I like food a lot, which is probably pretty clear given how much I’ve written about it during our travels. I think it’s one of the absolute best ways to get to understand a culture, its history and traditions. Food can tell a story about people who lived in a region centuries ago and how they capitalized on the foods available to them, creating distinct culinary methods and recipes that you can still find today.
You can definitely learn a lot by going to a hawker centre in Singapore or sampling street food in Malaysia, but to really understand people from an area from a culinary perspective, I absolutely recommend taking a cooking class. Kelly and I have taken three cooking classes together, including two on this trip, and it seems like they’ve always been the highlight of that city.
You don’t have to be good at cooking
Kelly and I fancy ourselves as pretty decent cooks. We both know our way around a kitchen, and while we aren’t planning on becoming professional chefs anytime soon, we enjoy cooking, which is part of the reason that we take cooking classes. That said, in every cooking class we’ve taken there have been plenty of our classmates (usually husbands dragged along with their wives) who were self-proclaimed ‘terrible cooks’ who seemed to thoroughly enjoy themselves.
The chefs may challenge you and ask you to at least try something before you profess you can’t do it, but they’re never going to go Gordon Ramsay on you. They realize that you’re paying them to have a great experience, not to get a job as a chef. They also do a good job of asking if you’re vegetarian or have allergies. However, if you’re not open to trying some new things and are overall a picky eater, you may not enjoy a cooking class.
You’ll understand regional differences a lot better
It’s very common to group cuisine by country, and while it’s not wrong, there are tons of regional subtleties and dishes that you may never realize unless you talk to a local. When we went to Cooking Classes in Rome during our honeymoon, one of the first things we were told was the list of all the foods we wouldn’t be making or working with and why (chiefly, because while they’re “Italian food” they aren’t local to Rome).
This can be an eye-opening experience when you realize that people in Venice and Rome can have just as varied opinions on what pizza should be as people from Chicago and New York. Realizing what the local specialties and varieties are when you’re on a foodie trip can help you get the absolute best version of a dish while you’re in the region.
You can understand more about the ingredients
Many cooking classes will include an option to take a tour of a local market. If you have the opportunity to do so, you should always take it. You’re bound to learn something new about the ingredients, as well as insider tips for shopping like a local.
In Chiang Mai, we went to Siam Rice Thai Cookery School, and stopped by a market beforehand. We got to touch and smell plenty of the local ingredients, including three different types of basil that all have a distinct and unique purpose in Thai cuisine. Make sure you bring your camera, because there is bound to be something you’ve never seen before.
You get a look at the finer points of preparation
I can honestly say before going to Bamboo Shoots Bali, I never knew how a spring roll wrapper was made. In addition to making a few wrappers, I also squeezed coconut milk straight from the source and watched the masters grind curry paste. These are all things that I’ve only ever seen or purchased pre-packaged from a grocery store, so to understand the traditional way that they were made is a really fun and authentic experience. I’m a big believer that people should strive to understand where their food comes from and how it’s prepared. Learning from locals the preparation methods they’ve used for years if not centuries is a great way to understand more about your food.
You might even make some new friends
If the cooking and food discovery doesn’t interest you, it’s a legitimately fun experience. Kelly and I have been to classes mostly full of older couples, as well as classes that were full of a younger crowd. They all have their advantages, and offer you the chance to meet people from all over the world. We’ve cooked alongside people from all across the U.S., Europe, and Australia. In addition to learning something about the local culture and cuisine, you’ll also get to learn more about other cultures and how they look at certain types of food. It’s really easy to get to know someone over a good meal, and even more so after a drink or two.
If you’re really trying to get the most out of a culture on your next trip, sign up for a cooking class. Check sites like TripAdvisor to see what other people say about your particular area. In some areas there are cooking classes around every corner with big variation in quality, but small variation in price, so know what you’re getting yourself into. Most of all, go in with an open mind and an empty stomach, and I guarantee you won’t regret it.