Asia

A Culinary Journey

written by | Posted on August 1st, 2009

Even the most cursory exploration of its legendary restaurants will show that Osakan dishes are as pleasurable as the city itself.

Unfortunately, Japanese food often intimidates visitors. It needn’t be that way. Most large hotels in Osaka offer culinary tours explaining the intricacies of Japanese food.

Vacationers will sample local treats like okonimiyaki, a pancake-shaped delight made from vegetables and batter. The dish dates back to the late-17th century, when it was served as a ritual food during Buddhist festivals. Other Osakan dishes of note includeoshizushi, where sushi is sliced after being shaped in stainless steel molds, and udon suki, buckwheat noodles and beef mixed in a rich broth and ladled into steaming ceramic stew pots.

One of the local treats served mostly in the spring and early summer is a variety of dishes based on a river fish called ayu (sweetfish), traditionally caught at night by trained cormorants in the Nagara River.

Only a few miles south of Osaka, the Kuroshio Fish Market near Wakayama will delight the most discriminating diner. The highlight of the area is Shikisai, a traditional Japanese restaurant where food is prepared to please the eye as well as the palate.

On the other side of the small inlet, an informal and thoroughly Japanese experience will delight those who come to the Kuroshio Ichiba Fish Market. This place is a paradise for seafood lovers.

Demonstrations of tuna filleting are held at regular intervals near the market entrance. Immediately after the lecture, the otoro (raw slices of the tuna that was carved) is sold to enjoy at nearby picnic tables. This is sashimi at its best.

In addition, fresh fish and shellfish, most of it live, are available in stalls where locals have it wrapped to go and tourists eat it on the spot. The food is delicious and so fresh that it tastes like the sea.

Explorient, a New York city-based tour company, offers a tour dubbed Priceless Japan Spectacular. This 7-day adventure visits fish markets, sake breweries, soy sauce distilleries and restaurants in Tokyo’s Ginza District. In addition, tour members will take Japanese cooking classes in various hotels. Prices for the tour vary, but run, depending on the season, from $3,525 to $4,295 pp with air.

Artisans of Leisure, meanwhile, offers an extraordinary culinary tour of Japan—an 8-day journey to Tokyo, Kyoto and Hakone for $13,390 pp dbl. During this tour, travelers visit private homes to sample authentic Japanese home cooking. Another leg of the journey will feature kaiseki (traditional, multi-course meals) and the vegetarian cuisine served in Zen temples.

thailand Any Thai will tell you: the secret of green papaya salad is all in the mashing. But visitors to Thailand are not satisfied with hearing it on the street. They want to find out for themselves.

And now there are chefs aplenty from Phuket to Chiang Mai who are more than happy to produce mortar and pestle and show visitors just how to mash that shredded unripe fruit with the right amount of lime, peanuts, dried shrimp, pungent fish sauce and palm sugar.

In open-air kitchens in sumptuous jungle settings, chefs who have proved their skills among royalty and top restaurants give visitors the inside edge on the basics of Thai food and the requisite ingredients and spices that run through most dishes all the way to fancy confections and exotic baking, depending on how much time a guest has and how serious the interest. Because eating is as important as touring, shopping and recreation on any Thai-focused holiday, cooking classes have followed suit as a must-try vacation component. And there is a school, class or kitchen for every interest.

A cooking class at the Amita Cooking School in Bangkok begins with a slice-of-life water taxi ride from Maharaja pier along the Chao Praya, through the backwater canals of residential Bangkok. The outside classroom is set up with knives, pestles, burners, bowls of eye-catching spices, rice and meat and an adjacent garden is there for picking the added items: lemongrass, lime leaves, galanga (basil), peppers and coriander. Guests spend about 3.5 hours with an English-speaking instructor going over the philosophies of Thai taste and then making lunch: usually a soup dish such as thom kha gai, a noodle dish such as phat Thai, a salad such as green papaya, a coconut rice dish and, of course, dessert—coconut pancakes, anyone? The class costs $80 pp, and the recipes (and transfers from hotel to pier) come with the rate.