To what extent would you go to get your world food flavours right? I ask this question sitting in a traditional Balinese home, at a table laden with Balinese dishes, all of which have been prepared by our group of four (with assistance from the hosts) at Paon Bali, which is a cooking school situated in Ubud.
Run by Puspa and Wayan, the cooking school/home is a beautiful space surrounded by lush paddy fields and outdoor seating space, attached to an extended open kitchen.
Assisted by her able team, we got down to work after being served a refresher at our arrival. Cutting, chopping, pounding, mixing, and before I realised, we did all, resulting in some amazing (and seemingly easy) dishes, namely Gado Gado, Pepe Ikan (Tuna steamed in banana leaf), Bumbu Kuning (which is the base of most Balinese cooking), Siap Mesanten Kare Ayam (chicken in coconut curry), Tempe Mee Goreng Tempe Kering (deep-fried tempe in sweet soy sauce).
This is not the first time that I booked at a cooking school on my travels. With each passing year, I find myself increasingly looking for destinations and stays that allow me an opportunity to get into local kitchens and learn a few secrets privy only to the locals.
The idea is to get the feel of their surroundings, potter around with their pots and pans and certainly, work with the local ingredients. Trust me, it's addictive. Most times, these cooking schools are recommended by travellers who have been there before, others surfed on the internet and booked based on recommendations.
Exploration is the buzz word. The name Paon Bali, for instance, cropped up in the Air Asia Flight when I expressed my desire to learn some local cooking inspired by a sumptuous Nasi Lemak served with sumptuous Chilli Sambal. I often like to reserve my views on inflight menus, but this one did take me by surprise, leading to further explorations.
ON A THAI HIGH
While on southeast Asian cooking and learning about the local ingredients, I am reminded of lovely Tam's cooking class in Bangkok. The Amita Thai cooking class was suggested by the Thai tourism authorities and turned out to be the trigger to my addiction for cooking lessons in local kitchens.
Tam or Tam Piyawadi Jantrupon, my lovely host, was an international lawyer before she decided to give it all up and return to her country to follow her passion. The cooking school, situated next to the canal in the old Bangkok area is a beautiful escape and a great insight into learning about traditional Thai living and culture.
She has a little herb garden where she grows fresh herbs and flowers, a lot of these of edible variety that you can use in your dishes. Aesthetically done and ultra organised cooking stations in the outdoors are the only reminder that this is space that has been developed to suit the class needs.
Nevertheless, she ensures that you begin from the basics when you ground your rice using the traditional mortar and pestle to get the perfect consistency and flavours. Tam's menu is fairly simple and uses fresh ingredients. I learnt how to cook Gai Sab ( Chic with holy Basil), Gai Hor Bai Toey ( Deep fried chicken in Pandanus leaves), Tab Tim Krob (Water chestnut in syrup with coconut milk), Satay and Tom Yam Goong (spicy prawn soup), apart from edible flower fritters, that were as pretty to eat as they were to see.
THE BANGALA TABLE
In India, my travel to Karaikudi led to my discovery of the most amazing Chettinad flavours, interspersed with Sri Lankan influences as cooked in the Meyyappan household. What was meant to be a holiday to beat the holiday hangover, I arrived at The Bangala in Karaikudi (Tamil Nadu) based on (and accompanied by) a chef friend. And that is where I met the passionate matriarch of the family who runs this beautiful heritage property with flavours that are traditional and pure Chettinad. Meenakshi Meyyappan is a stickler for perfection.
While the restored Bungalow, The Bangala, makes for your perfect luxury retreat and a vantage point from where you can explore the rest of the area, including the Chettiar mansions in the Karaikudi region or the tile making village of Athangudi or the looms of Chettinad, you can also learn some authentic Chettinad recipes from the head chef.
I spent an afternoon learning some crab rasam, Anglo-Indian mutton cutlets, Upu Kari (mutton cutlets) and a Chettiar version of the Tamil staple vatha kozhambu. While mine was a short class, The Bangala hosts extensive learning classes for those who come here to especially learn Chettinad cooking. Mrs Meyyappan, as the grand old lady is fondly referred to, has also authored a book called, The Bangala Table: Flavors and Recipes from Chettinad along with Sumeet Nair and Jill Donenfeld, (with Rohit Chawla's food photography). The book is a bestseller.
AN AMAZING ART RETREAT
While food is always the focus in one's travels, learning how to cook local can happen spontaneously. Like, this one time when I was a part of an artists' retreat at Te Aroha in Kumaon up north in India. A creative gathering of noted artists, who explored the area for inspiration and translated that inspiration into works, we'd stop and spend time with the local villagers nearby.
Our curiousity about their cooking led us to getting invited for an intimate cooking session with a Kumaoni family, watching them prep and cook their meal from real up close, lending a helping hand where needed.
We prepared a local dal called Gahat or Kulath ki daal, Kafuli (a leafy prepration made from leaves like spinach), Bhaang ki Chutney, served with Mandua ki roti most ingredients unheard of in the part of India that I come from.
Travelling to the part, you can request for a session from the hotel. Come to think of it, each opportunity one gets to travel is also an opportunity to carry something creative back, in terms of learning or even delving deeper into their culture via food.
Kumaon is only one example where we reached out to the locals and were well rewarded in terms of food experience. Offbeat travels in particular present a great opportunity for slow travel and learning.
If in Mauritius, some hotels are open to assist you in setting up a class with locals, be it for Mauritian food or Bhojpuri-Indian influenced food class. Likewise planning to travel to Jordan, Petra Kitchen is most recommended, or if in Italy, you can look out for Chateau specials.
Whichever way you reach out to enhance your culinary journey, the joy is in the knowledge that each of such meal has only brought closer to their hearts and kitchens. The bonus, you learn to appreciate their habits and culture even better and for many, present it on your table. Truly global, wouldn't you say?