To cook like a local, you have to shop like one
These classes aren't just about sharp edges and hot surfaces -- they're about gathering foodstuffs, an essential skill in a new city. I lived in Bangkok for almost three years before taking a Thai cooking class, and wish I'd done it much sooner.
We started by buying fresh ingredients in one of Bangkok's oldest slum markets. We bought our curry paste from a hidden, 50-year-old shop that sells out of spice every day before noon. Till then, my favorite diet was street food and mom-and-pop restaurants. My green curry wasn't close to what the auntie next door could whip up, but at least I knew how to appreciate what goes into her creations.
You learn more than recipes from teachers
I'll never forget going to "Cooking with Nonna," a class taught by sweet Italian grannies. "Cooking has always been my passion," said Giuliana, my group's Nonna. "I love it because it gives me a chance to practice my English."
With a translator's help, Nonna instructed us on how to make gnocchi from scratch with a gnocchi paddle (harder than it looks, folks). In turn, we got to grill her on the history of tiramisu as we blended up mascarpone and eggs for the caffeinated dessert.
"Well," she said, "it started with a bar."
"Nonna, it wasn't a bar," the translator said. "It was a brothel."
Nonna went on to explain, very sweetly, why tiramisu literally translates to "pick me up." And I've not looked at tiramisu the same way since.
You'll probably meet like-minded expats
That's also what I loved about "Cooking With Nonna" -- getting to rub shoulders with people living in Rome. In my class, there were two Australians and one American expat who spent the whole night dishing about their favorite hole-in-the-wall eateries, markets, and more. I took a lot of notes.
"It was like going to a dinner party, but you contribute to the food instead of just eating what someone else made," said Joe, a software engineer from Portland also in our group. "It's a nice sense of accomplishment."