Make Spicy, Sweet Coconut Meals with a Hill Tribe in Thailand
The lime in the coconut, indeed.
There are no official measuring spoons in this cooking class in Thailand. When chef Sahara Lachoe, who goes by Doh, sprinkles cinnamon into a pumpkin coconut dessert, he uses the lid of the spice jar. Everything else is eyeballed.
“We eat simple, because it’s hard to get many things,” says Lachoe, who is part of the Akha hill tribe, a marginalized community that lives in the mountains in northern Thailand.
Cooking classes are common in the city of Chiang Mai, as are excursions with hill tribes, which have many communities in this part of the country. The Thai Akha Kitchen allows a chance to combine both cultural trips, where guests get to cook and then eat 11 dishes, many of which are Thai and some are Akha.
The Thai foods include pad thai and chicken with hot basil. We whack lemongrass with the flat side of a knife and fold a kaffir lime leaf to tear the stem from the center. We also learn a few dishes from the Akha hill tribe, where the homegrown ingredients have more straightforward aromatics, like lime, chili powder, crumbled peanuts, and cucumbers as big as butternut squash.
In addition to showing the dishes he learned as a child, Lachoe takes moments in the cooking class to sit down with guests, eat food together, laugh, and talk about his tribe.
The Akha hill tribe migrated here to Chiang Mai in the early 1900s, coming through China, Laos, and Myanmar. Back then, though, the country wasn’t called Thailand. This northern area was known as the Lanna Kingdom, which sat just above Siam. The two united in 1939 under a new name—Thailand—meaning “land of the free,” since it was never colonized by Europe.
“With money, people don’t trust each other. We don’t have that.”
While the surrounding country speaks Thai and eats noodles or stir fry, here the hill tribes still speak Akha, live in huts with straw thatched roofs, and eat largely vegetable-focused dishes.
“We don’t use soy sauce, fish sauce, oyster sauce,” Lachoe goes on. “My mom just uses salt.”
Salt, he says, makes the coconut milk creamier, for the pumpkin dish and mango sticky rice, which we eat in the class in between the appetizers and the first course. In Thailand, desserts are eaten at any point during the day, not at the end of a meal—to which we students all eagerly nod, instantly converted. It’s a cooling break from the spicy papaya salad we just made and the chile-filled curries coming up next.
During the class, Lachoe hands me a green squash, which I’m told to cut and add to my broth. The word for squash in Thai is “fuk” and the word for green is “kiow.” When you put the two together, it sounds like a rude suggestion in English. There’s a sign on the wall that says “I love Fuk Kiow soup.”
The curry is more labor intensive than I imagined, since I have to grind up shallots, garlic, chilies, galangal (which is similar to ginger, but tougher), and lime rind with a mortar and pestle until the stubborn solids somehow become a paste. It takes several minutes and results in a sore arm.
Then comes the exciting part with a white-hot wok. My poor excuse for a paste and chopped veggies go in the pan, and the fry happens in seconds, until Lachoe comes over to pour in coconut milk, soothing the angry hiss of metal until it’s a bubbling, simmering sigh.
When a guest inevitably mentions putting a lime in a coconut, Lachoe gives a wide grin and says, “Oh yes, I’ve heard this a lot.”
It’s by far the most delicious curry I’ve ever made.
The method is one chefs across Thailand swear by. “We take a long time to smash the curry paste with a mortar,” says Executive Chef Lakana Suakeaw of 137 Pillars House in Chiang Mai, known as Chef Mam. “When I start to stir fry, just smelling that curry…that smell is my family.”
Chef Mam learned to cook from her father, just as Lachoe learned from his parents as a child. The food carries the heritage.
Lachoe came to work for the Thai Akha Kitchen at the request of the owner, Niti Muelaeku, who is also from an Akha hill tribe. Her village is up in the mountains, and it takes around three hours from the city to get there.
“Akha is on the margin. And social media can help everyone understand about Akha people.”
In Lachoe’s village of Doi Ngam, there are about 200 houses, most with a straw roof, though many are being swapped for tin roofs, which require less maintenance. Straw roofs must be replaced every three years, and repaired the day after any torrential downpour, which happens frequently in the tropics. Still, he prefers the old traditions.
“I liked my village best when we didn’t have electricity,” Lachoe says. He describes how, when the first TV came to the village, everyone in the tribe would gather around to watch something as a community. As more and more TVs came, the people started separating from each other.
Community has been a significant part of the Akha hill tribe’s culture. People help each other on neighboring farms as favors, mutual understanding, and non-monetary exchanges. In fact, there is no money here.
“With money, people don’t trust each other, they don’t trust that people will work. We don’t have that,” Lachoe explains. “People go ask each other to help out. No money, just exchanges.”
But a little money has been introduced and hidden away in the Akha tribe. And though its role started off small, its influence is growing. “Things change,” says Lachoe. His parents now own a tea and coffee farm. “We don’t have time to grow vegetables as much, because we have to focus on tea and coffee.”
“We want the tourists to come back.”
The small villages work to sustain themselves and are starting to make a meager living off of tourism, for travelers who are interested in seeing other cultures. Of course, the Covid-19 pandemic has affected these rural mountains just like everywhere else. “We want the tourists to come back.” Lachoe says. “Akha is on the margin. And social media can help everyone understand about Akha people.”
The Thai Akha cooking school helps Lachoe preserve a part of his culture. Though located within the city of Chiang Mai and easily accessible from the old city, the building is modeled after a traditional Akha hut. Along with the Akha dishes of fuk kiow lemongrass soup and chile cucumber salad, we also learn to make sapi thong, an Akha sauce made of ground up peanuts, chile, and tomato. We place the sauce on a lettuce cup with some vegetables, and let the impactful flavor speak for itself.
To add a Thai twist, on some cups Lachoe includes a bit of cured egg, which has a bright pink shell and is black on the inside. The Thai version of a century egg, it’s preserved for weeks in clay, ash, salt, and quicklime. The smell is pungent, the texture gel-like, and the flavor is full of umami—distinct and delicious.
Every guest who attends the culinary school receives a 45-page cookbook, which is published in seven different languages and won a Gourmand award in 2020. After the class, attendees also get a spice packet so they can make one of the curries at home with original Thai ingredients. The packet includes dried kaffir lime leaf, chilies, lemongrass, and galangal—aromatics that are a bit harder to come by when not in Thailand. They’re swappable, sure, but nothing beats the real deal, even for a first-timer cook like me. Armed with a cookbook, packaged spices, some memories, and more reliable phone recordings, all I need now to taste a bit of my trip is a big mortar and pestle. And maybe a few bicep curls.