In addition to explorations in lesser-known foods, students can take focused classes in widespread international cuisines like "Japanese Style Pastries" ($66) or "French Cooking with Wine and Spirits" ($69). In March, BCAE is holding an eight-week program in authentic Japanese home cooking hosted by the Japan Society of Cooking. Students will learn how to shop for Asian ingredients and make staple dishes like sushi, kinpara gobo, niku-jaga, and croquettes. At $495 (including materials), the class is the center's priciest food course, but also its longest.
The Cambridge Center for Adult Education (CCAE) takes a similar global approach with "The Complete Indian Dinner" ($91), "A Visit to Kiev" ($75), "Latino and Caribbean Soups, Stews, and Braised Dishes for Winter" ($155), "Authentic Mexican Cuisine" ($152), "Vegetarian Malay Cooking" ($71), and "From Russia with Love: A Walking Tour of Russian Cuisine" ($44).
CCAE program coordinator Michael Cicone says ethnic cooking classes are generally well attended, though "sometimes trends are kind of apparent — certain countries and cuisines go in and out of fashion." While there's been a drop-off in interest in Japanese cooking at CCAE, less familiar cuisines are thriving. Thai is consistently popular, and students have been more curious recently about Indian curries, naan, and tandoori. Cicone says Malaysian vegetarian cooking has seen a "great response."
The demand for ethnic food classes at CCAE has been consistently high, and the center is expanding its offerings accordingly. With the climbing expense of traveling abroad, Cicone notes, "It's a cheaper way to experience different cultures here, in your own back yard."
Although tastes shift, he says one thing remains the same: "People seem very interested in learning about these different cultures in a hands-on way."
Back to school
While some cooking instructors are professionally trained, most at adult-education centers are simply passionate about sharing a hobby they've enjoyed for years. For others, teaching these skills is also part of preserving their culture and maintaining close ties to their home country.
"A lot of our instructors are people who really love what they do. We don't have instructors like Harvard has in academics," says Scott. "We have a lot of instructors who are bankers or work in IT or have a totally different full-time job, but in the evening this is their way to enjoy their hobby by sharing it with other people."
The same is true for CCAE, where Wichian Rojanawon has taught Thai cooking classes for more than 15 years. His classes consistently fill up each semester with students eager to learn what they can do with classic Thai ingredients like fish sauce, kaffir lime leaves, mangos, and coconut milk.
Like other cooking classes taught at area continuing-ed centers, Rojanawon's three-session class "Thai Cooking for Beginners" ($172) is hands-on. His students spend three consecutive Mondays prepping and cooking in the kitchen and take one Saturday morning trip to Chinatown to shop for obscure ingredients. Over the course, students learn nine dishes, including chicken satay with peanut and cucumber sauces, chicken coconut soup, spring rolls, pad Thai, and green, panang, and massaman curries.
A student favorite at CCAE, Rojanawon is a self-taught cook and Thailand native who moved to Boston 24 years ago. Between his 20 years of cooking instruction and his full-time job as director of UMass Boston's Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, Rojanawon has devoted much of his career to continuing education.