I’m not a cook. In fact, I have a palette of an 8-year old. Due to my unsophisticated taste buds, I avoid the overwhelming culinary world. However, when traveling, I try in desperate hope of finding a cuisine that fits my ineptitude via a class. I’ve taken countless cooking classes. While specific skills and techniques may not always stick, what I have retained is a great deal more valuable from these hands-on experiences. When traveling, domestic or abroad, there is no better way than through one’s tummy to educate and saturate all senses in the region.
Learning to cook local cuisine is not just about the dish; it is so much more. The class is a vehicle for deeper understanding. Eating new foods is like translating the language and profoundly immersing into the location with each bite. It’s learning the unique blend of language, culture, history, and identity, all mixed up in a beautiful experience via the stomach. Let’s call it the secret sauce of the location.
The secret sauce is not only made up of new ingredients. Cooking styles differ as well. You may understand why the Chinese don’t have ovens and rely heavily on woks. Or the resourcefulness of using the entire animal rather than just the standard cuts that you’re used to back home.
I’ll take a cooking class to uncover the multi-layers of a district rather than sit in a history class any day! Anthony Bourdain, the acclaimed chef, traveler, author, and TV personality, said it best, “Meals make the society, hold the fabric together in lots of ways that were charming and interesting and intoxicating to me. The perfect meal, or the best meals, occur in a context that frequently has very little to do with the food itself.”
Taste incorporates all the senses. You can’t taste without smell. And sight and touch are critical element with each bite. Even hearing the crunch of crusty bread as you sink your teeth into it translates into almost a sub-flavor.
Now, imagine all your senses experiencing newness. Nothing beats walking through foreign markets full of new spices or unrecognizable offerings. The smells penetrate every cell. You begin to appreciate the local fruits and vegetables, colors, and tastes. You will hear the seller and buyer relations as they bargain within an unknown financial system. And if you’re lucky, you may experience a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence like the frigid temperatures of the Tsukiji tuna auction.
Look for these experiences when you travel. Seek out the street markets, the fishmongers, the crabbers on the pier, and you’ll witness an extension of the region in action.
Set out to ruin yourself. I’m now a self-described sushi snob after living in Japan. Every dining adventure in Japan set me up to reject American attempts … and I’m okay with that because it was so fulfilling to watch the chef’s meticulous attention to detail, know where the fish came, see the pride in the sous chef eyes when presenting the dish. Sushi, per this example, is not just the fish. Just like I assume pasta is not only the noodles in Italy. The food is wrapped in the overall ambiance of the surroundings and cannot be duplicated easily.
As you don the apron, you’ll appreciate the difference in subtle textures, slight heat variations, or a replacement ingredient that just doesn’t hit the mark from the authentic foods. On Koh Lanta in Thailand, we cooked in an outdoor kitchen and plucked pods from a nearby tamarin tree for pad thai. Do you think that imported and preserved tamarin taste better or worse than freshly plucked from a garden? It cannot be replicated!
It’s fascinating from an American perspective. My home country cuisine is a mixture of cultures then processed, sweetened with sugar, and altered to the original dish’s point of unrecognition. Street tacos in Mexico do not taste like the Taco Bell drive-thru (they taste better). And there is no such thing as fortune cookies in China. Totally American. Totally sweet.
Once you begin cooking, you must try and try again. Usually, it’s not easy to cook in a new style or with different ingredients. But with practice, slow progress can be made.
I took a high-end Chinese dumpling class with individual attention. Then, our beloved ayi (a local domestic helper assigned to your family) taught me her style, which was more like cooking hip to hip with Grandma—no measuring, no reasoning, no explanation. My third attempt was through an ex-pat class with a large group whereby we were struggling all together as we flattened, filled, pinched, and fried to perfection. I pulled all these lessons together and was able to confidently make my own. In doing so, I borrowed a little from each lesson I was taught. I still have a lot to learn, especially with making my own wrappers, but my skills are better than in the first class.
This is written in February of 2021, when the pandemic is still gripping the world. I have been confined to my kitchen while the restaurant industry grinds to a halt. I’m learning to appreciate my tattered recipe pages even more now when restaurants are shuttered, borders are closed, and school-aged kids are home for every meal. Pulling out each of my stained pages with handwritten notes brings back memories.
Sometimes you hear a song that transports you to another time. Food can do that too. A flavor can comfort you, and carrying all the emotional weight of a memory to be savored. It’s linked forever in our mind to a person, restaurant, or memory of some sort that can be called back through the kitchen.
As we slowly adapt to “after Covid,” I’m seeing many former cooking instructors expand their classes from their locations and enter the online world. I’m tempted to revisit them on Zoom and recreate some of my favorite dishes. Here are a few highly recommended classes that have made the jump and are now available online:
- From Koh Lanta in Thailand, Cooking with Mon classes are available here. He has an enthusiasm for Thai cooking like I’ve never seen and his smile is contagious. I also really enjoy his Instagram account: @cookingwithmon
- I knew her when she was “only” a chef. Now, Payal is the founder of Commune Kitchen, has a YouTube channel, teaches classes out of Singapore, and created a cookbook. She will make you believe that anything is possible in the kitchen.
If you get the eventual “travel passport”, then I recommend the Waffle Workshop which is perfect for kids and adults alike in Brussels, Belgium
Unfortunately many of the classes I’ve taken have gone out of business. But I will share my all-time favorite recipe below that is a staple in my family. This recipe for sushi rice was originally developed by Wishbone Cooking Classes in Tokyo, Japan. I can no longer find her online but please enjoy this classic recipe.
3 cups rice
1/3 cup rice vinegar
1 tbsp sugar
1 dash salt
Cook rice. Mix all other ingredients and pour over warm rice.
Fan rice while mixing the vinegar. (Learned in class: fanning the rice helps cool it quicker, gelatinizing the surface of the rice and giving it a glossy finish).