No matter what country you visit, you can be assured its culture is inextricably linked to its food. So, if your travel goals include seeking authentic cultural experiences that are personally meaningful, then consider adding a culinary experience to your next itinerary. While you will delight in exotic tastes and smells that represent each new region you visit, simultaneously you will find you have bridged the cultural gap by taking part in the most basic of all communal rituals – the sharing of a meal.
Since returning from a trip to South America, jam-packed with activity, I have enjoyed some quieter days back home with time to reflect on my amazing adventure in Argentina and Chile. I had set out with my colleague, Nicole, determined to see and do it all: museums, landmarks, restaurants, shows, shopping, hiking, boating, horseback riding and more! While I relished every minute, it was the culinary experiences we enjoyed in both Buenos Aires and Santiago that really stood out. Each offered a unique opportunity not only to observe but to connect with the local culture on an otherwise unachievable and intimate level.
I would recommend scheduling a cooking experience at the beginning of your trip for several reasons. Your host will likely be more than happy to share insider tips and recommendations for things to avoid and things not to miss as you explore the region. If you know a bit of the local language, this is a great chance to brush up on your skills in a friendly and relaxed atmosphere. Most importantly, you are certain to leave the table feeling less like a tourist and more like a welcome guest and you will have a greater appreciation for everything that follows as you travel onward.
Most cooking classes are designed with everyone in mind, regardless of age or kitchen experience. Guests are welcome to participate in the process as much or as little as they wish. Even if you opt to simply observe, you will become more acutely aware of the all that goes into the enjoyment of a good meal: the source of the recipe, the cultivation and procurement of the ingredients, the preparation, the presentation and, most meaningfully, the sharing of a mindfully rendered dish.
Your culinary experience will likely include a stop at the local market to shop for ingredients you will use to prepare your meal. The market visit itself is an immersive trip to the heart of the community. Shoppers arrive mainly on foot, wheeling collapsible carts to hand-pick from the day’s freshest provisions. Stalls line up along endless aisles displaying a sensory feast – exotic produce bursting with color, the aroma of fresh cut herbs and earthy spices, and the chatter of merchants extolling the merits of their goods. This visit is most certainly interactive, as you will mingle with locals, chat with vendors, sample their offerings and exchange in local currency for the goods you select.
Your cooking experience may be held in the kitchen of a local restaurant or in the home of your instructor. In Buenos Aires, we were fortunate enough to have been hosted by Paula Comparatore, the owner and chef of Restaurante El Federal, where our lesson took place.
As she demonstrated her technique for making empanadas, she shared many personal stories that connected her to this traditional Latin American dish. Empanadas themselves have their own unique tale to tell, as recipes for this iconic hand-held pastry vary not only by country but, as within Argentina, even by province. The Argentine empanada is made with a flour-based dough and is sometimes fried and sometimes baked, but it is the filling that is most reflective of its origin. Here is where the conversation begins! As you explore the sourcing of local ingredients you will gain insight into a region’s economy, its agricultural practices and its social structure. Digging deeper, these discussions will inevitably reveal much about a society’s interests, concerns, attitudes and values.
The hands-on part of this cooking lesson was the most fun. We chopped, sliced and diced, sampling along the way as we prepared a variety of fillings. Then we learned how to fold these tasty concoctions within discs of dough, sealing them with specific crimping styles, that, to my surprise, were not merely decorative but indicative of what is found inside. Vegetarians will appreciate that they can identify, just by looking at the edges, whether an empanada holds meat or not!
In Santiago, we were welcomed into the home of seasoned chef, Karla Lodis, to join in the preparation of an authentic four-course Chilean meal: Pisco sours, salsa on rustic toasted bread, fried empanadas filled with cheese and seaweed, seafood soup, roast pork and, for dessert, a tres leches cake. A bit road weary after two weeks of travel, it felt good to relax and just enjoy her warm hospitality and a home-cooked meal. The atmosphere was casual, and conversation flowed with ease as we quickly became friends with our gracious host. She set a lovely table on her rooftop terrace where we exchanged stories of our upbringings as we savored the many delicious dishes we helped to prepare. Karla encouraged us to share our own culinary customs, stirring meaningful memories and reminding us of the many significant ways that food connects us to our heritage and will continue to do so for generations, as long as we keep our traditions alive.
As we said our goodbyes, Karla sent us on our way with recipes to take home, a few spices from her own cupboard, and her contact information so we could keep in touch. We promised to send photos of the meal we vowed to recreate in our own homes and the friends and family that would share in its enjoyment. At that moment, I realized there are no better souvenirs to bring back home than an unforgettable experience and a new skill. On past trips, I have spent precious hours scouring local shops and boutiques in search of the perfect keepsake for myself or a gift to carry back to friends and family. Trinkets bought in haste and frustration with little personal significance lose their luster once they are brought home, but what gift could be more meaningful than sharing a meal you learned to prepare while on your trip? As for souvenirs, simply recreating the dishes will stimulate your senses and evoke vivid memories of your travels, and you will continue the timeless and invaluable tradition of connecting with others through food.