From street vendor fare to fine dining, the New Asia is an Old World of great tastes. And the chances to explore the delights of Asia are now far richer, more accessible and, yes, tastier than ever—particularly for those who love to cook. For true foodies, hands-on cooking lessons are the hands-down travel perk that changes a “mere” culinary trip into a delicious, out-of-the-ordinary experience. Consider just a few delicious journeys.
The culinary treasury of China is as vast as its geographical boundaries, and considering major cuisine traditions by region is one way to get acquainted. Avanti Destinations introduces a culinary enriched, 11-night Flavors of China tour that takes place in Beijing, Xian, Chengdu and Shanghai in the company of private driver and guides.
Travelers start their vacation with four nights in Beijing, where they’ll go sightseeing, tour night food markets coupled with tastings on Wangfujing Snack Street, and participate in a tofu-making class in a local home. In Xian, there’s the chance to try one’s hand at dumpling-making at the De Fa Chang restaurant. During a 2-night stay in Chengdu—holding the title of UNESCO City of Gastronomy—food lovers will learn all about preparing (and eating) a hot pot dinner during a cooking class at the Sichuan Cuisine Museum of Chengdu, and they’ll visit a Sichuan chili bean paste factory. The tour’s final three nights are spent in Shanghai, where highlights include dumpling-making at the Kitchen Cooking Studio, a dim sum lunch, and a Shanghai cuisine banquet at the Xian Qiang Fang restaurant, complete with an opera show. Rates start at $4,865 pp dbl.
“Our single biggest and most popular request for special interest travel is a focus on food,” reports Mark Grundy, Avanti Destinations’ managing director for Asia. “The culinary experience has become an important aspect of any vacation, and we are seeing strong demand for culinary experiences whether travelers are going to Europe, Latin America or Asia. Further, this is true across all demographics—whether millennials or boomers.”
Grundy also points out that Avanti only recently launched its Asia programs (selling China, Hong Kong, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos, as well as Singapore, with South Korea and Myanmar coming in 2017), and even early bookings have come with requests for culinary activities. “Travelers today are more sophisticated and informed about international cuisine and Asian foods, with their variety of simple and complex flavors and cooking styles, and there is real interest in sampling new flavors and learning how to prepare and cook new dishes.”
India’s cuisines vary greatly by region and are some of the most delicious and popular in the world—from the aromatic cuisines of the North to the spicy dishes of the deep South. Artisans of Leisure takes food lovers on a 13-day Culinary Tour of India that explores three of that nation’s most gastronomically intriguing regions—south (Chennai), central (Mumbai) and north (Udaipur and Delhi), while staying at luxurious hotels and enjoying private tours of each area’s cultural highlights.
In Chennai (Madras), an expert culinary guide takes guests to the market for an introduction to important Indian spices, from cardamom and coriander to turmeric and tamarind, before a cooking lesson featuring typical dishes such as pudina rice, dosas and coconut chutney. Culinary highlights in Mumbai (Bombay) include the excitement of a fish auction, a visit to wholesale vegetable markets, and a private cooking lesson of Parsi, Goa or seafood dishes; one day guests help a Mumbai dabbawala (delivery man) sort and deliver tiffin lunches to office workers in the late morning, and in the afternoon there’s a private boat ride to Elephanta Islands caves.
Highlights of the stay in romantic Udaipur include a hands-on cooking demonstration of Rajasthani cuisine with a local aristocratic family, and dining in a historic palace. The tour ends with three nights in Delhi, with a city tour or optional excursion to Agra, and a morning market visit and cooking lesson. Priced at $9,525 pp dbl, the program includes such accommodations as The Leela Palace properties in Chennai and Delhi, and the Oberoi properties in Mumbai and Udaipur. Artisans of Leisure tours can always be customized to suit individual culinary and dining preferences.
Thailand & Malaysia
Thai cuisine is piquant and complex, a balance of sweet, spicy, sour and salty tastes, says EXO Travel, which operates, on a private basis, a 10-night Food Trails of Thailand itinerary, with Bangkok and Chiang Mai on the menu, as well as Ayutthaya, Khao Yai, Khon Kaen, Sukhothai, Saraphi, Mae Chan and Chiang Rai. Along the way, guests will visit temples, explore craft markets, sample a som tam appetizer (a papaya salad), although adventurous diners may want to try the version with raw crab at Krua Apsorn restaurant, and the classic Thai dish, pad thai, cooked the classic way on a charcoal grill. More foodie ventures in the capital include learning to make traditional coconut desserts in a coastal village and sampling Thai street food while on a walking tour of the old town. In Ayutthaya, clients dine out on a town specialty, “boat noodles.”
Continuing north, culinary highlights include a visit to the GranMonte Vineyard and Winery at Khao Yai, and a cooking class learning the techniques of Isaan-style of this northeastern kitchen in Khon Kaen. Following an authentic teak house homestay in Saraphi, guests spend two nights in Chiang Mai with a special chef-led market tour and cooking class. Rate is $2,025 pp and $1,616 pp for a group of four.
EXO Travel also offers a tour of Northern Malaysia, the 12-day Cuisine, Homestay and Jungles, which features, among a host of experiences, time for digging in to Penang’s culinary attractions, including taking a tour of the market, where the guide points out the city’s varied specialty dishes.