Eating and dining are a key part of any culture, and engaging in food is a great way to more fully immerse yourself in another society. Southeast Asian food is vibrant and varied, each country, even each region, has its own cuisine with exotic flavours and spices. Aside from eating, what better way to experience these cuisines than in learning to create them?
Cooking classes are increasingly popular for travellers in this sub-continent, and they range from whole day experiences, with shopping, eating, preparing and cooking, to quick one hour classes where you take your creations home in a doggy bag, and everything in between.
Aside from the cooking itself, there are a host of side-line experiences that can be even as rewarding and intriguing; particularly visiting fresh and local food markets (which are key to Southeast Asian food culture) and also interacting with local farms and the agricultural industry. Although we could never detail all of these classes in one place, here are a few of our top picks, to inspire you to begin your Southeast Asian gastronomic journey.
Bali – Indonesia
Indonesian cuisine is typically very rich in flavour, and thanks to the diverse culture that has developed across different parts of the archipelago, there is a huge variety of regional cuisines. Some of the most famous dishes are rendang (a meat dish that uses a lot of spices; particularly ginger, lemongrass and coconut milk) and nasi goreng (which is essentially Indonesian fried rice and can contain a range of ingredients). Balinese cuisine, whilr using the same basic principles as other regions, has a notable Indian/Chinese influence, and uses a lot of garlic, chilli, ginger, turmeric, tofu, fish, pork, chicken and, of course, rice. Bali has a very strong agricultural tradition, and a visit to the rice paddies is a must for visitors to the region.
There are culinary classes that can be found all over Bali, in every region there is a chance to learn how to create some of Indonesia’s tastiest dishes. Plus, there is huge variation in the classes available; some are held in modern restaurants, some in more authentic warung (traditional diners), some taught by international chefs (now expats on the island), some led by Balinese natives, some offering a chance to learn three course meals, and others even offering the chance to learn to create Balinese cocktails!
Aside from the delicious culinary creations, which are, of course, the key reason for attending a Balinese cooking classes, most of the courses incorporate shopping at a local food market, which is an experience all in itself. There are vibrant smells, colours and sounds, to bombard your senses, and it offers a chance to familiarise yourself with the exotic herbs, spices and vegetables that you will soon be using. Most courses offer options with or without a market visit, and I would highly recommend you choose with; it is a unique opportunity to visit a local food market with someone who knows what they are doing.
Ho Chi Minh – Vietnam
Vietnamese food is typically a very healthy cuisine, which incorporates lots of fresh, natural ingredients, particularly noodles, rice, lemongrass, mint, ginger, coriander, lime, soy sauce, vegetables and fish sauce, amongst many other things. One of the most famous dishes is pho; a noodle-soup-broth dish, generally consisting of white rice noodles and beef broth (made from beef, onions, ginger and a host of other spices). Typically this is served with a side plate of greens, lime, bean sprouts, Thai Basil, onions and chilli peppers. Aside from pho, you must also try bánh bao; a sticky bun with a beef and egg filling, which makes a light but satisfying breakfast, brunch, or snack.
It is worth noting that food culture is massive in Ho Chi Minh, and although it plays home to some top international restaurants, it is the street food culture that is particularly crucial. During the evenings every street corner seems to come to life with little chairs and tables surrounding pop up vendors serving all manner of delights. Now I imagine you’re feeling inspired, if not a bit hungry, and if you’re visiting Ho Chi Minh there a lot of classes available to learn how to cook authentic Vietnamese dishes.
In the city there are many different classes, whether you want to go for a day and learn to cook a five-course extravaganza, or pop in for a couple of hours and create some mouth-watering snacks. Aside from the culinary skills you will gain, equally exciting are the courses that incorporate visits to local food markets where you will buy the fresh ingredients and then use them to create some tasty meals. The main food market that you will likely visit is Ben Thanh Market, which is a massive, bustling plethora of stalls selling everything from knock-off football shirts to avocados the size of your head. It can be an overwhelming environment, so I would jump at the chance to go with a local.
Singaporean cuisine can be characterised by its multi-ethnic influences and roots, it is a real mix match of the foods of other cultures, crossed to create some delicious original dishes. The major influences on Singaporean cuisine are Chinese, Malay and Indian, although of course now there is an increasing European element arising. The linchpins of most of the meals here are rice, noodles, fish, nutmeg, ginger and laksa leaf. One of the most loved dishes in Singapore itself is hokkien mee; a stir-fried noodle dish, served with prawns, pork, squid, vegetables, lime and sambal sauce; this is a staple of the hawker centres (open-air complexes, which house various food stalls and are a major part of Singaporean gastronomy).
There are lots of classes and schools teaching the culinary arts in Singapore, and there is a lot of variation between them, however they are generally (in comparison to the Balinese and Vietnamese courses we’ve discussed above) characterised by a more serious atmosphere. By this I mean that these courses are set up with a real focus on teaching; less like the more intimate classes in Bali that include visits to local markets, and more like a cookery school. That said you will learn a lot at a Singaporean cooking class, and there are classes for everyone; you can attend a demonstration lesson for up to 30 people, or book private classes with an internationally renown chef, you can learn to cook authentic Singaporean dishes, or Italian cuisine, you can attend classes where you will be shown eight different dishes throughout the day, or even classes specifically created to teach children how to cook.
With its the powerful flavours and combinations, it is no wonder that people are desperate to learn how to create Southeast Asian dishes and bring the secrets home, and as the cuisine is so varied, even within certain countries, there are, of course, going to be a huge variety of culinary classes to choose from. One could never give a comprehensive list of these classes in one place, but here are a few extra tips that you may want to bear in mind when choosing where to begin your gastronomic adventure.
- If you’re looking for something authentic and a bit different then check out a cookery course at Bali Asli in Karangasem; not only can you visit local village markets, you can also observe parts of the farming process, including the ‘steering’ of ploughing cows, the planting of rice and fishing. Plus there’s a chance to learn how to create some Balinese cocktails. http://www.baliasli.com.au/
- The Vietnamese Cookery Centre is a great example of a chance to cook some varied cuisine; courses include a visit to Ben Thanh Market and then offers participants the chance to dabble in cooking anything from spring rolls, to sour snake head fish soup, to caramelized pork, to sautéed banana with coconut milk. Check out their website for menus and times. http://www.vietnamese-cooking-class-saigon.com
- For a unique experience that goes above and beyond visiting food markets just outside of Ho Chi Minh, there are cooking classes held in an agricultural village; here you will have the chance to visit a Vietnamese Medicine Garden and Mushroom House, allowing you to pick your ingredients right before you start using them! http://hochiminhcookingclass.com/
- One of the more intimate cookery schools in Singapore is Cookery Magic, which has many different classes on offer, including ones which incorporate a visit to a local wet market and spice shops. http://cookerymagic.com/