Move over culinary walks, food-lovers are now making tortellini in Emilia and picking out galangal in Bangkok
Been there, done that. The with-it traveller wants always to be able to say this with a certain chutzpah. Now, the ‘Done That’, besides abseiling down Table Mountain or catching a glimpse of the Northern Lights in Trondheim, has also come to encompass getting into kitchens and learning to cook local cuisines along travel routes across the world. It may elicit less of an adrenaline rush than swimming with sharks or mountaineering, but is no less exciting or enriching. It’s also a perfect way to understand new places, people and cultures.
The food-loving traveller now constantly seeks new adventure. It is no longer enough to eat the local cuisine in restaurants or even on the street. It’s about sloshing about in the wet markets of Bangkok, learning to tell galangal from krachai, mastering the making of tortellini in Emilia, daring to test the heat of a bhut jolokia chilli in Assam and learning the art of giving appams those lacy edges. Indian travellers were once a diffident lot, preferring package tours with the assurance of Indian food along the way. Then, they were emboldened enough to taste local cuisines wherever they went—from escargot in Lyon to Nasi Lemak on the streets of Kuala Lumpur. Foodies began to get well and truly adventurous, and were willing to go anywhere for food and to taste the real thing. Food walks and culinary trails became the trendy thing to do, and travel was taking food lovers on wine tours and to gourmet getaways. And now, it’s the cooking holiday that gets food-loving travellers salivating at the prospect of spending time in kitchens far away from home.
When media professional Priya Krishnaswamy chose Morocco for a winter break, she definitely wanted to dive into the cuisine, motivated no doubt by the travel shows that captured the mood of the famous Djemaa El Fnaa, the street food market that stands on a UNESCO Heritage site. “We opted to stay in a Riad, the sprawling homes tucked away in the narrow alleys of Marrakech, and picked one that offered cooking lessons,” she says. It was a similar quest that saw Simran Kochchar Dhingra, who curates Kindly Cook, offering home dining experiences, heading to Figline in Tuscany, where she signed up for cooking lessons from Chef Claudio at the Torre Guelfa Restaurant. “I’d always enjoyed cooking, and learning new dishes and cuisines. And this cooking holiday was perfect with market visits, introductions to the unique ingredients and produce of the region, and passionate discussions about food and wine and, of course, cooking lessons from a professional,” she says. Simran also took the opportunity to get a quick course in French cooking in Epernay when she visited the Champagne region.
The Blue Elephant Cooking School in Bangkok with a branch in Phuket sees a fair number of Indian travellers signing up for its morning cooking course that can be squeezed into schedules that include spa treatments and shopping. Even as the number of Indians combining holidays with cooking lessons begins to slowly swell, there’s a surging interest from foreign travellers who put cooking holidays in India high up on their must-do list while touring the country.
With Kerala being one of the first states to attract the upscale traveller with its impressive God’s Own Country campaign, it’s not surprising that its cuisine has also attracted the attention of the world. Catering to that craving for classes in Kerala food are scores of home cooks, professional chefs and resort owners. Kochi-based Nimmy Paul is a veteran in the field—she began teaching cooking in the 1990s—and her Meen Moilee recipe has fans from as far as Michigan. After a stint as a finishing school instructor, she began teaching cooking to local housewives and soon came to the notice of tour operators who were getting requests from foreign tourists to arrange cooking sessions for them. “I work with various companies such as Tauck and Cox & Kings which recommend my classes to clients,” says Paul. She has been conducting these cooking lessons for travellers in her home and is now setting up a space near Fort Kochi which can accommodate a few residential ‘students’. “They will stay with me and learn alongside,” she says. For most cooking sessions which have groups of six-eight people and cost between $30-$100, Paul demonstrates the making of five dishes using meat, fish, shellfish and vegetables in three-four hours. “My prawn dishes are hugely popular and that may be the reason why a particular Japanese tourist comes here every year to take the class,” she says.
Even if Kerala cuisine is known for its excellent fish and seafood curries, the focus of the cooking sessions at The Pimenta, located at Haritha Farms in Kadalikad, is on a vegetarian and vegan fare. Hands-on cooking sessions are an integral part of the Pimenta stay and range from the three-day Curry Magic, priced at `17,000 per head, to a more intensive four-day Kerala Cooking Residency programme at `33,000 per head. “We do have requests for cooking non-vegetarian fare and are happy to oblige but, increasingly, the emphasis is on vegetarian,” says Jacob Mathew, who runs Pimenta and doubles as the cooking instructor.
The farm turned into a homestay in 1996 and the cooking classes followed soon after. “Located as we are in a spice garden, we decided to give our guests the opportunity to see up close the role nature plays in our food,” Mathew says. They can walk in a nutmeg grove, pick cloves and cardamom, and dig up turmeric root. “Our cooking sessions focus a lot on identifying spices and understanding their role in Kerala food, on appreciating the health-giving qualities of organic coconut oil which we produce on the farm,” he adds. While nearly all Pimenta customers are foreigners who stay at the spice garden bungalow, Mathew does not see why Indian travellers shouldn’t be delving deeper into our cuisine. “In the fast-paced society we live in, where speed and convenience score over everything else, we stand to lose many of our culinary traditions such as slow cooking. So, it might be a good thing for enterprises such as ours to keep these alive and share them with more and more people,” he says.
Cooking vegetarian food using organic produce is also what Vidya Srinivasan has set out to do at Raven’s Nest, the charming property set high up in the Nilgiris, not far from Kotagiri in Tamil Nadu. “It’s a cooking holiday I took in Tuscany (Italy) that gave me the idea to do this here,” says Vidya, who has always enjoyed cooking and is an ardent champion of organic produce, and mindful cooking and eating. She’s now putting the finishing touches to the cooking programme titled Taste Organic India, for which most of the ingredients will come from the kitchen garden and the cooking will be done on solar-powered stoves. “The recipes will be pan-Indian and it will be simple, old-fashioned cooking, with not the slightest dependence on processed ingredients,” Vidya says, adding that it’s her personal food philosophy as well. The one-week cooking programme for resident guests costs $1,400 and bookings can be made on www.tasteorganicindia.com. As is the case with most Indian cooking breaks, interest has been more from foreigners, but Vidya says there have also been inquiries for places like Mumbai for a holiday in a scenic spot twinned with lessons on cooking with organic ingredients.
Not all cooking lessons are conducted in hill resorts or by the backwaters. It’s also possible to enter homes in bustling cities and get to grips with how urban India cooks and eats. That, in fact, is what tour company Calcutta Walks offers. While it began with street food walks, the demands for entering local kitchens and getting a real feel for the food encouraged them to introduce the Cook as the Bongs Do segment. “Kolkata has a unique market culture and our cooking experience begins at places such as the Bhawanipore Market where participants get to see, smell and marvel at the indigenous vegetables and greens and, of course, the fish,” says Ramanuj of Calcutta Walks, which charges around `2,000 for a three-four-hour food-and-cooking walk. “Foreigners are always amazed to see the variety of freshwater fish that is available here.” After the market visit, it’s off to a Bengali home to see these ingredients transform into celebrated dishes from the Bengali culinary repertoire. “While they watch the meal come together, guests also learn about the cooking traditions and the unwritten rules that govern the way food is cooked and eaten. “They will hear the history behind certain dishes and also the reason why the meal begins with bitter greens and progresses as it does,” Ramanuj says. Again, it’s an almost entirely foreign clientele they cater to and this season cooking class participants are utterly captivated by the Bengali’s love for hilsa.
In Mumbai, tour company Mumbai Moments has been offering culinary experiences for curious travellers since 2010. These have become popular enough to necessitate a separate portal, Mumbai Masala, dedicated to cooking lessons which lasts for three hours. Group sizes are small—up to four people—and sessions are priced at around `3,000 per head. “We began by offering walking tours of precincts such as Colaba which were designed as ‘sights and bites’ expeditions,” says Amish Seth of Mumbai Moments.
“We introduced groups to a variety of Indian food—both in restaurants and off the street—during these excursions. Our offerings were different because we confined ourselves to vegetarian food and we are possibly among the first to showcase Indian vegetarian food in this manner.” They then branched out and organised cooking lessons; these, too, are all-vegetarian affairs. Seth says it was a conscious decision to stay vegetarian. “Tourists come here with the notion that India is a predominantly vegetarian country, and in most places end up encountering just chicken tikka, which is such a cliché,” he says. So, Mumbai Moments decided to serve up the subtle nuances of vegetarian dishes to its clientele. They tied up with a homemaker who has a sprawling house, where she teaches people from all over the world to make the perfect phulka, toss up a healthy sabji and whip up a raita.
Tourists who want the luxury of learning to cook Indian dishes in the comfort of their hotels, homestays and resorts can also do that in many places. Siolim House, the heritage property in Goa, for instance, invites guests to spend the morning cooking fish caldinha and crab xec xec, and then sit down to a lunch of dishes they have made themselves. Down south, the bangala in Karaikudi, the hub of Chettinad, sets out to introduce the rich culinary traditions of the region not only at its expansive dining table, but also in the kitchen. A tour of the kitchen is recommended to all guests and those who wish to master, say, paniyaram, can do so under the guidance of in-house cooks.
While one-stop cooking classes are being woven into an increasing number of Indian itineraries and packages, there are also travellers who want a smorgasbord or, more appropriately, a thali meal of cooking experiences when they are in the country. This entails travelling from one cooking class to another, learning to make laal maas in Udaipur, butter naan in Chandigarh and haleem in Hyderabad.
Bengaluru-based travel company Hammock Holidays is the local partner for Gourmet Ganesha, a tour outfit from Perth, Australia.
“They have groups coming every year, criss-crossing the country for dining and cooking experiences,” says Chandran, MD, Hammock Holidays, Bengaluru. “The tours usually begin in Rajasthan and head southwards to Karnataka, Puducherry and Kerala. Gourmet meals at five-star hotels, interactions with top chefs, trips to local markets and cooking lessons by the edge of, say, Vembanad lake is incorporated. It’s exotic and makes for great stories.”
Gourmet Ganesha is a fun partnership between Renu Burr and Judy Shearwood. They coordinate bespoke Indian cooking lessons and corporate team-building workshops around cooking sessions. “The tours came about because people who attended the classes, as well as friends and friends of friends, first requested a food-based trip to India in 2004,” says Burr. Typical group includes 14-18 people, and those who’ve come have loved it, she says, adding that they all appreciate seeing India through non-tourist eyes. According to her, it’s the variety of cuisines, the colour and vibrant culture, and, particularly how the history and culture of each region is reflected in the food that generates this interest in Indian culinary tours.
Shyama’s Kitchen, run by Shyama Banik in Puducherry, is one of the regular stops on the Gourmet Ganesha culinary trail. Shyama’s husband, Biswajit, is a tour guide and she is a passionate cook. They have merged their skills to offer cooking classes for visitors to the state which wears a charming French air. “From my early interactions with foreign clients, I gathered there was some amount of dissatisfaction with the culinary experiences they were able to access,” says Biswajit Banik.
So Shyama, who’s been in catering for a decade and more, set out in 2009 to offer cooking lessons, especially designed for foreigners fascinated by Indian cuisine. Sessions take up an entire morning or evening and conclude with a meal. “The menu is pan-Indian and group sizes are small, never more than a dozen people,” Banik says. “We also do sessions for couples, on request.” For many food-loving travellers, the cooking classes are more than just an item to be ticked on the to-do list. “They take the recipes back with them and cook the food they have learned here,” Banik says. They engage with Shyama via Skype when they have a query or need help with a dish.
The cooking holiday, then, is a lot more than merely a fun thing to do while on vacation. It is a reassuring sign that, despite the overwhelming influence of processed meals and junk food in our daily lives, the love of cooking and the culinary traditions are being kept alive across the globe. Proof is the dal tadka simmering away, the dosa being made, and the Aleppey fish curry being prepared in Auckland, Kyoto and New York, all thanks to lessons learnt while travelling.