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Interview with Kasma Loha-unchit

by Kasma Loha-unchit

Kasma's husband, Michael Babcock, interviewed her in 1995.

How did you get from receiving an MBA to teaching Thai cooking?

It was in 1985. I started teaching more for fun. I had quit my job with a big corporation in the summer of 1982 and had been trying to decide what I wanted to do with my life. So I tried out different things; I tried photography, and went to John F. Kennedy University to get a graduate degree in psychology. Then I explored various other fields, trying to find out what I wanted to be when I grew up. In the spring of 1985, I cooked a big feast for my friends. It was a big success and a very therapeutic endeavor for me. Several of my closest friends suggested I Open a restaurant, but running a restaurant involves a lot of hard work and strange hours – not something I really wanted to do. Another suggested catering, but catering requires a lot of work too, and you don't really know who you're cooking for. For me cooking is not just the handling of objects and food items – it's really a way of sharing and nurturing other people. Finally, another friend suggested teaching. In 1985 Thai food was just becoming popular, so there are a growing number of people who were interested in knowing how to cook Thai. Since I like communicating with people, the idea seemed like a good one, so I put an ad in the Open Exchange and got a class together.

Was it hard to teach? You just got up in front of people and started cooking?

Yes. I didn't have any problems with it. I guess it's because it's such an innate part of me. A lot of it is showing people how to do something. My first class was small – I had about 6 people. It was a rewarding class, like a little family cooking together. That's how I learned to cook from my mother, watching her and doing together; so the class was like that – it was very casual and personal.

Has your teaching changed over the years?

Yes, it has changed a lot. I didn't learn to cook from recipes. When I first came here, I had never seen a cookbook before in my life. Cooking is working with the senses; it's the furthest thing away from linear thought, so how can you just read some written words on a printed page and learn to cook? In the beginning, I taught as I had learned by watching and helping my mother. We would do a lot of tasting in between steps. I didn't hand out any written recipes.

After a while, I realized that people here do want written recipes. It's like having a security blanket. But it's understandable because Thai cooking is very different from Western cooking. The steps, the procedures, the techniques, the ingredients are all so different. When I learned to cook from my mom, I watched her day in and day out all through my childhood and adolescence. She was always there. My students, on the other hand, get to watch me during the class for only four sessions. Then they have to go home and remember what we did in class. They can't take me home with them. So I had to make amends by writing down the recipes, which was a really hard thing for me to do because I've never believed in exact quantities. I always cook by taste, because each batch of ingredients may be different from week to week.

Although I now have recipes to hand out, in many ways my teaching is still similar to how I learned, in that I try to encourage people not to be dependent on them. They are just guidelines to start out with, but the main thing is to use the senses and intuition to determine what the final result will be. Because cooking is a creative process, it's like teaching them how to paint a picture. As a teacher, the first few classes I introduce them to the paints, show them which go together well, teach them how to mix these paints and how to apply the brush strokes to the different kinds of paper, but they still have to paint the final picture.

So it has evolved. The basis, the foundation, is still the same but I have changed it to be easier for people foreign to the cuisine to understand with written guidelines. Over the years I have gotten a lot of questions from my students, about things that I might have taken for granted. Now I never take anything for granted and have a lot more information to present that you don't find written or taught elsewhere. My beginning course runs over four weeks and my students are encouraged to do "homework" each week, by making the dishes we made in class. If they encountered problems or difficulties at home, they report to me and I try to figure out what they did that caused the problems and give advice to help them improve their cooking skills.

Is Thai cooking your whole life? What do you do when you're not teaching Americans to cook Thai?

Well, I also lead trips to Thailand. They grew out of my classes. My students became enticed, because I talked a lot about the tremendous varieties of food in Thailand, from region to region. You can go for weeks in Thailand and not repeat the same dish. So people got interested in going to Thailand, to go feasting around the country, and that's how my trips evolved. I started the trips just about a year after I started teaching the classes.

They're cultural tours, 27-days long – enough time for you to really get to know the country and the people, to experience the culture from an insider's point of view and participate in the many facets of Thai life. You do meet the friendly and heartful rural people. We travel to off-the-beaten-path destinations and avoid the contrived, tourist package theme parks that only shows you a good time or tries to match your idea of what the fabled, royal kingdom of the past was like. You get the real stuff – the day-to-day life of the common folk, the living culture of Thailand, the Buddhist culture.

That's how I approach my classes and tours. They are a cultural experience. Many of my students, for instance, tell me that although I teach cooking classes, I'm not really in the cooking business; although I lead trips to Thailand, I'm not really in the travel business. Because there's a lot more to the classes than learning how to cook Thai, and to the trips than just seeing the country and having fun. There's a sense of getting to know a culture really well – the philosophy, the way of life. There's a sharing of diversity, a communication and exchange between East and West, a learning from one another. I think the West has lost many things from its industrialization and development which contributed to the breakdown of the family. A lot of the values that have changed drastically are still intact in some of these smaller countries, reflected in their ways of living, ways of seeing . . . and sharing . . .

How is Asia different?

Asia is a very different part of the world. The East and the West have different ways of looking at things, such that some of the things people here find sensible may appear totally crazy over there. Common sense is very different over there than here. Part of my classes and trips are designed to help people see a different way of looking at things, a different way of experiencing the world, so that they can realize there's not just one way, there's not just one "correct"way of seeing and living, but there are other ways that are just as valid, that work equally well and that are very much in harmony with the elements.

In Asian philosophy, harmony and balance are very important. Because spirituality is an intrinsic part of the cultures there, people approach life very differently from the more materialistic society here. In doing the trips and classes, I am really returning to my roots – to how I grew up and how I learned to live and co-exist with others, to a set of age-old values. Thailand is my country, the gentle Buddhist culture there is very much a part of me and I want to share it with people.

Do you enjoy doing the classes and trips?

I don't make a lot of money doing the classes and trips. I used to make much more money. I have an M. B. A. degree from Berkeley and I could be working in some big corporation making a good salary and focusing on how to maximize profits and efficiency. But what I experienced in the corporate world was that it wasn't concerned with the welfare of people. I believe the happiness and the harmony of people are more important than money, more important than efficiency, more important than profits and material advancement.

When I started teaching the classes, I was really doing them for fun as I explored other areas of learning. I didn't expect them to last but a few years. It wasn't until three or four years later that I finally realized I had created a community of people who love to cook and who view cooking as a means of sharing and nurturing, an activity where people work together in a cooperative effort to feed one another's body and soul. I realized I had created something I just couldn't leave behind – it was no longer temporary. I realized that as I returned to my roots to find out what I do best, I re-discovered my love to cook and this I applied to a livelihood that I could share with other people. I settled down to knowing that this is really my path, my way, this is what healing is all about – sharing and nurturing one another in a very positive way.

I felt the same way about my tours. They are very nurturing and very spiritually oriented experiences for a lot of people who have joined me in their travels, so my rewards come from sharing and having touched peoples' lives. If I can touch just one person's life in each class or on each trip, that's the reward – it's worth a lot more than money. Of course, I need to make enough to pay my bills and support a comfortable lifestyle. But most people who have compared prices will see that my tours are very, very reasonable and cost only half of what other specialized tours charge for the same number of days and amenities.

There are, of course, difficulties, too. Many people go to Thailand on the trips with rigid expectations and they experience culture shock in a major way. When this happens, it's very stressful for me to deal with their disappointments. But if there is just one person who really open up to seeing the Asian perspective and feel he or she gained something very profound out of that experience, it's worth every bit of stress. To me that's what life is about – it's touching someone and expanding his or her viewpoint and perspective of the world. It makes the world more expansive and allows people to live together in greater harmony with one another.

See also: Kasma's Bangkok Post Interview.

Copyright © 1995 Kasma Loha-unchit & Michael Babcock. All rights reserved.

See Also: Allison Wilson's off-site article: Thai Food and Travel: An Authentic Cultural and Culinary Experience (opens in new window).

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