The cherry snail. The sworn enemy of the humble grain of rice here in Thailand, according to our guide, the slender, sure-footed Apple. My daughter Rae (nine) is staring ahead, po-faced, unconvinced. She loves snails. This is the child who, after a rainy spell, painstakingly gives the creatures a lift to the other side of the pavement to prevent them becoming bird fodder, or being squished underfoot. When very little, her favourite book was about these molluscs.
“Why don’t they like the snails?” she enquires. Apple, who has ever-so patiently helped my hot-and-bothered children wriggle into their traditional Thai farmer outfits (baggy trousers and tunic made from thick, indigo-dyed mor hom fabric, and a straw hat), is smiling bemusedly. “The snails eat the rice we plant,” she explains. “So do the birds.”
Here in the Mae Rim Valley, the Four Seasons Resort Chiang Mai plants ‘sticky rice’ in their picture-perfect terraced paddy fields, as it only takes three months to grow (jasmine rice, the nation’s most esteemed long-grain variety, can take up to five). But this relatively short growing season is fraught with danger. Unlike most rice producers in Thailand, the resort doesn’t use pesticides — with, sadly, inevitable consequences. “We only reap around 20-30% of the crop, due to animals eating them,” Apple explains.
As we wend our way to our specified paddy field, we snap shots of a blue denim-clad scarecrow standing guard in a sea of green rice shoots, ready to scare away the pesky critters that have them under attack.
The rice season kicks off with the first rainfalls in May, when seeds are planted in the freshly ploughed nursery paddies to germinate. After 45 days, these fledgling plants are transplanted to the main paddy fields to ripen. It’s this stage my family are here to help with.
Rae and her brother Luca (seven) had grumbled at being dragged away from the pool to put on clothes in 30C-plus heat. But now they’re in their welly boots, the prospect of mud-squelching is clearly starting to appeal. The resident sun-weathered rice farmer, Sanwan, holds up clumps of rice shoots. Using the universal language of mime — supplemented by a little explanation from Apple — he ensures we’re soon amateurishly transplanting shoots from the mud into the paddy fields.
“I didn’t realise we’d actually get to do this,” says Rae, holding up her handful of green shoots ready to plant. She turns out to be a real natural, deftly planting her rice in batches of six shoots, roughly four inches apart, before moving onto the next bunch.
Luca, on the other hand, is still recovering from the inevitable ‘accident’. The mud here is akin to quicksand, and when his foot gets stuck, he reels backwards — instantly becoming, quite literally, a stick-in-the-mud. While we do our best to suppress giggles, Luca — clearly the offspring of city folk — is unable to raise a smile. Thankfully, Apple is on the walky-talky back to base in a flash and he’s soon re-clad in fresh mor hom and happily back squishing mud, albeit holding my hand.
Thailand and rice go hand in hand. This is the national staple, eaten for breakfast, lunch, dinner and dessert, and for millions, life still revolves around the rice season: in the North May-July; December-January elsewhere. The paddy fields at Four Seasons Resort don’t just supply the hotel’s kitchens — although without pesticides the yield is meagre — they give guests a hands-on taste of day-to-day life here in Chiang Mai.
Cooking up a storm
Planting rice is back-breaking work. At one point, we stop to survey the fields of green, and it dawns on us how much effort goes into producing just a handful of grains, let alone the kilos and kilos we buy to cook at home.
Next morning, the rice theme continues with a three-hour Thai cooking class, held at the resort’s outdoor Cooking School, an imposing, purpose-built, wooden pavilion. We pass the Shrine to Grandma and Grandpa, the school’s protective spirits; Thais believe every building is watched over by a spirit and it’s customary to leave offerings of food and decorate them with flowers garlands. For some reason, today it’s attracting a swarm of bees — a good omen, apparently.
We’re here to cook Thai-style, with three dishes on the menu: steamed fish, egg-fried rice and phad Thai. Chef Tor, a calm, jolly man, is our teacher. No kitchen nightmares here — his easy manner and friendliness put us instantly at ease. Seated on high stools, we watch as he demonstrates how to crush garlic, chop chilli and spring onion and prep the other ingredients. In teams of two — mother and son, father and daughter — there’s an air of sharp-elbowed MasterChef competitiveness about us as we’re let loose at our own kitchen stations.
Luca helps me chop the vegetables and I take responsibility for the ‘cooking’. The first dish is easy, as once the fish is prepped on a bed of sliced ginger, spring onion and coriander root, the school’s magic helpers whisk it away to steam. The other ingredients are pounded to a paste with the pestle. It’s not long before both kids need cold flannels for their eyes and mouths, having somehow covered themselves in chilli.
The second dish, egg-fried rice, requires lots of frying in a scorching-hot wok. The egg is stirred and cooks quickly, then the other ingredients (baby corn, peas, broccoli, shitake mushrooms, white onion, tofu, spring onion) are added in quick succession.
Adding the magic ingredient, the rice, is the easy part, and Luca is enjoying being a helper. Rae, working at a slower pace, next to her dad, has a eureka moment: “This is the rice from the paddy fields?” Chef Tor acknowledges this, then shows how to cut the cucumbers into heart shapes — a technique the kids love so much they’ve continued to do back home. Turning the tomato into a rose proves more of a challenge, involving a very sharp knife and ample supervision. With the final dish, pad Thai, getting the garlic, chives, prawns, tofu, dried sweet turnip, cashews and lettuce in and out of the wok on time is critical.
If the goal is to cook an edible dinner, our team does well, with Luca and I creating three reasonable Thai dishes — all laid out for us to dine post-cooking. We obviously rib the father-daughter team for their poor pad Thai (noodles uncooked and rubbery), and while the fish proves too spicy for the kids, my team’s noodles and egg-fried rice is a hit.
There’s a certain pride in what we’ve achieved, as well as recipes to take away with us so we can hone our skills. The plight of the snail is far from our minds (it will be interesting if we ever have a French cookery class involving l’escargot), but we now try to eat every grain of rice on our plates… hopefully that’s something that stays with us for a long time.
How to do it
Carrier has 10 nights for the price of eight from £6,850, based on two adults/two children sharing a Family Residence at Four Seasons Resort Chiang Mai for three nights and a Family Villa at Four Seasons Resort Koh Samui for seven, with return flights with British Airways from Heathrow, connecting flights and private transfers. The rice-planting and Cooking School activities can be booked separately at the Four Seasons Resort Chiang Mai. Offer valid for travel until September 2016.
Published in the Summer 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller Family (UK)