Opinion: The Best Way to Learn About Food While Travelling

Originally published on SBS.

No, it’s not eating at as many restaurants as possible.

I remember doing my first overseas cooking class in Hoi An, Vietnam, back when I didn’t really cook much. I learned that if you roll your rice paper rolls right, you’ll apparently ‘make a good wife’. 

There were plenty of things I learned and loved about the class, which sparked a mission to do a cooking class on every overseas trip I planned. The classes really are experiences in themselves, but they also inspire me to take recipes home and make them for my family and friends.

If you’ve never signed up for a cooking class overseas, this is why I recommend it. 

Learn about a dish’s origins

We often cook without knowing the ins and outs of a dish. How did it originate? Was it created during wartime or reserved for the wealthy? Does the dish symbolise anything? 

The internet holds many answers but for lesser-known dishes, it’s best to learn straight from a local source; locals know stories that aren’t necessarily documented online (or documented well). Cooking classes let travellers experience the hyperlocal and learn things they may not be able to elsewhere.

It’s a privilege to speak with locals. If possible, ask the cooking class teacher questions, even broad ones such as the area’s history and travel recommendations.

Understand different ingredients and techniques

Doing a cooking class is as practical as it gets. You have the opportunity to learn about seasonal food, ingredient preparation and cooking techniques that may be uncommon in Australia. 

Jonathan Chiri is a restauranteur, private chef and tour guide based in Avignon, southern France. He runs cooking classes in the city’s historic market hall, Les Halles. His classes include a tour of the market. Having access to fresh, local ingredients is a major drawcard.

“In a similar way that wine always tastes better when you have a personal story or memory to link it to, learning different techniques, ingredients, local culinary customs and recipes while on holiday gives a much more personal perspective and these are more easily shared once back home,” says Chiri.  

Chiri loves how people like learning tips that are not well-known outside of a commercial kitchen, including techniques that maximise flavour without adding ingredients. 

“People walk away with uncomplicated, simple and extremely flavourful recipes,” he says.

“Having the wonderful ingredients right next to us during the class also allows me to add to our daily preparations and/or make changes on the fly as I see fit. I also give a tremendous amount of information about how certain local products are made: cheeses, olives, olive oil, etc.”

Lanka Saman Vijitha Wimalasooriya has been running cooking classes in Ella, Sri Lanka, for nine years. The location itself makes for a memorable experience: an alfresco kitchen in Ella’s verdant hills.

“We teach people how to make different kinds of Sri Lankan curries and coconut roti,” says Wimalasooriya.

During the class I attended, we cooked four clay pot curries: chicken, beetroot, green bean and pumpkin. A highlight of the class is learning how to make coconut milk from scratch with a traditional grater. This is used for curries and coconut roti.

“You can learn about clay pots, the special stoves [we use], and we give information about curry leaves and Sri Lankan spices.”

Contribute to the local economy

If you can, book a cooking class with the school or person that runs it. This will mean money goes directly to that local business, with no commission taken from third parties. It allows them to protect their livelihoods, especially in areas where jobs are harder to secure. It also helps to preserve and share culture in the most delicious way possible.

It’s a great way to meet other travellers

It can be tricky (and sometimes awkward) trying to make friends overseas. A shared meal can really break the ice.

The joy of sharing a meal with strangers leads to great conversations, cultural exchanges and inevitable conversations about different people’s travel experiences. It may also lead you to your next travel destination and a friendly visitor to help guide you. 

Lead image: Unsplash.

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