Food is all around us. It was also a central theme in the TOURIST* project meeting in Phuket in January, both in our auto-ethnographic field trip assignment and unofficially when talking with the delegates about what they had done during their free time in Phuket. We also ate local food together on several occasions. Food is a hot topic in Phuket, especially since Phuket Town is a UNESCO City of Gastronomy. Many of the Sino-Portuguese shop houses of the old town have been converted into restaurants.
We wanted to deepen our understanding of Thai food culture and joined a cooking class, even though we are not known for our culinary skills :). We looked for cooking classes through TripAdvisor and found several alternatives to choose from. We were drawn to Phuket Thai Cookery School due to its rave reviews. Cooking classes are not merely about tasting, they also offer participants an active role as cooks, which contributes to learning about the local way of life.
Trendy and sustainable
Celebrity chefs and tv shows like MasterChef have made cooking trendy. In Phuket, cookery schools are among the most popular cultural activities on the island. Because cookery schools are in vogue, they offer classes every day and have become part of the phenomenon of “living like a local”, where visitors aim to immerse themselves in the life of the local community. Indeed, eating is a good way to deepen cultural understanding and cookery schools support the local economy and environment because food is purchased from local producers and entrepreneurs – with as few food miles as possible. Hence, food tourism can support and preserve the economy, environment and culture of the destination.
Choosing experiences, like taking a cooking class, instead of buying cheap souvenirs, is a sustainable choice. Food also communicates local culture and traditions in an engaging way. Indeed, tourism has acquainted Finns with foods from all over the world and we have learnt to love Thai food, resulting in many Thai restaurants throughout Finland.
Our day at a Thai cookery school
We started our dive into the Thai culinary world by going to a local market in the morning, finding many of the ingredients needed for traditional dishes. There were colourful tropical fruits, exotic meat items, hot chillies and mountains of curry paste. We learnt, for example, that the curry paste flavor may change from a village to village as it is produced according to the local taste.
Our cookery school was located by the sea, close to Phuket Town. There was room for 30 participants but in the class with us, there was just one woman from Australia (their main market), a man from the US, a couple from the UK and another from Germany. We each had our own mini kitchen and as there were so few of us, we received personal attention from the chef (and it was important as the pace of cooking was definitely not slow, without assistance we may not have made it). There are different menus for each day of the week. Sunday is the most popular day when many Thai signature dishes are on the menu.
We cooked five dishes: Tom Yam soup, fried rice, fried chicken with cashew nuts, Massaman curry and banana cake for desert. First the teacher demonstrated how the dish was prepared – even how a lime is squeezed the right way, then we got to do it on our own. We ended up eating one dish per hour, eating for five hours altogether! Now we know, for instance, how important the aesthetic appearance of food is in the Thai culture. We received lots of tips, such as: Before you even start cooking, you have to select the best-looking coriander leaf to use as garnish for the dish.
We were happy with our experience in the Thai kitchen. For us, there was only one thing missing: We would have liked it if teachers would have joined in when everyone ate their own dishes. We were hoping for more stories about local food and traditions and a chance to discuss challenges, such as food waste and recycling.
Inspiration and potential
The cooking school was a transformational experience for us. We had been wondering why all the dishes we had been eating in Phuket were so delicious. During our class, we learnt and saw that the dishes included lots of sugar, salt and oil – ingredients that we in Finland have been told to avoid for health reasons. Maybe we have to come up with Finnish versions of our favourite Thai dishes, but we fear that they may not be as delicious. Nevertheless, we now feel more inspired to cook Thai dishes at home, and we will definitely participate in cooking classes next time we visit a new destination!
We believe that cookery schools could act as ambassadors of sustainability as they offer authentic local experiences for visitors. This is an idea that we would like to share with our Asian partners, who read this blog. It might be an idea to see local cookery schools as potentially valuable stakeholders for the sustainable tourism competence centres in Vietnam and Thailand.
Written by Haaga-Helians: Leena Grönroos and Annika Konttinen
*TOURIST project: The aim of the project is to create competence centres for the development of sustainable tourism and innovative financial management strategies to increase the positive impact of local tourism in Thailand and Vietnam.
Read more about TOURIST project: