allotment next week and take the bean canes down.  No doubt I’ll find a few pods which haven’t dried yet, but I’ll pick them anyway and use the beans fresh.  I feel another post coming on with a recipe for a warming bean casserole, stew or soup.  I have a few but new recommendations are always welcome.

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Cherokee Trail of Tears

Last Autumn local artist in handmade paper Julie Taylor gave me about a dozen beans of “Cherokee Trail of Tears.”  The name refers to the forced relocation of the Cherokee nation from their native lands in Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Alabama to the Indian Territory (present day Oklahoma) between 1836 and 1839. Naturally enough the incoming settlers wanted their valuable farming land, and also the gold thought to be present there.

The story goes that these beans were carried in pockets during the forced march, and planted in their new home.  Whether or not this is a romanticised tale the continued growing of this heirloom variety is a reminder of the shallow commercial values that actually drive politics, and how that rides rough-shod over ordinary people.  This alone would be reason enough to grow it.  However this climbing bean turns out to be a vigorous grower and prolific cropper.

The beans can be eaten green although they are a inclined to have a bit of a string which modern varieties have lost.  If left to mature on the plant the pods turn the most attractive maroon colour and once they start to dry they have beautiful black beans.


I had also planted “Cobra” which provided more than enough green beans for us to eat and freeze so after a few pickings I left the rest of the Trail of Tears to mature for drying.  I’ve picked the first bagful and shelled them.  I’ll let them dry on newspaper for a few weeks before putting them in a jar ready for a black bean stew.  This bowlful came from only a few handfuls of the pods so I’m sure I’ll have a large jarful for the winter.  I also have a white drying bean “Spanga Bianco” and Borlotto “Lingue di Fuoco” to harvest so we should be looking forward to a regular bean feast.

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