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.
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
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.
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.
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.