Becoming A Master Chef In Southeast Asia 

If you are debating taking cooking classes on your trip to Southeast Asia, just consider the question, “How sexy you are? You baby sexy!?”

If you enjoy being entertained by awkwardly hilarious phrases, you’ll have a great time at cooking schools in the tourist destinations. In this post, I’ll share my experience at three cooking schools: Gioan Cookery School (Hoi An, Vietnam), Le Tigre de Papier (Siem Reap, Cambodia) and Asia Scenic Cooking School (Chiang Mai, Thailand).

This post is dedicated to my food blogger mother, Julie, who would have loved to have been able to learn about Southeast Asian cuisine. She would be much better at recreating these meals than we’ll be. You can check out her blog Yates Yummies for recipes and the Facebook page Oranges and Almonds.


My spring rolls need some work

Located a short walk from the historic city center, the small cooking school is a bright, clean facility with two different cooking areas, limiting the crowd to two small groups (a more intimate experience!). Before arriving there, my sister and I were picked up from our hostel and taken to the local market. There, we were explained the fundamentals of Vietnamese cuisine and sampled a number of ingredients and desserts including che (desserts made from ginger and sugar), sesame peanut soup and tra (toasted soy beans).


Vina with Jennifer and I.

Once arrived at the school, my sister and I sat with Vina, our enthusiastic and delightful guide. Throughout the whole process of making spring rolls, chili lemongrass chicken and pho, Vina was encouraging and informational. She made us giggle all morning. The best part, however, were her creative renditions to popular western music. As we were mixing the lemongrass, chili paste, garlic and fish sauce, she watched us and sang “you’re mixing and you know it!” to the tune of LMFAO “Sexy and I Know It.” Making the Vietnamese pancake batter, she sang “mixing queen” humming the sound of “Dancing Queen.” She also liked to tell one of us to add sugar, then would call us “sugar daddy.” My favorite was her dramatic interpretation of the song “Turn Around” that she belted out to signify we turn the cucumber as we grated it.

By the end of the class, we had walked away sufficiently full and confident that we could recreate these dishes once we were back at home. The customers also take away a paper cookbook with all of the recipes and cooking tips.

  • Time: half day ~ 4 hours
  • Cost: $35 USD
  • Dishes made: Pho, Fresh spring rolls, chili lemongrass chicken, bahn xèo (Vietnamese pancake). Customer have the choice of two different set menus.


Pho-n! (read thst like “fun”). Who else has bad Pho jokes?


Right in the heart of touristy Pub Street, Le Tigre de Papier is a restaurant that offers cooking classes in an upstairs space across the street above a massage parlor. We opted for the afternoon session, with a quick trip to the market before making the dinner we would later bring down to the restaurant and eat there. This class, which was much less expensive than a proper cooking school, was much less personal and informational but well worth it’s price. It was, however, intimate- just my sister and I, a lovely English girl, and the instructor.

Our instructor got a big kick out of our inability to cut delicate lotus flowers from a carrot, and I could tell was only halfway believing herself when she said we’d do better next time. The ingredients were fresh and full of flavor. The fish amok (Cambodia’s most famous dish) that we made here was the best we tasted in the whole country. A few days later, we tried amok at the restaurant Amok, and were disgusted by its congealed texture- it was clearly reheated and mass produced.


Being inappropriate during some down time

At this cooking school, I also learned that not all of the instructors, like Vina from Gioan, were teaching because they loved cooking. I asked our instructor what was her favorite part about cooking, and it turn out she doesn’t actually enjoy it. To her, it’s just a job. After loosing her mother at the age of 10, she was never taught to cook like most girls in Cambodia are. Soon after, her father drank himself to death and from then I she was passed around from distant family member to distant family member, only associating cooking with negative memories. She was slapped and ridiculed by various family members for her inability to cook well. Despite her complicated past, she learned English and got herself a job here, starting as a waitress and working her way up to instructor.

At the end of the class customers are emailed the recipes and given a certificate of completion.

  • Time: Evening class~ 3 hours including eating time
  • Cost: $14 USD
  • Dishes cooked: Fried spring rolls, amok with fish, fried bananas in coconut milk. Customers pick a starter and one main course from the menu. One dessert is decided among the group.


Vita and I making spring rolls at Le Tigre de Papier


Although this was a larger group (8 people) the instructor Marin didn’t let this affect the personal attention she gave to everyone. We were picked up early morning from our hostel and drove to the farm 45 minutes from the city. On the way to the farm, we stopped by the local market where Marin explained some of the ingredients we would be using that could not be found at the farm itself.


Marin teaches about produce


Once arrived at the farm, a calm and quiet area with a bamboo porch area for cooking, we sat down and chose from a variety of dishes. It was in this moment that we realized that the cooking school equates level of spiciness with “how sexy you are.” The more chilis added to your dish, the sexier you are. That’s because you’ll be sweating, panting, and turning read. Clearly the same as sexy. According to Marin, you are be baby sexy, primary school sexy, high school sexy, or university sexy. Marin told us that Thai people, eating around 10 chilis per person, are P.h.D. sexy.

After choosing our dishes, we had a tour around the farm and learned about fresh produce used in Thai cuisine. Marin said, “Everything small here. Eggplant small, banana small, also Thai people they small.” We learned interesting uses of vegetables, such as sprouts curing hangovers and kafir lime juice to rid toilets of nasty smells. She also told us that many people use the lime juice and water to wash their face. This way, she explained, they keep their youthful look. Is that the secret?

Jennifer and friends chop vegetables

For the few hours, Marin guided us through five different dishes. We even had an hour nap time in the middle of the day to relax between dishes. By the end, I had eaten so much that I couldn’t even think about food until the next day. We took home with us a beautifully illustrated cookbook, complete with a postcard to send “a friend, but if you have no friends you send back to me,” Marin said. I was happy to see in the cookbook a note from the owner. She said she was proud to have founded and ran the business on her own, proving that Thai women can be successful without a boyfriend. I heard that!

Spring rolls and spicy chicken salad


Coconut soup. Delicious…
  •  Time: Full day ~8 hours including pick up and drop off.
  • Cost: $33 USD
  • Dishes made: Spicy chicken salad, fried spring rolls, hot basil stir fry, coconut soup, red curry paste, red curry with chicken, sticky mango rice

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