Whether sampling the local cuisine at a restaurant or strolling the farmers' market to view the fresh produce on offer, food provides an insight to a place and its people.
One of our favorite ways to experience regional flavor is to take a cooking class. It's a wonderful opportunity to meet with locals and learn about ingredients that seem exotic or intimidating, all with the bonus of a meal (or, at the very least, snacks) included in the package.
You can find classes online or, if you're staying at a hotel, ask the concierge to recommend local cooking schools, preferably classes taught in English. Though even when it's in a foreign language, we've been able to communicate with the instructor and have fired up stoves on four continents without causing any major disasters or scorched eyebrows.
Often, classes will include a trip to a local market. Part of attending a Thai curry class at a Maliwan cooking school in Bangkok involved our instructor and a coconut vendor demystifying the difference among the three liquids extracted from coconuts: cream, milk, and water, citing the unique way each is used in Thai cooking. The fresh coconut cream included in our red curry helped us appreciate the earthy richness of the dish.
We recommend finding classes that are hands-on rather than just a demonstration; preferably those that are "one station-one cook," meaning every student makes each dish from start to finish. These classes teach techniques that are more likely to stick with you upon returning home. Carla, the head of the Casa Artusi cooking school outside Bologna, Italy, insisted on having each student hand-roll his or her own pasta dough. It was a skill we never thought we'd master; yet we managed to make pappardelle and tortelloni that were downright respectable.
For anyone who savors food, taking a cooking class will spice up your travel experience while providing an adventure in the kitchen, a new skill learned, and a delicious taste of local flavors. Even if you never cook exotic meals back home, the class will provide a newfound appreciation for that cuisine the next time you visit a restaurant serving those dishes.