The Best Way to Learn a New Culture When Traveling Abroad

A little while back, I took a cheese-making course in the wilderness outside a mountain village in India. You might wonder, "How does one end up on a former tea plantation 7,000ft above sea level, attempting to milk a cow (and failing miserably)?" Well, I'd already got a knack for a few curries, and cheese happens to be among India's hottest new foods.

Moments like that are why I tell friends who are traveling: cooking classes are one of the most rewarding things you can do on any international trip. Whether you're learning to make a traditional cuisine or a trendy Gouda, few experiences are more memorable -- or better for exploring a new country -- than learning to create your own feast.

Call me a millennial, but I rarely cook at home (my vegetable peeler has been MIA for months). It's not that I don't enjoy it, but I travel and work a lot. Well that, and restaurant doggy bags are pretty great.

But cooking on holidays is a whole separate game, one of my travel obsessions. Here's why you should find yourself in a kitchen the next time you go abroad:

Cooking class in Thailand
Pal2iyawit /

You get to know a country's real cuisine

I've gone for new experiences, like making cheese, but usually try to learn the local cuisine -- mostly because, as a tourist, finding authentic fare isn't always a cinch. Take Rome. Despite being an obvious food destination, the restaurants you'll find between the Coliseum and Trevi are likely to be packed with tourists (most likely, annoying ones).

That's why I stayed at the Beehive on a recent trip, a cute eco-hostel that offers cooking classes. The menu was no-frills – pasta sauces, walnut pesto, and zucchini in basil and almonds – but authentic. The hostel owner, Steve, is adamant about teaching only what people will go home and make (it probably won't be pasta).

"I got started doing the classes because we had guests who wanted to learn and there wasn't anything else available or accessible to their budget," he said. "So I figured, what the hell, I'll just do it."

Michelle, another tourist on a foodie pilgrimage, said the class was the trip's biggest highlight. "My flight to Rome arrived around noon and when I got to the Beehive I was tired with a sincere need to be horizontal for at least a couple of hours," she said. "I knew I would be jet lagged, groggy, and hungry waking up, so the cooking class was perfect. I signed up and didn't think twice because homemade Italian food would be my first meal in Rome. Who would argue with that?"

Man buying tomatoes in Indian marketplace
Elena Ermakova /

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."

Making a pizza in Italy

It's getting easier to connect with local hosts

These days I'm using a website called Withlocals to find classes. It's a platform where tourists book with local hosts, who bring you over to cook and eat together. The site offers ratings, reviews, and a chat where you can also plan the menu.

Three friends and I did it in Barcelona, feasting on barbecue and paella on our host's rooftop terrace.

We drank tons of wine, nibbled charcuterie, and played Russian roulette with Padron peppers -- a new taste for me, and apparently every 20th pepper is so hot it makes you cry harder than that Kim Kardashian GIF.

During dinner, our hosts Mar and Chris told us about living in Barcelona and shared their favorite hangouts and recommendations. The four-course feast must've taken them a couple days to shop and prepare for. Mar's a brand consultant and Chris is a surgeon, so while they do charge a fee for putting on dinners, it's obviously for the love of it and definitely not to make money.

"The people that are attracted to this kind of thing are just very cool," Chris said.

"It's a great way to meet people," Mar added. "Last year we hosted these four guys from the UK. They were hilarious. We must've drank 10 bottles of wine and sat out here until 3am."

And duh -- you learn to cook something new at home

Learning to cook is honestly better than any souvenir. Every time you make those dishes (including to impress friends FTW) you'll be reminded of your trip time and again.

There are some quick, easy recipes I do use in real life now (the Spanish omelet I learned in Barcelona) and some I really don't (like the cheese-making course in India).

But it really doesn't matter. Even if there was a burned banana dessert or overcooked meat, there was always good company. Well, and the chance to try again -- a little more masterfully -- back at home.

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Barbara Woolsey is a Berlin-based writer who has given up her dreams of successfully milking a cow. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.