Rise of culinary tourism: When the menu becomes the map

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From the fragrance of kebabs and nihari wafting down the bylanes of Old Delhi to the crackling of fresh-captured fishes being fried in an array of spices – India houses an extensive trail of gastronomic experiences. So, it comes as no surprise that a growing tribe of travel enthusiasts from around the world are now looking at vacations in the country planned around its cuisine, aka culinary tourism. So much so that the latest Godrej Food Trends report states that 87.1% food experts believe people will travel more to experience culinary culture and cuisine in the coming years. Recognising its potential beyond its rich culture and heritage, the tourism industry of the country is now tapping into such culinary travel opportunities.

Digging into culinary tourism

Culinary tourism, also known as food tourism, offers a gateway into a destination’s cuisine, flavour and food culture. “Culinary tourism is a vibrant and desirable choice for many high-end travellers. It involves interacting with chefs and food experts, exploring local markets, trying out fresh local produce and beverages. The most preferred choices in India are for regional local cuisine and wellness cuisine,” says Krithika Subrahmanian, founder and managing director, Svatma Thanjavur, a property in Tamil Nadu that offers culinary travel experiences.

In this emerging trend, itineraries include a peek into the kitchens of the regions one is travelling to. “We curate meals as menu choices as well as dining experiences for our guests. Often, we have guests making pre-bookings for such experiences that reflect singular preferences from the choices offered in advance. Our chefs are trained to glean the authentic from the superfluous and extend the guest experience of the locale relating the historic relevance and health benefits of our unique vegetarian culinary program,” adds Subrahmanian.

A world of experiences

From visiting different destinations for the purpose of tasting the local cuisine to entire stays where you become a part of the kitchen, visit local markets or farms and learn to cook new dishes – this form of tourism offers multiple ways to whet your appetite.

Indore-based chef Amit Pamnani, who runs a culinary homestay, tells us, “I call it stay with a chef. I host people who are true food enthusiasts and are visiting Indore only for food. They stay at my place, I have two rooms dedicated for guests. I take them around iconic and hidden food gems of Indore, host a workshop for them where I teach them local delicacies and also offer a private dining experience in my own kitchen.” Elaborating on the markets he takes his guests to, Pamnani shares, “Indore is known for its street food. So Chappan dukaan and Sarafa are two main street food markets where I take them. Then there is an organic farmers market called Jaivik Setu where they indulge in organic food, live music under the trees.”

While Malabar House in Kochi, Kerala, offers the experience of catching fresh produce off the sea and having it for your next meal. Joseph Garcia, COO of the boutique hotel, shares, “We are just a few hundred meters away from the famous Chinese fishing nets where fresh catches can be purchased from the fisherman. They are then cooked as per the guest’s choice. There are also fish vendors nearby who sell catch of the day at the stalls. Mattancherry is the hub of spice trade where guests can spend hours and get an in-depth knowledge of spices, its origins and the history of the spice trade that existed from the BCE and how the Portuguese, the Dutch and British established trade with the Rajas of Kerala.”

Nestled in the secluded bylanes of Old Delhi, Haveli Dharampura offers an experience which couples a luxury stay with a royal gastronomic treatment. “Our seven-course tasting menu is known worldwide for giving a glimpse into Old Delhi cuisine with the luxury of dining in a 200-year-old UNESCO awarded Haveli,” says Vidyun Goel, director of Haveli Dharampura. Besides letting you satiate your tastebuds with Mughlai cuisine surrounded by an old ethnic ambience at their on-premise restaurant, they also conduct food walks in Chandni Chowk. “One of our first stops is a sherbet stand in Gali Suiwallan run by Nafees Khan which is famous for bel. Another option is Gur Ka Sherbet at Gali Pahadi Imli, Bazaar Matia Mahal. They have been selling refreshing sherbet since 1947 and the brass spoon used is the same one used in 1947. Tasting of a popular Lahori dish Murgh Musallam with Sheermal/rumali roti at Rehmatullah Hotel, Matia Mahal Bazaar is one of the stops on the tour. At the Kallan Sweets in Bazaar Matia Mahal, guests enjoy unique keema samosas, Paneer ki Jalebi or Habshi Halwa. Bazaar Sita Ram’s Kuremal Ki Kulfi, of which Mango, Anar, Rose, Paan and so on are famous,” she adds.

The response so far

With stay prices ranging anywhere from 6,000 per person, per night to multi-city tours priced at 15,000 per person, per day, food tourism has only found takers in the last couple of years or so. However, chefs and tour operators say the future looks bright. “The response has been fantastic for DIY culinary classes as well as orientation to the ingredient choices by our expert siddha doctors who counsel the guests one-on-one on what suits their metabolism,” shares Subrahmanian, adding that the rising demand for nutritionally balanced organic as well as farm to table menus are a positive sign. Pamnani chimes in, “I can see the trend growing exponentially. Tourists nowadays want to check out local food, tribal food, food which is historically important but not documented well enough and lost recipes. This is the perfect option for them”

Travellers should also know that food tourism can also include beverages, so breweries, distilleries, and cideries. Additionally, non-alcoholic options, such as tea tours, are another great way to experience the culture and beverage-making processes in another place.

Globetrotting for food

As the trend picks up pace, Indians are also travelling to offshore destinations that offer culinary experiences. “I visited Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, to explore the unique food culture of the country. I had Ca Phe Trung — egg coffee, Bun Cha, a grilled pork cutlet served in pork broth along with vermicelli noodles and much more. Now, I am excited about exploring south Asian food and for this, I have travelled to Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam in the last six months,” says Nikhil Chawla, food and travel influencer.

Similarly, Nitish Jha, a food enthusiast who travelled to Dubai for a gastronomic vacation recently, shares, “It was a foodies’ paradise. While the city has strong influence from middle eastern, Turkish, Pakistani and Indian cuisine, in pockets you can also find continental Ethiopian, American and African cuisine. The price bracket ranges from $5 a meal on street to $1,500 a meal at a fine dine.”Author tweets @later_gaytor

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