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Thai Food and Travel: An Authentic Cultural and Culinary Experience

By Allison Wilson

If you were to add together all the dishes served in American Thai restaurants, they would represent only 5 percent of all the dishes available in Thailand. And that is a generous estimate, says Kasma Loha-unchit.

For more than 20 years, Loha-unchit has been exposing Bay Area residents to Thai culture through her The Art of Thai Cooking classes and Thailand Travel Adventures guided trips. A native of Thailand, she moved to the United States in 1968 to attend college at Arizona State University, then came to the Bay Area in 1972 to attend the University of California at Berkeley. She began teaching the cooking classes in 1985 as a hobby, inspired by the growing popularity of Thai food in the mid-1980s and the encouragement of friends who assured her that her food was far superior to any served in the Bay Area.

"One class led to another, and student after student wanted more," Loha-unchit says. "So from a four-week beginner course, another four-week intermediate course was added in a matter of a few months. Then it boomeranged into several four-week advanced courses with many of the same students eager to return to learn more in my kitchen. What they learned in class made them overall better cooks of other cuisines as well."

During her classes, Loha-unchit tells stories about growing up in Thailand, how she learned to cook from her master chef mother without recipes, and the culture and history behind the food. It didn't take long for some of her students to urge her to take them to Thailand so that they could experience the country from the eyes (and tongue) of an insider and feast their way around the country. She began organizing the trips about a year after the classes began and now leads about two to three trips a year.

"The trips offer a culinary and cultural experience for people who are adventurous, can eat spicy food, and like to travel off-the-beaten path," Loha-unchit says. "We seldom repeat any dish in the three or more weeks we're there."

Loha-unchit runs her Thai Food and Travel business out of her home in Oakland. She also shares recipes and blogs about Thai cooking and culture on her website and has written two cookbooks: It Rains Fishes: Legends, Traditions and the Joys of Thai Cooking and Dancing Shrimp: Favorite Thai Recipes for Seafood. It Rains Fishes won a Julia Child Cookbook Award (now called The International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) award) in the international category in 1996.

If you ask Loha-unchit about her favorite Thai dishes, she says the variety makes it too difficult to choose, and her husband's top five meals actually rotate among 20 of his favorites. Those who take her classes and join her trips at Thai Food and Travel likely have the same delicious dilemma.

"My favorite dish is what I am cooking and eating at the present moment," Loha-unchit says."They're all good and they're all fun to make!"

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Allison Wilson is an award-winning writer and communications professional whose...

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