Travel News

Noodling Around Asia: Culinary Vacations in the East

Locations in this article:  Bangkok, Thailand Beijing, China Hong Kong Tokyo, Japan

Japanese Udon NoodlesOne of the surest, and certainly enjoyable, ways to familiarize yourself with a new culture is by experiencing its cuisines.

But to immerse yourself more fully in a culture (and perhaps even to bring home some recipe ideas with you), you’ll want to get off the sidelines and into the cooking action.

Asia is one region where the links between cuisine and culture particularly are strong.

In hands-on cooking classes, you’ll become familiar with local ingredients, try your hand at bargaining tactics at the markets and spice shops, and learn the finer points of meal preparation.


Since Singapore is a nation composed of diverse groups of people, the variety in local cuisines is impressive. At Cookery Magic, on Singapore’s east coast, visitors can learn to prepare Indian, Chinese, Thai, Malay, and indigenous Singaporean dishes in daily cooking classes. The courses start at about $60 per person and are offered for three hours at a time, Monday through Friday. Class sizes are limited to eight students, and visits to local wet markets and spice shops can be arranged in conjunction with the class.

Ruqxana Vasanwala, who owns and operates the cooking school from her home, explains that her classes are “very personal,” rather than clinical. Classes are “designed to make my students feel like they are guests in my home and have come for a meal, but with a cooking lesson thrown in.”

Private cooking sessions, popular among visitors and local chefs alike, are also available. These courses start at $375 per session and allow students to choose the dishes they prepare. Cookery Magic also offers several children’s cooking classes, which “provide families a fun way to spend time together.” 65 634 89667,


More NoodlesVisitors to Hong Kong, a place where the influences of both traditional Chinese and Western culture are strong, will certainly want to make time to stop into Chopsticks Cooking Center. Since 1971, it has specialized in teaching people how to prepare various Chinese dishes, including dim sums, roasts, cakes, and breads. Chopsticks’ declared focus on “skill adaptation to suit international needs” reflects its unofficial status as “the place where East meets West.”

Founder Cecilia Au-Yang explains that her philosophy is to “teach with [her] heart” so that her students can get a real feel for the flavor of Hong Kong through her classes. She focuses on Chinese regional cuisine and dim sums because “many people have been to different parts of China and would like to learn the dishes that they have tasted.” Weekly Saturday afternoon classes are open to visitors, and Au-Yang can customize private individual and small-group classes. Fees for these tailor-made classes range from $500 to $1,000 per person. 852 2336 8433,


Southwest of Hong Kong in Thailand, cuisines blend five basic tastes—sweet, spicy, sour, bitter, and salty. You’ll learn this and more about Thai cooking at the Blue Elephant Restaurant and Cooking School, which boasts that it “welcomes everybody, from tourists to professional chefs.”

Open daily, the Blue Elephant offers a morning program beginning 8:30 a.m., and an afternoon program that kicks off at 1 p.m., each costing around $89 per person. After a meeting with your instructor over Thai herbal tea, you’ll ride by Sky Train to the Bang Rak morning market, where your instructor helps you select fruits, vegetables, and spices for your dishes. Both morning and afternoon courses include a theory course and hands-on cooking, followed by your meal in the Blue Elephant restaurant. 66 (2) 673 9353,


Flower MarketJapan is renowned for cultural exports such as karaoke, anime, and tech gadgets, but also is home to thriving culinary traditions. A Taste of Culture is a culinary arts program in Tokyo that offers market tours, tasting sessions, and cooking classes. Classes are conducted by Elizabeth Andoh, author of several Japanese cookbooks.

Small-group culinary lessons cost about $75 per person for a three-hour session, combining demonstrations and hands-on participation, followed by your multi-course meal. Andoh’s focuses on washoku (home-style) meals, so her kitchen is equipped with an interesting combination of very traditional and modern cooking utensils and ingredients.

As an adjunct to a cooking class, visitors should also consider taking one of Andoh’s two-hour market tours. Tours cost around $55 per person, taking you through shops and markets in local neighborhoods, and usually follow a set theme—like fish, fresh produce, or pantry-ready packaged foods. 03-5716-5751,


In addition to pristine surroundings, the Indonesian island of Bali has much to offer by way of its cuisines and culinary traditions. Everyday foods in Bali include rice, vegetables, and various meats and fish, and they usually are prepared in the morning and consumed individually, as needed, throughout the day. The Casa Luna Cooking School relies on this philosophy to provide “insight into Balinese life, beliefs, and culture through learning about its food, cooking, and culinary myths.”

Classes are held on the family compound of instructors Ketut Suardana and Janet De Neefe, and participants learn to prepare (and consume) a proper Balinese feast. Larger classes of eight to 15 people take place Mondays and Wednesdays from 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., starting at $30 per person.

Typical dishes presented include spiced fish in banana leaves, roasted white eggplant, Balinese chicken satay, and beans in coconut milk. Classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays being at 8 a.m. and include a morning market tour. Friday classes specifically are geared toward beginners (and do not include a market visit). And on Sundays, a Palm Sugar and Sea Salt Tour runs from 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., inviting participants to watch the making of palm sugar and fresh sea salt. The cost for the tour is about $35 per person, and this includes lunch at a local warung—a small, family-owned, and usually open-air, restaurant. 62-361-973282,


Fork NoodlesFor a trip that will take you through multiple countries, try a private, immersive culinary tour offered by Kipling & Clark. This luxury outfitter can arrange customized tours, such as a 14-day Tastes of Southeast Asia Tour to visit Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand. Culinary experiences include several cooking classes, private dinners with chefs, meet-and-greets with culinary experts, and visits to local markets along the way.

In Hanoi, Vietnam’s capital, a famed local chef leads visitors on a tour of the Hang Be Market, where they are taught how to select fresh ingredients for the Vietnamese dishes that they later prepare and consume. While in Saigon, travelers also get to visit the Cai Be floating market, where local buyers and sellers exchange goods from their small colorful boats.

And in Cambodia, travelers participate in a market tour led by a local chef and then enjoy a private cooking class at the Hotel De La Paix. Other options include a visit to the famed Four Seasons cooking school in Chiang Mai, Thailand and the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok, among others. Prices vary based on the customized tour. 800-354-3404,

By Kellan Connor for

Don’t miss out on other foodie adventures around the world, check out our Culinary Travel section.

Looking for more info on travel in Asia? Try Bound for Beijing: A Guide to 2008 Olympic Travel or Cheapskate Confessions: Japan on a Budget.

Want a more offbeat travel experience in Asia? Check out Fighting For Your Vacation or Off the Brochure: Beijing.