by Rachel Everett, The Telegraph, April 12, 2017
“The kitchen is a country in which there are always discoveries to be made,” Grimod de la Reynière, one of the world’s first restaurant critics mused. Nowhere is this truer than in Asia where there are so many types of cuisine to discover and sample. From laksa, a coconut-laced Peranakan noodle soup and aromatic Vietnamese rice rolls, to comforting yum cha or satay, the list of Asian dishes to try is endless - a clear reflection of its diversity.
Michelin, which has for years awarded stars for excellence to select establishments, is rapidly expanding into Asia. Last year the company published three inaugural Asia guides: Singapore (July), Shanghai (September) and Seoul (November). The Singapore MICHELIN guide included the likes of the three-star fine dining stalwart, Joel Robuchon, but also hawker stalls housed in an open-air complex. Among them, Hill Street Tai Hwa Pork Noodle (#01-12 Block 466, Crawford Lane; taihwa.com.sg) and Hong Kong Soya Sauce Chicken Rice and Noodle (#02-127 Block 335, Smith Street, Chinatown) were both awarded one star. They have long queues and no air conditioning. They also serve the most mouth-watering street food. At Hong Kong Soya, a chicken rice costs just $2 (a little over £1), proving you can have both high-brow and down-to-earth Michelin experiences. Then of course there’s Japan, the crown jewel, with 436 stars in total. Tokyo alone has 227 and has the highest number of Michelin-starred restaurants in the world.
I lived in South Korea and Singapore for 12 years, and I’ve travelled to a lot of the countries on the continent. The culinary journey was unforgettable. I’ve tasted Peking duck at Bianyifang, the oldest duck restaurant in Beijing, rustled up a fish curry in Kerala and sipped java in Java at Mesa Stila, a coffee plantation in Yogyakarta, ringed by eight active volcanoes.
In Seoul, I became a kimchi convert, and now I crave that intense, fiesty kick. Dolsot bibimbap, a sizzling stone bowl of rice, vegetables, beef or chicken and sharp gochujang sauce, was a spicy lunchtime treat. Banchan, or side dishes, were varied in every restaurant and region. In Jeju-do, Korea’s Hawaii, this included king prawns and scallops plucked from the sea by the haenyeo, Jeju’s women free divers.
Our five-year-old twins were born in Singapore and raised on rice and noodles. A lunchtime meal in the city-state can range from exquisite melt-in-the-mouth sushi at Tatsuya, neatly parceled xiao long bao at the Taiwanese Michelin-starred chain Din Tai Fung or a simple chicken rice and coconut under the swaying palms at East Coast Park.
Whether it’s learning the art of making hand-cut soba noodles or tasting flavoursome pho or fiery kimchi, there’s a dizzying number of tours in Asia for the gourmand. Here I select trips which will help hone your culinary skills and also, hopefully, offer real insight into a place and its people.
1. Soba and sake in Japan
Japanese cuisine is coveted the world over, whether for its sushi or Hello Kitty-branded melons. In the capital Tokyo, this trip winds its way through hole-in-the-wall yakitori joints, the world’s largest fish market, and sake tasting at a famous brewery. The tour includes a visit to ancient Kyoto and the culinary centre of Osaka and its conveyor belt sushi spots. However, the pinnacle is an excursion to a specialist soba school outside Tokyo, where chefs hone their craft and where visitors can learn how to make hand-cut noodles from a real soba master.
A 12-day Real Food Adventure in Japan costs from £3,015 including accommodation, some meals and activities. Flights not included. Departures between April 2017 and November 2018. Intrepid (0808 274 5111; intrepidtravel.com ).
2. Insider’s China
Fuchsia Dunlop, Britain’s authority on Chinese food, leads this gastronomic tour of China. Dunlop was the first westerner to train at the Sichuan Institute of Higher Cuisine in Chengdu and has written five bestselling books on Chinese cuisine. The epic journey kicks off in the villages of Beijing and moves through Xi’an (the home of dumplings), Chengdu, Shanghai and Hangzhou. Travellers get the chance to eat with locals, go to markets with the chefs and gain insightful tips and tricks on how to cook better Chinese dishes.
A 13-day Gastronomic Tour of China with Fuchsia Dunlop costs £8,000 including accommodation, most meals, flights and admission fees. The Chinese tourist visa is not included. Departs May 15 2017, with further 2018 dates. Ampersand Travel (0207 819 9770; ampersandtravel.com).
3. More to Thailand than pad thai
There are many complexities in Thai cuisine and mastering the range of dishes takes skill and practice. Participants can upgrade their recipe book on this two-week cooking tour of Thailand, stopping at Bangkok, Ayutthaya, Chiang Mai and Krabi, with time to explore the Andaman Sea on a boat. The colourful food and culture quest includes instruction on a stable of classic Thai dishes such as tom kha gai. There is a mix of fragrant market tours, formal cookery schools and cosy home cooking groups.
A 15-day Cooking Holiday in Thailand costs from £2,225 including accommodation, most meals, cooking, activities and flights. October 28 2017, February 10 2018 and October 27 2018. Responsible Travel (01273 823700; responsibletravel.com).
4. Bountiful Bali
Bali has it all: beaches, forests, gorges, mountains and volcanoes. The island’s popularity is further enhanced by its established culinary landscape. On this tour there’s a Babi Guling or suckling pig tasting at the stalwart Warung Babi Guling Bu Oka in Ubud. Ubud, a food destination in its own right, is also home to abundant lime-green rice paddies and many gamelan orchestras. Other highlights include a Balinese home cooking class in Guliang Kawan village, located in central Bali and relaxing in Tanjung Benoa, a beautiful beachside town on the south coast. The final stop is Seminyak for some more beach-side lounging, food and sundowners.
A seven-day Flavours of Bali tour costs from £1,149 including accommodation, some meals and flights. Departs any time. Hayes and Jarvis (01293 762 456; hayesandjarvis.co.uk).
5. The Golden Triangle: thalis and tigers
Any trip to India is sensory overload, especially at dinnertime. This epicurean odyssey takes in India’s regional dishes and travellers learn about a variety of Indian essentials including traditional thalis. In the Golden Triangle, join in a Rajasthani cooking class. Other highlights include the majestic Taj Mahal, Amber Fort and a tiger-spotting trek in Ranthambore National Park.
A 10-day Northern India Food Adventure costs from £1,899 including accommodation, some meals and flights. Departures between May 2017 and December 2018. Exodus (0203 553 3324; exodus.co.uk).
6. Chef’s Sri Lanka
Chef and broadcaster Peter Kuruvita, presenter of My Sri Lanka, is your guide on a culinary safari to his native Sri Lanka. Starting at the palm-fringed west coast, the tour heads to the ancient capital Anuradhapura then on to the rock fortress of Sigiriya before wandering to the hill town of Kandy with its botanical gardens and tea plantations, with time in Galle and the Uda Walawe National Park. Along the way, you’ll learn how to cook egg hoppers, koththu roti (a dish made from roti, vegetables, egg, meat and spices) and a curry in clay pots over an open fire.
A 14-day My Sri Lanka with Peter Kuruvita tour starts from £4,650 including accommodation, most meals, game drives by private jeep and site entry fees. Flights excluded. October 5 2018, with further 2019 departures. World Expeditions (020 8875 5060; worldexpeditions.com).
7. The secrets of Myanese cuisine
Myanese fare doesn’t get as much press as its other Asian neighbours but there’s plenty to discover. On this trip, guests travel to Yangon and then north to Mandalay and Bagan to learn how to make “mohinga”, the fish broth with noodles that is Myanmar’s national dish. Dining with the nuns in Mandalay and attending a cooking class at Inle Lake - in a stunning wooden stilt house - is all part of it.
An 11-day Secrets of Myanmar tour starts from £2,350 including accommodation and some meals. Flights excluded. Departures between May and December 2017. Trafalgar (0800 533 5619; trafalgar.com).
8. Kimchi, K-Pop and the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ)
Following the recent Korean wave (think Gangnam Style), the time is right to brush up on some Korean cooking techniques. Get a sneak peek into Korean food and etiquette. On this tour, there’s a chance to practice making kimchi varieties in Insadong, see Seoul’s ornate tea houses and visit Gyeongju for a lunch in royal quarters. Taking the KTX (the Korean bullet train) to Busan to see the fish market is a great way to see the countryside. There’s also a trip to the DMZ.
A nine-day Highlights of South Korea tour costs £2,595 including flights, accommodation and some meals. Departures between October 2017 and October 2018. Kuoni (01306 747008; kuoni.co.uk).
9. Pho the love of Vietnam
Learn how to rustle up fresh, zingy Vietnamese cuisine with Ken Hom, the BBC broadcaster and restaurateur on a cruise along the Mekong. In Ho Chi Minh, the trip wanders the city’s food markets and includes a cooking demonstration and dinner with the much-loved chef. Take in the historical sights in Cambodia and Vietnam, including the Killing Fields, Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum and the Cu Chi Tunnels on a tour led by Robert Gordon, the former former British Ambassador to Vietnam.
A 15-day cruise along the Mekong with Ken Hom costs from £3,395 full-board including flights and activities. March 8 2018. Telegraph Tours (03303 333 643; telegraph.co.uk/tt-kenhom).
10. Singapore sling
The trick to reserving a table at a hawker centre in Singapore is leaving a pack of tissues on a vacant table while you get in the queue - they call it “chope” culture. On a Chinatown tour of Singapore you’ll discover the country’s fascinating world of hawker centres, starting at Chinatown complex, the largest in the city-state with over 220 stalls. After a history lesson on the neighbourhood itself, tuck into rice cakes, po piah or fresh spring rolls and chicken rice and finish it all off with a sweet, icy sugar cane juice.
A 3.5-hour Chinatown Food Adventure costs £49 including tastings and soft drinks. Urban Adventures (0808 274 5111; urbanadventures.com).