A Flair For Foreign Flavors BY LARISSA C. MILNE
Love to cook and learn about international cuisine?
Check out this primer on classes for foodies in Southeast Asia.
The air was fragrant with the scent of toasted coconut. Shreds of the white pulp sizzled and popped as they browned in the small brass wok. As chef Saadiah deftly tossed the coconut to prevent it from burning, she explained that this ingredient would form the basis of a sauce for beef rendang, a signature Malaysian dish. Flicking the wok off the heat at precisely the right moment, she looked at us with a twinkle in her eye and said, “Now, you do it.”
I was attending a class at LaZat Cooking School in the Penchala Hills, a suburban neighborhood outside Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where banana trees and coconut palms formed the edge-of-the-jungle landscape. Along with seven other students, I had signed up for the Malay Authentic class in which we would spend the morning learning to prepare several dishes before sitting down to sample our handiwork.
After hours in the kitchen, I put the finishing touches on my beef rendang: a dash of coconut milk added to beef simmered with lemongrass and toasted coconut. Saadiah tasted the dish and pronounced it authentic. I beamed with pride, a Malay-for-a-day, and dug into my meal.
Taking cooking classes and going on food tours are among my favorite ways to experience native flavors when traveling. It can be intimidating to visit Southeast Asia, where the sights, sounds, aromas and even alphabets are so very different from our Western ways, but experiencing the culture through food creates an instant connection that helps to break down barriers, making a strange new world seem more inviting. It’s a wonderful opportunity to meet with locals and learn about ingredients that seem exotic, all with a bonus of a meal (or at least, snacks) included in the package.
FINDING THE RIGHT CLASS OR TOUR
Cooking classes and food tours can vary widely in Southeast Asia, but courses taught in English are plentiful; consult your travel agent to explore your options. Since most classes are geared toward tourists, they will either include transportation to and from your hotel or provide information for a recommended taxi service. Classes are generally three- to four-hours long and begin with a walk through a local market. There, you’ll learn about various ingredients, such as different types of Thai rice or Vietnamese banana flowers.
Courses usually fall into the following categories.
One-cook/one-station class: This is the most hands-on class, with each student cooking every dish on the menu. You’ll chop vegetables, pound chilis for Thai curry pastes and sauté your own coconut. These classes typically feature three or four dishes, allowing you ample time to prepare the recipes. You’ll then sit down to a communal meal and sample your own creations. This class is most desirable for someone who loves to cook.
Group cooking class: This experience is also hands-on, but students share tasks while making a communal meal. You might be assigned, for example, to wrap fish in banana leaves as your classmates shape seasoned ground chicken on a sugarcane stalk for Balinese sate lembat. While you won’t make every recipe, there is the added bonus that you will usually sample more dishes than in a fully one-cook/one-station class. This class is ideal if you like to socialize while dabbling in the kitchen.
Chef’s demonstration class: Students are spectators in these classes, which are often taught at hotels and where the chef does all the work (although she may recruit volunteers to do some vegetable chopping or stir the Cambodian fish amok stew). Students share the communal meal at the end. This class works well for families or groups with varying degrees of interest and ability in cooking.
Food tour: Not all foodies want to spend time in the kitchen while on vacation. If this is you, then consider taking a food tour. You’ll sample yummy delights such as Vietnamese banh mi and fruit shakes at various market stalls, or you might eat a progressive meal at a series of restaurants in town. Tours are an excellent way to try local eateries and street food with the tour operator preselecting the food vendors for quality and cleanliness.
A Sampler Menu of Classes
The following are classes I’ve taken while traveling through Southeast Asia. Pricing varies by country and current exchange rates; expect a class or tour to cost roughly the same as a nice three-course meal in a local restaurant. All offer complimentary bottled water, and beer is sometimes available for purchase.
LAZAT COOKING SCHOOL
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
Held in a converted home in subur-ban Kuala Lumpur, these hands-on classes have students prepare each dish. Classes are offered seven days a week, with a different menu each day.
HANOI COOKING CENTRE
This state-of-the-art facility in cen-tral Hanoi offers one-cook/one-sta-tion cooking classes featuring a variety of Vietnamese specialties, plus an on-site café if you prefer to have your lunch prepared for you. There’s also a special Kid’s Class for children under age 10.
ORIGINAL TASTE OF HOI AN
Hoi An, Vietnam
This comprehensive food tour with more than 40 tastings explores the “local” side of this ancient UNESCO World Heritage port town in central Vietnam. Transplanted Aussie Neville Dean runs it; he plans the tours with a local nutritionist, so you can feel secure that the street food you sample is as fresh and clean as it is tasty.
PAON BALI COOKING SCHOOL
This group cooking class is held in a family home amid the rice paddies just outside Ubud. Puspa Subawa teaches guests how to cook Balinese specialties; her husband, Wayan, fans the charcoal fire while providing insight on local culture and traditions.
COOKS IN TUK TUKS
Siem Reap, Cambodia
This class is an excellent diversion after a day of touring the temples of Angkor Wat. Although billed as a group cooking class, it is more a chef’s demonstration with a bit of chopping and stirring done by the students. It’s an interesting way to eat a tasty lunch and learn how it was prepared.
MALIWAN THAI COOKING CLASS
Fully hands-on classes teach students how to prepare Thai curries and other specialties in a modern kitchen near many historic attractions. Maliwan also offers a customizable option (for a minimum of two people) in which you choose the dishes you’d like to prepare.
THAI FARM COOKING SCHOOL
Chiang Mai, Thailand
One-cook/one-station classes are held in an open-air kitchen on an organic farm outside town. Each student selects recipes from a set menu of options that includes curries, stir fries and soups.
Larissa Milne and her husband, Michael, have been global nomads since 2011. Follow their adventures on their travel blog ChangesInLongitude.com.