If there is anything that we have learned from years of travel, it’s that there is truly no better way to understand a culture than through its food. Across continents and cultures, food has always played an integral part in the human experience, whether it’s used to celebrate a religious festival, mourn the tragic loss of a loved one or as a bonding experience with family and friends on an ordinary afternoon.
Whether you are in the farthest reaches of the Himalayas or the tropical islands of Indonesia, food’s ability to unify families and communities extends far beyond our need for survival. In this blog post, we wanted to share some unique culinary traditions from around Asia and cooking classes that will allow you to dive deeper into the local culture on your travels.
Indonesia’s population is comprised of over 300 distinct ethnic groups who inhabit 6,000 islands, making the world’s largest archipelago a treasure trove of cultural and culinary diversity. With such a diverse array of landscapes, people and cultures, it’s no wonder that Indonesia’s various culinary traditions have resulted in some of the world’s most flavorful dishes. From West Sumatra’s Padang curry to the sate served at Jakarta’s street food stalls, there are a plethora of culinary delicacies waiting to be discovered in Indonesia.
But one city, in particular, that stands out for its culinary excellence is Central Java’s Yogyakarta. While many other regional cuisines throughout the island nation have been historically influenced by foreign regions such as India, the Middle East, China, and Europe, Javanese cuisine has been mostly influenced by indigenous culture, with this culinary traditional tracing its lineage back to the two ancient kingdoms of Yogyakarta and Surakarta. What makes Javanese cuisine unique is that it is often sweeter than other regional cuisines, which can be attributed to the generous amount of palm sugar and sweet soy sauce used in cooking its local delicacies such as the famed Gudeg Yogya, which is stewed jackfruit that is boiled for hours in a combination of palm sugar, spices, and coconut milk.
To get the most out of your culinary journey in Yogyakarta, we recommend studying the traditional cooking techniques of Javanese cuisine from a master chef at this Yogyakarta Cooking Class. Mrs. Made will share her culinary secrets with you as she shows you how to cook local recipes that have been handed down by her family from generation to generation.
Relying on a complex balance of sweet, salty, sour and spicy flavors, food in Vietnam is considered to be one of Southeast Asia’s most distinct cuisines. With specialized local ingredients such as fermented fish sauce, local citrus juices, tamarind, chili peppers, and plenty of fresh herbs, Vietnamese cuisine is often difficult to authentically replicate outside of the country. While many foodies from around the world are quick to recognize Vietnam’s hallmark dishes such as Spring Rolls, Pho, and Bahn Mi, there are many regional delicacies that one can only find by exploring Vietnam’s culinary scene in person. Pull up to a local street food stall, grab a plastic stool and order some of Vietnam’s most famous local dishes such as Bahn Xeo, which is a sizzling savory crepe stuffed with shrimp, pork, bean sprouts and fresh local herbs, or even Bun Bo Hue, which is a spicy vermicelli and beef soup that is associated with the historic imperial city of Hue in Central Vietnam.
To truly understand what makes Vietnamese cuisine so special, we recommend joining Jolie for a Vietnamese Cooking Class in Danang, where you’ll explore the local markets in search of fresh seasonal ingredients and even pick local herbs straight from the garden. When you book this Danang Cooking Class, you are also supporting the livelihood of disadvantaged students who are currently living with Jolie in her home.
No visit to Chiang Rai is complete without sampling the regional Lanna cuisine, which refers to the area ruled by the ancient Lanna Kingdom of Northern Thailand, which covered the provinces of Chiang Rai, Chiang Mai, Lampang, Nan, and other surrounding cities and provinces. In Northern Thailand, meals are traditionally eaten on the floor and poured into cups and placed on Khantoke trays, which are short, round wooden dining tables.
Slightly influenced by Yunnan cuisine, Lanna flavors are not as sweet as you’ll find elsewhere in Thailand but feature saltier and spicier flavors due to the generous use of fresh chilis, garlic, lime and shallots in the dishes. In this region, it’s common for sticky rice to accompany your meal, which can be kneaded into small balls and dipped in the local curries, chili sauces and nam phrik, which is a thick chili paste normally made from shrimp or fish paste. This region is also abundant in wild vegetables and herbs, which can often be picked straight from the farms, forests or rice paddy fields and includes banana flowers, bamboo shoots, wild mushrooms, tamarind leaves, morning glories, and much more!
To learn more about Northern Thailand’s rich culinary tradition from the local perspective, we suggest taking a Chiang Rai Cooking Class with Suwannee, where you’ll be able to visit a local market to purchase fresh and exotic ingredients to use in the kitchen as she teaches you her grandmother’s traditional recipes.
Set against the awe-inspiring backdrop of the Himalayas, Nepal’s culinary tradition is a reflection of the many diverse ethnicities and people that have called this region home for centuries. With such a wide array of landscapes, local diets have been historically dependent on the crops and resources available nearby. For example, Sherpas that live in the far reaches of the Himalayas are dependent on a diet rich in potatoes that includes local dishes such as alu roti and rhil doke soup. But if you are visiting Nepal for the first time, the best dish to understand the culture would be with the de facto national dish, Dal Bhat, which is a very traditional lentil curry served with a portion of rice. Dal Bhat is so important in Nepal, that it is said that the entire country runs on it, which is eaten by 75% of the population twice a day! Throughout the country, you’ll also find plenty of nourishing soups, curries, and momos, which are Nepali dumplings that can be stuffed with various fillings ranging from buffalo meat to paneer and can be drenched in all sorts of sauces such as jhol achar sauce or even chili chutney!
To learn the secrets of Nepali cooking, we recommend joining Rekha at her Pokhara Cooking Class, where she’ll share her culinary techniques with you so that you can perfect traditional Nepali dishes such as dal bhat, puri, pakauda, aaludum and Nepali momos!
Sitting at an important crossroads of international trade, Sri Lanka’s culinary tradition has been shaped throughout the centuries by the many cultures and traders that have passed through its waters, which include influences from South India, Indonesia, the Netherlands, and many other seafaring nations. As the Pearl of the Indian Ocean, it goes without saying that seafood plays a dominant role in the island’s cuisine with fiery curries, fresh coconut sambal, delicious chutneys, abundant spices, and fresh local fruits also contributing to the powerful flavors of the Sri Lankan kitchen. On this Island of Rice and Curry, you can also find some of the world’s best collection of spices which include black pepper, cardamom, turmeric, fennel seed, cinnamon, ginger cum, fenugreek, cloves, coriander, curry leaves and over 60 types of chili peppers that were brought over by traders centuries ago!
To savor the best example of Sri Lankan flavors in action, we suggest trying Fish Ambul Thiyal, which is a hot, sour and peppery fish curry that is generously seasoned with fresh black pepper, cinnamon, goraka, and turmeric to create an intense but delightful dish that is enjoyed throughout the entire country. Another important highlight of Sri Lankan cuisine is the Pol Sambol, which is a freshly ground coconut relish made from grated coconut, dried chilies, red onions, lime juice, chili powder, and dried Maldive fish, which is used to garnish just about every dish in Sri Lanka from the delicious curries to your morning string hoppers.
To learn about all the ingredients that make Sri Lankan cuisine so unique, we suggest taking a Kandy Cooking Class with Kumari, where she’ll share classic Sri Lankan recipes that have been handed down from generation to generation by her family.
Although the cuisine in Cambodia may be lesser known than it’s neighboring cousins, Thailand and Vietnam, it certainly packs a flavorful punch with fresh local ingredients that emphasize Cambodia’s geographic diversity. With the Mekong river jutting straight through the heart of Cambodia, and also housing Southeast Asia’s largest freshwater lake, the Tonle Sap, it comes as no surprise that freshwater fish plays a prominent role in the Khmer diet. While Cambodian cuisine uses less chili, sugar and coconut cream than neighboring Thailand, it’s fresh local herbs and spices such as kaffir leaves, galangal, sweet basil, and lemongrass, make up for it by offering fresh local dishes that are unique to the country.
When visiting Cambodia, one dish that is a perfect representation of the local flavors is its national dish, Amok. While there are many variations of Amok, the most traditional version is served with freshwater fish, which is cooked with kroeung (a traditional Cambodian curry paste) and coconut cream and then steamed in banana leaves. This delectable and creamy dish is often difficult to find outside of Cambodia, so we recommend taking full advantage and ordering it various times during your visit to the kingdom. Another famous dish that takes advantage of Cambodia’s abundant seafood, is the seaside Kep Pepper Crab. This savory dish blends Kampot’s world-famous green peppers with fresh crab to create a seafood dining experience that is unlike anything else in Southeast Asia. To get the freshest crab in the country, we recommend visiting the Kep Crab Market, where you’ll have a variety of options on how to cook and eat them!
In a small village located a few kilometers from Angkor Wat, you’ll have the chance to partake in a Siem Reap Cooking Class, where you’ll journey to local markets and learn how to use specific herbs and spices to create traditional Cambodian recipes with a local family.
Home to one of the world’s most diverse culinary traditions, India’s cuisine encompasses a wide variety of cultures, traditions, climates, and local ingredients into its regional cuisine. But one region in particular that is noted for its historically significant cuisine is Rajasthan, where the kings and queens of the royal family were once served India’s most sophisticated dishes fresh out of the imperial kitchen. Legends tell of royal cooks who tried to impress the royal family by preparing each new dish to surprise more than the one that came before it, with exotic delicacies such as stuffed camels, goats and even peacocks making their way onto the royal plates.
In Jaipur, the capital of Rajasthan, you can still find remnants from this period in culinary history with mouthwatering local delicacies such as dal baati churma, laal maas, mawa kachori and much more! One dish revered in Jaipur is Laal Maas, which is a famous Rajasthani delicacy, which literally translates to “Red Mutton”, and combines a fusion of spices, yogurt, garlic, red chilis, and local mustard oil to create it’s distinct flavor. Another famous local treat is the exotic dessert, mawa kachori, which is a puffed pastry filled with mawa and nuts and normally eaten during festivals and celebrations.
If you’re interested in learning how to prepare the local delicacies of Jaipur, Payal will teach you everything that you need to know at her Jaipur Cooking Class.