Guide to Cooking Schools in Asia

Attending a cooking school in Asia is a satisfying holiday activity. These classes are usually cheap ( somewhere between AU $20- $40 per person ) and last for around three hours or so. You will usually learn 3 – 5 dishes, and in the better schools, will also come away with a greater understanding of the culinary traditions of the country. I have enjoyed cooking schools in Indonesia, Thailand, India and Vietnam. Each one was memorable and each had its highlights. These days, however, I am quite selective about the classes I wish to attend.

Market stall buffet, Hoi An
Market stall buffet, Hoi An, Vietnam

The price for a class will often include:

  • a pick up from your hotel
  • a trip to the local market to buy ingredients and introduce you to the local produce.
  • a menu which will invariably include savory fried starters  – spring rolls and paper rolls for example, with slight variations from country to country.
  • a noodle dish
  • one other meat dish (usually chicken)
  • separate small cooking stations for participants

    Market lady making fresh Bánh phở noodles.
    Market lady making fresh Bánh phở noodles.

Once you have mastered the spring roll/paper roll thing, it’s time to move on. If you have already been to the local market in the town you are visiting, there’s no need to visit again with a cooking school. I prefer to go to the market for a whole morning, to wander through all the stalls slowly, taking lots of photos along the way. The local markets are usually hot, dark and very cramped and although at times I get hassled, I love this total immersion in local food and culture. It is one thing I must do in every Asian town, big or small.

Hoi An market stall.
Another Hoi An market stall.

Many cooking schools claim to cater for vegetarians in their menu selections, but this usually means substituting tofu for meat in the same dishes cooked by the other members of the class. In curry dishes in Thailand, they will substitute a few vegetables. In other words, you won’t be learning much about the real vegetarian traditions of that country.  Menus offering fish will be far more expensive. Fish is a costly item in Asia so will rarely appear on a cooking class menu.

Small fish stall at Hoi An market. Mackeral is the best option in Asia
Small fish stall at Hoi An market. Mackerel is the best fish option in Asia.

Consider the following before choosing a school:

  • if the cooking school is attached to a restaurant, eat there first. Read their menu and get an idea about the quality of the food and its authenticity. Some of these schools tone things down for the Western palate.
  • check on class sizes. I once attended a famous cooking class in Ubud, Bali, where the class size blew out to 20 or more. Too many people meant very little hands on learning. It was very impersonal and depended entirely on the presentation and personality of the celebrity chef. Ask about the class size and the number of cooking stations. Any number over 8 is too many.
  • Make sure that the dishes you will be cooking sound appealing. There is no point in learning something that you won’t cook at home.
  • If you are an experienced cook, consider taking a private class. It will cost you a few more dong, bhat, rupees or rupiah but in the end, you get to make more complex dishes and ask more questions. They usually require two people to attend. Also negotiate the menu before hand. This might be done on the morning of the class.
  • Make sure that you will be taught by someone who has a good command of English and preferably a cook or chef. In larger classes, young trainers who have learnt a set repertoire will take you through the dishes. This leaves little room for  in-depth questions or discussion of culinary traditions.
  • Have a light breakfast. You will need a healthy appetite to eat everything you make.
  • Take a pen and notebook. Some schools will give you a little recipe book but making your own notes is more valuable.
  • Take lots of photos – a great reminder of technique as well as providing inspiration when you get home.
    A vegetarian soup made from tow stocks- one a vegetable stock, the other a deep mushroom stock. The soup contains rice noodles, vegetraian wontons, mushrooms, fried tofu and rau ( a kind of green vegetable) and Vietnamese mint. It is deeply satisfying. ( Minh Hiein Restaurant, Hoi An, Vietnam
    Above. A vegetarian soup made from two stocks- one a vegetable stock, the other a deep mushroom stock. The soup contains rice noodles, vegetarian wonton, mushrooms, fried tofu, rau ( a kind of green vegetable) and Vietnamese mint. It is deeply satisfying. Minh Hien Restaurant, Hoi An, Vietnam. The recipes at this restaurant are complex and full of flavour and were passed down to Nhiem, the chef, from his grandmother.

    Cao lầu noodles from Hoi An. These special local noodles are made with water sourced from an ancient well on Cham Island.
    Cao lầu noodles from Hoi An. These special local noodles are made with water sourced from an ancient Cham well. They turn up in most local restaurants in Hoi An but once you leave that town, they are not the same. Vietnamese food is very regional.

33 thoughts on “Guide to Cooking Schools in Asia”

  1. The mushroom and tofu soup looks delicious. Your suggestions are excellent and make perfect sense but are not things most of us would think of, unless we had taken other cooking classes. A very interesting post Fancesca.

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    1. You would love the food here Ardys. No onions, and easy to ask that garlic is removed. Lots of veggies and herbs. Just found out that the local mint in Hue is a cure for a dodgy stomach and aids digestion.

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    1. Yes, I would need to take out a small mortgage to do one in France or Italy, mainly because they are associated with expensive accommodation and tend to cater for wankers. Oh that’s so unkind of me!

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      1. Too true, but you can find basic ones as well that are not geared towards those with more money than sense. I am referring to classes for people interested in specialist production in bread, pasta, cured meats, cheeses, gelato, etc…and not associated with expensive accommodation. These latter still cost a bit more than the Asian ones you describe. Ah well, let’s face it, Europe in general is more expensive.

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  2. Fab tips, we are in Europe later in the year and I was looking around for a cooking school/class but the prices for just half a day or day are a bit off the charts. (Also the dates don’t fit in with family obligations. Will just have to eat lots!) Can’t wait to get back to Asia one day and utilise your advice.

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  3. Your photographs and the food are so vibrant, Francesca. I imagine a cooking class, such as the one you’ve done in Hoi An is the best way to learn more about the country’s history and culture. Asia has never really appealed to me because it’s hot (I’m a winter person) – but Asian food does appeal to me – I guess the lesson there is if you can’t take the heat….stay out of the kitchen, but clearly you’d miss a lot.

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    1. The heat can be quite overwhelming at around 12 until about 4 so I get to post too many blogs or read or sleep. But on the other hand, I was struggling with winter in Melbourne, so the heat has cured me. I wish I was a winter person. I like the idea of winter but not the effects. I’m pleased that you are enjoying them Jan.

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  4. A wonderful, informative post, Francesca. Your tips for selecting a class are all sound and worth considering. I’ve looked into cooking classes when I’ve been in Italy but they’re more expensive than those that you’ve described and I’ve yet to find one that I’d enjoy fully. I’ll keep looking, though. I think that right class would definitely be worthwhile. When I do research the classes next time, I’ll be sure to keep your tips in mind. Thank you.

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