Nimmi Paul is nursing a tennis elbow when I call. “You won’t believe how painful it is,” she groans. The cause? Non-stop cooking. From 6 a.m. to 9 p.m., Nimmi is prepping, cooking and explaining Kerala’s food to tourists.
Culinary tourism used to be niche. Now, as it gets hip to be able to cook cuisine from all over the world, gourmet tours are becoming de rigueur and even the ‘sightseeing’ busloads try and squeeze in time for a cooking class. In 1997, when Nimmi first thought of opening her home to foreign guests, she said nobody really understood what she was doing, or why. “I was passionate about cooking, and it was also a financial necessity at that time. I wanted to do something to support the family,” she said, adding, “But when I tried to sell this concept to travel companies, they said, ‘Which foreigner would want to go to someone’s house for food when they can go to a fancy hotel?’ And none of them want to eat all these local spices.”
Of the 15 companies she approached, only one agreed to help her — Pioneer Travels. “And the only reason they helped was because the managing director knew my father!” says Nimmi. They sent her two tourists. “They were British. They had no idea what to expect. The agent didn’t know. I didn’t know,” says Nimmi. “I finally showed them how to make appam and stew. They were happy. Next year we had four tourists, and slowly we grew…”
This year has been unusually busy. “I have never worked so hard,” says Nimmi. “We’ve already had 1,500 people this season (the tourist season is from October to April ). She does two sessions a day, seven days a week right now. Her clients come from all over the world — America, the U.K., Australia and Japan. “They’re not just here to learn how to make a couple of curries. They want stories about me, and information... about the spices, about ingredients. I show them how coconut is used in different forms in food, so I make a thoran with grated coconut, stew with coconut milk. I’ll do one masala curry — to show them how to use coconut oil and spices. What they love most is my fish and prawn.”
Cooking classes are especially popular in Kerala, Goa and Jaipur. It’s not just because of their cuisine — after all every part of India has spectacular food. It also has to do with smart marketing, an ability to communicate with guests and offer a host of fringe benefits.
S. Swaminathan, director of Dravidian Trails and the general manager of Austin-based Easy Tours of India says that they have realised that most travellers want to see more than just monuments these days. “They want to see how people live. How they function every day. They want to go to local houses and participate in daily life.” This is why so many cooking courses also include home stays, visits to the local market and meals at the family dining table.
Easy Tours of India doesn’t deal with large groups, so tours are personalised... Their popular independent tours include a ‘culinary exploration of India’ divided into 12, 15, 18 and 21 days. “It’s not all cooking classes,” says Swaminathan. “We take them spice shopping. Send them to a fish market to learn how to bargain… If they’re nervous about doing it on their own, the person conducting the cooking class will escort them there.”
He adds that even though approximately five per cent of the world’s tourists are culinary tourists, it’s definitely a global trend. “It’s a specialty tour. And when I started out in the travel business 25 years ago, no one had even heard about it. But now, even people on general tours want to do something food related,” he says. The trick is to find a balance. “The people on culinary tours, they also do a lot of conventional sightseeing. But we ensure that every day they spend two or three hours doing something food related.” The general tourist, meanwhile, is changing too. “We take everyone to a family home, if not to cook, at least to sit down and eat with the host and hostess. It’s the best way to get an insight into the culture.”