I always say that experiencing food - learning about, preparing and experiencing it - is one my greatest passions and when it brings loved ones together it is joy in its purest form! That is precisely why when I travel to a new destination, I carve out time to take a cooking class. I always learn new dishes that I then can share with my family, friends, and my own students. But beyond learning how to make a recipe, visiting a market and being exposed to new ingredients and cooking tools, I also gain a deeper insight of that particular culture through food. You see… in a cooking class, you often learn the occasions, customs, and rituals when a certain dish is prepared or consumed. In essence, you walk away with a better understanding of how people around the world celebrate family and friends through food!
Below I’m sharing a few of my favorite cooking classes around the world. They are all hands-on classes (my preferred way of learning and teaching) and geared to anyone wanting to expand his or her culinary horizons. If you are ever fortunate to be in one of these destinations, don’t hesitate to check them out. I envision this particular post to be a bit of a “living document” and will often update it with information of other cooking schools that I attend in the future. I only include those cooking schools that I’ve actually taken a class and have truly enjoyed!
This cooking school is located in one Beijing’s hutongs, typical Northern China neighborhoods formed by narrow alleys and traditional courtyard residences. Navigating the hutongs can be a bit of an adventure but one well worth it! Classes run two and half hours long and have various focuses: noodle making, dim sum, Sichuan cooking, typical street food, etc.
I took the Chinese Street Food class and learned to make Dan Dan Mian (Sichuan noodles in a spicy soup), Jian Bing Gou Zi (a crepe that contains fried wontons, egg, and red bean curd), Chuan Bei Liang Fen (Mung bean tofu salad with dried peanut sauce). The classroom was setup with one long table adjacent to a stove where we prepared our meal as group under the careful guidance of our instructor, Sofia. The class I took had only three people in attendance but I believe the groups can be as large as 8 or 16 depending on the classroom being used. The dishes are savored as they are prepared so the food is spread out throughout day.
Chiang Mai, Thailand
The classes at the Chiang Mai Thai Farm Cooking School last a full day and take place in a lovely organic farm about 30-40 minutes away from the Old City. The folks at the cooking school pick you up at your hotel and take you on a market visit. A lovely guide/cooking instructor takes you around and teaches you about Thai spices and ingredients, allowing you some free time to shop! Afterwards, it is off to the farm, where you are welcome with a wonderful lemongrass tea and taken on a short farm tour to see how herbs and produce are grown. The cooking class is in a large open, facility setup with individual stations. The instructor walks you through each step of the five dishes you will prepare that day, including a curry dish, a soup, a stir fry, pad thai or spring rolls, and a dessert. You enjoy each dish as soon as it is prepared so all the eating is spread throughout the day. However, if you cannot eat everything, you are allowed to take the leftovers! Typically, the classes hold a maximum of 12 students.
Hoi An, Vietnam
The Red Bridge Cooking School is located on the shores of a lovely river, about 20 minutes from the old town of Hoi An, a UNESCO World Heritage site. They have various offerings and I went for the Deluxe Day Tour, which included a market visit, a trip to an organic garden and a hands on cooking class in a kitchen open to the river. The menu included Pho, Vietnam’s most famous beef noodle soup, and Cha Ca, a clay pot fish with fresh dill. The class was quite small with only four students (maximum is eight) and included unlimited refreshments and wine. The experience ended with us being transported back to town by boat, which was a perfect way to unwind from the day!
Hoi Ann, Vietnam
This is not a cooking class in the traditional sense. Rather it is a tour of Vy’s Market Restaurant where there are many street food counters preparing and serving the best of Vietnam street food. In addition to various food demonstration and tastings, you get to prepare rice paper rolls, jack fruit salad, banh xeo (crispy Hoi An pancakes), and Cao Lau noodles! The groups are limited to six people.
Luang Prabang, Laos
The Tamarind Cooking School is run by the same people who own the namesake restaurant in town. The day started with a market visit where we tasted some typically Laotian rice treats and learned about different types of rice and its importance in the Laotian culture. We then headed out to a lakeside pavilion where we prepared jeows (Laos Spicy dipping sauces), sticky rice, mok pa (fish steamed in banana leaves), lemongrass stuffed with chicken, laap koy (aromatic minced meat salad), and purple sticky rice with coconut. When all the dishes were ready, we sat down to enjoy a sumptuous meal in a long communal table by the lake. The class had about 8-10 people.
Mexico City, Mexico
Casa Jacaranda is a private residence that has been renovated to accommodate cooking classes. The school derives its names from the beautiful, old Jacaranda trees that surround the house. The full day class starts off with a market visit conducted by the owners of the school, Beto and Jorge. As a group, we decided on the menu and then proceeded to shop accordingly. Along the way, we stopped for coffee and met some of the best food artisans in Mexico City. We also visited a traditional tortilla maker and got to learn about the production process. Then we proceeded to the warm and welcoming school where we split into groups and prepared various fire roasted salsas, fresh guacamole, fish tacos with pineapple escabeche, cochinita pibil (Yucatan-style barbequed pork) and caramelized pumpkin. After all the dishes were ready, we proceeded up to the rooftop terrace where enjoyed a long, laid back, leisurely lunch and experienced Mexican hospitality at its best! Beto and Jorge really went out of their way to provide a highly personalized experience.
La Maison Arabe is the cooking school associated with the Marrakesh hotel by the same name. The cooking school is about 15-20 minutes away from the hotel in a beautiful organic farm. Upon arrival, you are given a primer on Moroccan tea and get a demonstration on making flat breads. Then you head over to a beautiful kitchen with individual cooking stations where the traditional Moroccan architectural details seamlessly blend with state-of-the-art equipment. In the class, we prepared individual portions of tatuka (tomato and pepper salad), zalouk (eggplant salad), and chicken tagine with preserved lemons and olives. We also assisted the Dada (traditional Morrocan cook) with the preparation of Moroccan shortbread cookies, filled with orange marmalade and rolled in roasted sesame seeds. When everything was ready, we enjoyed the fruits of our labor in the outdoor terrace. The class had about 12-16 students.