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Cooking in Asia

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Savoring Cooking Experiences
Text and Photos by Sandra Scott

I love serving my dinner guests Phad Thai and having them ask, “Where did you learn to make Phad Thai?” I enjoy their surprised looks when I reply, “At the Peninsula Hotel in Bangkok. And, how do you like the lemongrass drink? I learned to make it at the Governor’s Residence in Myanmar.”

A cooking class is a delicious and personal way to learn about a country and its culture. Thanks to the popularity of TV cooking shows, hotels and restaurants worldwide now offer a variety of cooking experiences. The lessons vary from demonstrations to hands-on cooking. A few are free, but most cost between $18 and $200. On our 2008 three-month trip in Asia my husband and I took several cooking lessons. Each was unique but all were wonderful – and delicious.

The Philippines
The village of Lucban was the first stop on our daylong culinary tour of Quezon Province. “We start in April making thousands of kiping. On May 15 we give thanks to San Isidro Labrador for a good harvest by covering our houses in fruits, vegetables, and kiping. If we cook the kiping we can eat it, too,” explained Milada Valde as she prepared the colorful rice paper wafers. The kipings are fashioned into flowers, chandeliers, and other decorative items. While the kipings were drying she demonstrated how generations of her family have been making the town’s other local delicacy, Lucban Longganisa.


In the historic city of Hoi An, Chef Thanh pointed to the large mirror above his cooking demonstration table and quipped, “Vietnamese TV.” Our international group of 20 had arrived at the school via a 25-minute scenic boat ride on the Hoi An River. After each demonstration, the chef ordered, “Now you try. If you don’t do it right do it again – at home!” Each participant had their own gas burner with all the necessary ingredients laid out by the staff. Chef Thanh’s quick wit and snappy patter made me wonder if he was practicing for a spot on the cooking channel. We learned to prepare a complete Vietnamese meal including how to make Hoi An Pancakes and food decorations. I will need more practice to make attractive food decorations. Chef Thanh’s advice, “If you make a mistake – eat it!” ($18)

Hue was the Imperial City during the 19th Century and emerged as the culinary capital of Vietnam. And no wonder. Legend has it that the finicky emperors demanded something different for every meal. At La Residence Hotel we climbed into a cyclo for a trip to the city’s market to get the fresh ingredients for our cooking lesson. We passed on the option to leave at 5 AM to visit a place where they make rice noodles very early each morning. Returning to the hotel’s Le Perfum Restaurant, with a view of the Imperial City across the river, we learned how to make one of my favorite recipes, sautéed chicken with lemon grass, ginger and chili. ($25)

In Yangon our cooking class started with a tour of the outdoor market led by Mr. Ko Ko, the restaurant manager at the Governor’s Residence. It quickly became a cultural tour. Mr. Ko Ko picked up a piece of bark, “This is not food. This is thanaka. The women grind it into a powder and apply it to their face to protect it from sun.” At a stall selling longyis, the traditional sarong-style garb worn by most adults in Myanmar, Mr. Ko Ko asked, “Do you know the proper way to wear a longyi?” Unwrapping his longyi, he explained, “The men fold it like this in the front with a twist knot. The women secure it on the side.” We purchased feather back fish to make Fish Cake Salad and returned to the hotel in a 1940s mini-truck. After our lesson, which took place on the hotel’s expansive second-floor teak veranda, we savored the finished product while enjoying the view of the tropical garden. ($50)

The Princess Resort, in Lake Inle, is the perfect setting for their "Cooking Experience in an Inthar House." The morning started with shopping in one of the local five-day markets to bargain and buy the ingredients needed for the recipes. The next stop was a local Inthar house, the home of one of the resort’s staff, where the staff was waiting to teach Inthar-style cooking. Sharing the finished meal with the family was wonderful way to bridge the cultural gap. ($30)

Bangkok, Thailand
“Good Morning. Here is your chilled bottle of water. The Sam Yan Wet Market is only 15 minutes away,” said the liveried driver of the Peninsula’s Mercedes. And, so began our lesson on how to make Phad Thai with Egg Net. On the guided tour of the wet market we learned about red-skinned dragon fruit and black-skinned chicken. It quickly became obvious why it is called a “wet market.” Vendors were constantly spraying their produce to keep it fresh looking. Back at the Peninsula’s gleaming stainless steel kitchen we learned how to make Phad Thai and Egg Net. Egg Net is so easy to make that it we use it for making hors d’oeuvres by placing julienne meat and/or veggies on the egg net and rolling them up like spring rolls. ($200)

Every time I have lemongrass it conjures up images of Myanmar. When eating Thai food I will recall our relaxing days in Thailand. I have a new appreciation of food decorations after my inept attempts to make some in Vietnam. And, on May 15th I think of the kiping-covered houses in Lucban. Cooking lessons are a great way to savor travel and keep the memory of the trip fresh every time one of the recipes is prepared.

If you go:
Philippines: www.wowphilippines.com.ph
Vietnam: www.la-residence-hue.com
Myanmar: www.governorsresidence.com, 800-237-1236; www.inleprincessresort.com
Thailand: www.peninsula.com, 866-382-8388

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