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 offerings:
India’s cuisines vary greatly by region and are some of the most delicious and popular in the world. Here, guests will be lured by everything from the aromatic cuisines of the North—where curries usually have thick, moderately spicy and creamy gravies, and where the use of dried fruits and nuts is fairly common—to the spicy dishes of the deep South, where meals are centered around rice.
Interestingly, most of the spices used in Indian cooking were originally chosen thousands of years ago for their medicinal qualities and not for flavor. Many of them such as turmeric, cloves and cardamoms are very antiseptic, others like ginger are carminative and good for the digestion.
On the Go Tours (866-377-6147; onthegotours.com) takes food lovers all the way south to Goa on an 8-day India on the Menu program, designed for the enthusiastic home cook who will learn to make fragrant pilau, chicken tikka and Malabar prawns, just for starters. Cooking courses—held at a custom-built kitchen on the banks of the Mandovi River—include an introduction to basic Indian culinary skills, a class on South Indian and Goan food (which has strong Portuguese influences), and a final class during which the chef shows how to prepare special request dishes. Additionally, there is plenty of free time to spend at the beach, go see Goa and dine around at local restaurants. Priced from $1,599 dbl, the cost includes seven nights at the three-star Casa de Goa (upgrades available), three hands-on cooking lessons; all breakfasts and lunches after each class; a guided visit to the local food market; a half-day excursion to a local spice garden and plantation; airport transfers and cooking school; and cooking tools such as a spice guide, recipe book and apron.
One distinctive aspect of Thai food is the use of fresh herbs and spices as well as the inclusion of fermented fish sauce in nearly every dish. Thai cuisine, in fact, is complex and piquant—a balance of sweet, spicy, sour and salty flavors, says Artisans of Leisure (800-214-8144; artisansofleisure.com), which operates on a private basis a 9-day luxury Thailand for Foodies tour, with Bangkok and Chiang Mai on the menu. On this culinary and eating gala, participants learn Thai cooking and presentation techniques and prepare a variety of Thai dishes, including appetizers, entrees and desserts as well as such classics as curry noodle soup with chicken or spicy prawn soup with lemon grass. In Bangkok, the program mixes two morning private home cooking classes with afternoon private sightseeing; and accommodations for three nights are at the Mandarin Oriental. In Chiang Mai, foodies stay at the Four Seasons and enjoy two sessions at the fabulously equipped Four Seasons Cooking School. Tour guests can choose among six different cooking modules, each covering different aspects of Thai cuisine—from spicy salads to soups, noodles and traditional curries—using ingredients from the school’s herb gardens and produce from the local market. Private touring during the 4-night stay includes visits to temples and the crafts districts, as well as an elephant camp excursion. Returning to Bangkok, the final tour night is spent at the Sukhothai Hotel, and the tour cost is $7,755 pp dbl.
For clients interested in a more total immersion in Thai cooking, Four Seasons Resort in Chiang Mai offers a week-long program including three cooking classes—held daily except Sunday—and a specially created (with diners’ participation), Chef’s Special 5-course meal. Another new chef creation to dazzle friends back home is a khantoke multi-course meal, served to guests seated on cushions; at Four Seasons, dance performances accompany dinner.
And while guests don’t cook at the Four Seasons Tented Camp Golden Triangle—a scenic 4-hour drive north at the point where Thailand, Laos and Burma meet—they do step out of their luxury tents to take foraging walks to pick and choose leaves, herbs and plants the chef adds to the evening’s stir-fry, salad or curry.
The smorgasbord to be had in China is impressive, with everything from dim sum, noodles and lots of seafood, to that famous Beijing duck and dumplings.
Learning the secrets of cooking all these delights like a local is the principle behind the culinary-enriching programs that Lets Do China (letsdochina.com) has designed to enrich the China experience. The Australian-based tour operator offers a whole menu of fabulous cooking class options for Beijing, Shanghai and Yangshuo, as well as five hands-on cooking choices in Hong Kong. These can be added to a minimum booking of 2-night land packages in each destination:
- In Beijing, clients take a Home-style Cooking Class in a hutong, held in the courtyard of Chenyi Zhou’s hutong home and a class that reveals the mysteries of how to stir-fly, braise and steam your way to culinary competence (from $110). Another Beijing offering is a Wine and Dine in a Hutong in the trendy Hou Hai area, with instruction offered on the secrets of preparing the most succulent Peking Duck of all and other specialties by a professional teacher with commentary by food author Jen Lin Liu. Clients can choose from demonstration and wine pairing evenings, to private classes with market visits (from $81).
- In Shanghai, clients attend the Puxi Cooking School, which focuses on Shanghai-style dim sum—steamed pork dumplings (xiaolongbao) for one—and wok skill classes; market tours teach how to source the right ingredients to enable you to reproduce the signature dishes from all major food regions of China (from $99).
- In Yanghshuo in the southern province of Guangxi, the choice is Farmhouse & Riverside Cooking Schools, teaching “students” to make piju yu (fish cooked in beer and spices), among other regional specialties. This is a perfect add-on when visiting Guilin, offering a chance to master the preparation of beer fish and steamed stuffed vegetables, complete with a prior market tour (from $60).