Intrepid traveler and foodie David Jenison explores the flavors of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam through cooking classes.
A tourist cooking class won’t land you a gig at French Laundry, but it is an excellent way to experience a country’s culinary culture. English-speaking chefs take visitors to the local market, teach them how to prep and cook the food, and finish the class with students chowing down on their own creations. Southeast Asia makes for a tasty choice with affordable classes in several cities, and for an old-school start, Cambodia makes for a great appetizer. The country stands out for traditional methods that date back to the Khmer Empire, a Cambodian kingdom that ruled the region 900 years ago. The Angkor Wat temples are the most famous remnants, but the kingdom’s culinary influence also lives on. Cambodian food is traditionally milder, since chili peppers came later, though there’s often a French twist thanks to 90 years of colonization.
The Cambodia Cooking Class at Frizz, located behind the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh, teaches students about different herbs and spices in the market before ascending to the rooftop terrace for the actual class. With mortar and pestle in hand, the would-be Wolfgangs learn the first step in Asian prep, which is to grind, grind, grind. Regardless of the country, prepare to pulverize lots of chopped lemongrass. Meal options include coconut fish steamed in banana leaves and pomelo salad with shrimps.
A modern Cambodian creation is the happy herb pizza, which, let’s just say, can help treat a person’s glaucoma. For those who make it up to Battambang, the Smoking Pot restaurant offers cooking classes with a few off-menu options. Again, more grinding (use a coffee-bean grinder back home), but it’s the chance to make a baked chicken you’ll never see on Rachael Ray.
If Cambodian cuisine is milder, Laotian dishes have more herbs and bitterness. The former royal capital Luang Prabang features the Tamarind cooking class on the Nam Khan River, but Tum Tum Cheng offers a celebrity tease. Opened in 2001, Tum Tum advertises TV personality Chandra Koon Vongsaravanh as the master chef, though pupils are more likely to get his apprentice Chef Linda. Classes take place at either the Tum Tum restaurant or the Tat Kuang Xee waterfall outside town, and students learn about six different dishes.
For fans of the chili pepper, Thailand offers a handful of classes, notably Baipai Thai (Bangkok) and the Blue Elephant (Phuket, Bangkok). In fact, the latter is an international chain of Royal Thai restaurants, and its cooking class once hosted 20 Miss Universe contestants who learned to make som tam (green papaya salad). Though these are fine options, Bangkok’s famous Cabbages & Condoms restaurant needs to start a class just for the novelty graduation certificates. A framed Condoms cert would look great hanging next to that University degree.
Vietnam, another Asian country with French influence, offers its finest cooking class in picturesque Hoi An. Famed for its fashion and architecture, the town appears ripped from a romantic novel set in a more classical time. In this spirit, the Red Bridge Cooking School brings students to class with a lovely boat ride down the Hoi An River. Among the culinary options, the shrimp spring rolls are the easiest to duplicate back home, but take a shot at making the local specialties like grilled fish in banana leaves and beef salad in a bamboo basket. These dishes are spectacular. The class also posts its recipes online for those who want to see what actually goes into a banana flower salad.
Whether you want to honor Willie Nelson with a happy herb pizza or silence a mouthy mother-in-law with banana-leaf-wrapped lemongrass shrimp, taking a cooking class adds to any Southeast Asian adventure. As their popularity soars, cooking classes are now popping up in Argentina, Guatemala and other countries throughout Latin America. Check back soon for a look at what’s cooking south of the border.
By David Jenison