The idea of traveling spontaneously—showing up somewhere and winging it—is quite romantic, but in reality there is no substitute for local expertise. So when it comes to getting the most out of a place, whether on vacation or reporting a story, we seek out knowledgeable people to guide us and give us a glimpse of the true heart of the place they call home. Even if you don't know a soul in India, there are ways to make local connections that will enrich your travel experience—from private tour guides, like the ones who helped us as we traveled the country for this issue, to home-based cooking instructors and hosts. —The Editors
CUSTOM PRIVATE TOURING
A completely different animal from the cattle-call group experience most people think of when they hear "guided tour," Kensington Tours offers the increasingly popular option of customized, private touring. A location expert discusses your interests, preferences, and travel style and works with a local guide in the area where you plan to travel. They assist in arranging experiences you would never otherwise be able to access, from learning to cook biryani with the best local cook in town to eating your way through the best food stalls in the labyrinth of the marketplace to, as we experienced, having a meal with your guide's family in their home. Kensington Tours has relationships with guides, all of whom speak English, Hindi, and the local dialect, in every corner of India, providing greater access to the rich local culture of this incredible part of the world than anyone else we have worked with.
+1 888 903 2001 ext. 289
There are a growing number of regional cooking classes being offered throughout India, some in roadside cafés, at five-star hotels and even in home cooks' kitchens. A quick Google search of cooking classes in the city you plan to visit should bring up a plethora of options. Below are three of our favorites.
Sita Cultural Center in Pondicherry
Offering classes on Tamil cuisine, here you can learn to make traditional vegetarian dishes like sambar, a complex dal-based sauce with vegetables, amid the tranquil beauty of this southeastern beach town.
Sita Cultural Center
22 Candappa Moudaliar Street, Pondicherry
+91 994 401 6128
Spice Paradise in Jodhpur
Spice Paradise, a ramshackle spice shop in the northwest metropolis of Jodhpur, offers cookery courses that cover both pan-Indian basics like naan and chapati breads, and regional Rajasthani specialties like mohan maans, tender meat simmered in milk and spices; saffron-infused yogurt lassi; and mawa kachori, a puffed pastry stuffed with dried fruit and soaked in syrup.
Girdi Kote, Amar Chok, Jodhpur
+91 946 095 7995
Nimmy and Paul's Cooking School in Kochi
Learn to make south Indian dishes like pallappam, a classic Keralan bread that tastes like a subtly sweet rice pancake, in the home of Nimmy and Paul, a Keralan-Syrian Christian couple who have been teaching local cooking in Kochi for over a decade.
Nimmy & Paul
Variamparambil, Chakalakal Road, Kochi
There may be no more immersive experience than the home stay, and the following are but a few of the many options across the subcontinent that can be booked on sites like Homestay Booking. But we especially loved the farm stays for the farm-to-table daily meals.
Philipkutty's Farm in Kerala
These cozy, waterfront villas are housed on a family-run farm on a picturesque island in the backwaters of Kerala. You can join in as the family takes their fishing boat out at sunset, cook with them, using much of what is grown on their own farm, or relax with a cup of chai and talk about life in India.
Pallivathukal, Ambika Market P.O., Vechoor, Kottayam District, Kerala
+91 482 927 6530
Nandan Farms in Maharashtra
Ammu and Ashish Padgaonkar's pastoral farm—12 acres of cashews, pineapples, and coconut palms—in southern Maharashtra has two guest rooms available for those lucky enough to reserve them. If you somehow tire of the quiet serenity of the farm and Ammu's expert cooking, you can catch a nearby train for an easy day trip to northern Goa.
Nandan Farms Homestay
House No. D-148 Chivartekdi, State Highway 121, Sawantwadi, Maharashtra
Book through Travel to Care at +91 934 933 6701
Spiti Homestays in Himachal Pradesh
Nestled in the remote mountain community of the Pin Valley, the Spiti Homestays have one guest room in each of the 14 houses where you will live exactly like the permanent residents: eating vegetarian and even swapping buckets of hot water and outhouses for indoor plumbing. But the immersion in this Buddhist communities' nearly untouched way of life, along with a view the Himalayas outside your window, make the experience well worth it for the adventurous traveler.
Book through Ecosphere
Chhering Norbu, Ecosphere Office, Old Bazaar, Kaza, Spiti, Himachal Pradesh
+91 941 886 0099