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Culinary holidays taste success in India

Culinary holidays taste success in India

  • 04 Mar, 2014
  • AlJazeera

More vacationers are learning to cook the local cuisine of the places they visit to spice up their breaks.
Cooking is a chore that many find tiresome and boring. But many urbane Indians are bucking the trend and picking up the spatula more by choice.

Taking a leaf from international travel trends like a wine trail in New Zealand or eating one's way through a farmer's market in Montreal, culinary tours are picking up in India where travellers learn to cook in new surroundings while on holiday.

Indians increasingly are relishing preparing local fare in a new environment as an enjoyable experience.

From Pondicherry to Paris, you can choose the destination and time – there are classes all-year round across India and the world.

And Indians are lapping up this new trend in travel.

Serving up a new taste

Travel agents and groups across India are pushing this trend and offering different cooking holiday packages.

"Our personalised-holidays product now includes experiences like cooking at a Michelin-star restaurant in France. We are seeing an immense popularity of such tours," said Shibani Phadkar, head of Leisure Travel (Outbound), Thomas Cook India.

There are various flavours to a cooking holiday: You can learn to cook from a family in a homestay in Kerala, or from experts at a school located in a manor house in Tuscany.

In November 2013, Cox & Kings launched activeholiday_30082014Chef Travel, to tap this trend. "There is a novelty factor involved in this segment, plus a lot of people like to learn about new cuisines," said Karan Anand, head of Relationships, Cox & Kings.

Starting this year, The Active Holiday Company will be offering tours of Cambodia that include visits to the markets where travellers buy local ingredients, then take part in cooking sessions in a local's home.

"It's an attempt to provide a more wholesome experience of the destination," explained Gauri Jayaram, founder of The Active Holiday Company. "Mingling with the locals, getting into their homes and learning how to cook local dishes are integral to that," she said.

For most Indian companies, cooking holidays make for a great recipe and they already account for 5-10 percent of the business. And going by the international trend, this is set to grow.

Sally Hine, marketing and public relations manager, GoLearnTo.com, said that of all the activity-oriented holidays they offer, 30-40 percent of bookings are for cooking tours.

Culture and cuisine

Food is an intrinsic part of local culture. To learn a city's food is to learn its way of life.

Mumbai-based journalist Reshma Krishnan recently went on a two-week cooking holiday to Tuscany in Italy. "Food is a great way to study a culture. Plus, I love Italian food and really wanted to learn the basics of Italian cooking," she said.

Then there is the snob value. Doing different is the name of the game. Everyone goes on a safari, after all!

Women may find cooking everyday-food boring but learning to cook something exotic adds excitement.

"Around 50 percent of people from India who booked cooking holidays with us went to France, 30 percent to Spain and 20 percent to Italy," said Hine.

In India, the south Indian state of Kerala and Goa on the western coast are the two most popular destinations. But one can go exotic and learn to cook momos (steamed bun with or without filling) in the northern slopes of McLeodganj in Himachal Pradesh as well.

Adding spice to holidays

Why would Indians, for whom cooking is mostly a daily chore, want to go on a holiday and cook?

"A very large number of people find cooking a relaxing and rewarding experience," said Jayaram. "The new India is open to sampling different cuisines and I suspect that an interest in cooking holidays is fuelled by that."

Manjira Dutta, editor of a women's magazine in Delhi said, "Indian women have a basic interest in cooking and to learn to use new ingredients ... will be a huge driving factor."

And it is not only the rich with time to spare who indulge in such a luxury.

A survey by an Indian women's magazine showed that nearly 60 per cent of its readers opted for a cooking holiday, most belonging to the middle-class between the ages of 30 and 60.

The reality of middle class Indians has changed over the years. Greater dispensable income means that most women have help in the kitchen. Cooking is not that much of a burden as before, and a holiday while whipping up food is not a chore.

One part cooking, three parts holiday

What we should not forget is that a cooking holiday is not just about cooking.

On an average cooking vacation, you spend a few hours learning and are free to spend the rest of the day as you like.

"On a four-day holiday, typically two afternoons are dedicated to learning from experts," said Anand of Cox and Kings.

However, considering a six-night cooking holiday can cost about Rs 200,000 ($3,300) all inclusive, you want to make that choice wisely.

"My cooking school was in the middle of nowhere, which meant excursions were tough," said Krishnan. "Those who had come to Italy for the first time felt they saw little or nothing of the area."

Of course, there is a wide price range to choose from: Online, you will find a week's tour for as low as Rs 19,000 ($300).

Cooking for all

Though travel planners indicate that culinary holidays have mostly groups of women travelling alone, there is room for their family members as well.

Pondicherry-based Sita Cultural Centre, for instance, offers cooking lessons for children.

"As the trend of cooking holidays picks up, more and more families come to us," said Fleur Soumer, president of Sita.

While young adults can take part in the regular cooking classes, Sita has special ones for children between the ages of five and 12.

It is a win-win for families. As Soumer put it, "This way parents can relax at the hotel while their kids are kept occupied."

Indian men are also boarding the plane for cooking holidays.

Delhi-based film-maker Rajeev Srivastava's love for cooking has seen him browse through the local markets of Sweden, France, Thailand and more.

Srivastava said, "When I am on holiday, I just have to learn to cook the local food. For me, that is the best way to know a city's culture."

Professional chefs go on such holidays to enhance their skills and also to indulge in their favourite activity on vacation.

"Whenever I'm on holiday, I try and book a cooking class to savour the real flavours of the place," said chef Manju Malhi, known for unique Brit-Indi food.

Interestingly, Indians in their 20s are also getting hooked on the food-preparation trend.

"With growing demand from India's Gen Y, our youth product, Rock On Holidays, has some exciting itineraries such as island fishing and cooking on the beach in Thailand," said Phadkar of Thomas Cook.

Quite evidently, Indians who opt for culinary holidays firmly believe that the way to a city's heart is through its food.