The sweet scent of freshly grated coconut, the sizzle of chilis in a hot wok, a face full of fragrant steam from a bowl of pho — in Asia, food is a complete sensory experience. There are few more accessible or enjoyable ways to immerse yourself in a destination than to experience its culinary traditions first-hand.
Unless you speak the language, seeking out those types of experiences while traveling in Asia can be challenging. Your best bet is to trust in local travel specialists who have the first-hand knowledge, contacts and resources to connect you with the type of hands-on culinary experiences you really want. One of the most experienced is Asia Transpacific Journeys, which has merited the World’s Best Tour Operator award from Travel + Leisure, and a Travel + Leisure Global Vision Award, as well as being highlighted in National Geographic Traveler’s Best Trips feature.
Here are three of my personal favorite destinations to connect with the traditional, local culture through food:
1. YAMANAKA, JAPAN: Take a break from the bustle of Tokyo and grandeur of Kyoto to experience Japanese food and traditions like a local in the quaint mountain village of Yamanaka, famous for its hot springs.
- Start the day with a typical, healthful Japanese breakfast consisting of steamed rice and miso soup paired with various side dishes — grilled fish, tamagoyaki (rolled omelet), pickles, natto (fermented soybean) and nori (dried seaweed).
- After a soak in the onsen (hot spring baths), experience an authentic Japanese tea ceremony performed by a traditional tea master. Called cha-no-yu or sado, the Zen Buddhist-influenced
ceremony is seen as the “proper way” to drink traditional Matcha green tea, made from finely powdered tea leaves.
- In the evening, visit the home of a local couple in the nearby village of Keihoku for a hands-on cooking class. Kei and Midori moved to Keihoku from Tokyo to return to their rural roots and introduce travelers to the beauty of Japanese farmhouse cuisine and culture. Begin by foraging for wild vegetables in the hills, then return to the house and prepare a simple, traditional meal from the fresh vegetables and a selection of local seafood.
2. KERALA, INDIA: From pineapple and rubber plantations to dense stands of cardamom and tea, watching the landscape change as you cross the Western Ghats from Tamil Nadu into Kerala is one of the great scenic drives of Southern India.
- Stop in the high-altitude tea-town of Munnar to explore this verdant, fairytale landscape in depth. Walk with a local guide through the spice farms, chat with the prosperous local farmers (the spice trade is still alive and well) and learn about the culinary and medicinal uses of the plants they grow.
- Retire to the quiet SpiceTree Resort to sample different varieties of the local tea, indulge in an exquisitely prepared dinner or soak in your private, heated pool overlooking the misty hills. Don’t leave without receiving an Ayurvedic head massage, a specialty of the on-site spa that purportedly stimulates hair growth, improves concentration and relieves mental stress.
- Drive three and a half hours down through the Cardamom Hills to coastal Cochin, once the colonial spice route’s most important port. Arrive in time for a hands-on cooking class from Roshni, who delights in introducing travelers to local-style Keralan Syrian Christian cuisine in her traditional family home. Using the freshest local vegetables, prepare a few traditional dishes, and then sit down to a delicious meal. You’ll leave with printed copies of Roshni’s ancestral recipes so you can keep practicing at home.
3. BANGKOK, THAILAND: See a side of this mega-city missed by most visitors by getting off the tourist track and immersing yourself in the day-to-day life of this vibrant metropolis.
- Follow the lead of Thai students and business people and take the ultra clean and modern Skytain monorail to the suburban stop of your local cooking instructor, Angsana. A native who grew up visiting the market and cooking with her mother, Angsana is passionate about sharing her comprehensive knowledge of Thai cuisine with curious visitors. Visit her favorite neighborhood market to pick up the freshest ingredients for the Thai dishes of your choosing. Then settle into her modern home kitchen for a crash course in authentic Thai cuisine. Armed with recipes and a plethora of new knowledge, you’ll leave confident enough to make your own curry paste from scratch back home.
- In the evening, board a restored Teak rice barge on the Chao Phrya River to attend one of Thailand’s most colorful festivals, Loy Krathong, which falls on the first full moon of each November. For the festival, the river will be alive with decorative canoes and barges and iconic krathong offerings set adrift by the thousands. The krathong contains a flower, a candle and three incense sticks, lit before being placed on the water. It is believed that if the candle remains lit until the krathong is out of sight then the sender’s wish will come true. Savor the scene as you enjoy a 10-course traditional Thai seafood menu, paired with wine and cocktails, aboard the boat.
Asia Transpacific Journeys allows you to custom design your own itinerary around your interests, or you can join small group trips, led by expert tour leaders who provide cultural insights based on firsthand experience. http://www.AsiaTranspacific.com or call 800.642.2742.
Where to Stay:
Located in the small hot springs village of Yamanaka and surrounded by majestic trees and thickly forested hills, Kayoutei’s ten suites feel virtually frozen in time. Tatami walkways, original painted screens, fine works of pottery and antique furnishings create the feeling of warm hospitality one would expect visiting the home of a dear friend (with exquisite taste). Immerse yourself in the on-site onsen baths and the unbeatable ambiance.
SpiceTree Resort (http://spicetreemunnar.com)
Set amid the stunning natural splendor of Kerala’s Cardamom Hills, SpiceTree offers an inviting, intimate environment in which to indulge in an Ayurvedic spa treatment, walk through the lush mountain landscape or simply relax. The entire boutique resort was custom designed and built by the property’s owner and his attention to detail is immediately evident in each guest room’s uniquely charming ambiance.
The Bruton Boatyard (http://www.cghearth.com/brunton-boatyard)
A gem of the impressively eco-conscious CGH Earth hotel group, this remarkable hotel is a tribute to 19th-Century Malabar, when wealthy Dutch, Portuguese and British spice merchants roamed these streets and waterways. Vaulted ceilings, hanging fans and curios from the Victorian age are complemented by magnificent views of the busy harbor.
The Peninsula (http://bangkok.peninsula.com)
Regularly lauded as one of Bangkok’s finest hotels, including the distinction of “World’s Best Hotel” by Travel + Leisure magazine, The Peninsula is an emblem of all that is great about Bangkok. Sweeping views of the Chao Phraya River and the city beyond beckon from every window, contemporary Southeast Asian artwork and traditional Thai silks comprise the decor and exclusive, stylish riverboats conveniently whisk guests to nearby attractions.