Joe Sherman, a 57-year-old native Mississippian, recently returned from Vietnam with a newfound appreciation for the customary morning bowl of pho, a beef noodle soup seasoned with herbs.
As president and CEO of the Viking Culinary Group, a company best known for its range, which has expanded into cooking courses and travel, Sherman's trip was work related. On his first culinary tour, Sherman spent 10 days sampling Vietnamese fare at local noodle shops and village markets. He stayed at a riverside resort in Hoi An, dined at Saigon's popular Ngon Restaurant and toured the imperial capital of Hue by pedicab. He even traveled to the Saigon countryside to a village famous for its rice paper. There he met a woman who prepares 1,200 sheets each day to be used for spring rolls.
With its emphasis on immersion and authenticity, this is the new culinary tour. Though traditional tasting trips to Napa Valley wine country or the heart of Provence are still popular, more and more travelers are exploring cuisine in countries like India, Turkey and New Zealand.
Gastro-tourists are heading there because they increasingly want an insider's experience instead of one where they nosh at far-removed locations with little understanding for how the food is grown and prepared, says Sherman.
"You felt less like an outsider," he says of his trip, "and more like you belonged because you adapted to the traditions of their culinary heritage."
The mouthwatering delights of culinary tourism are many—black truffles, gourmet sushi and cured pork are just a few. There are also excursions to spice markets, farms, butchers and even family kitchens.
An ambitious tour of four South Indian states, for example, takes travelers from Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala in pursuit of the finest cuisine. No meal is spurned: participants sample the best street food, join community feasts, peruse spice markets and dine at high-end restaurants. The day ends at a local four- or five-star Taj Hotels property, which customizes the tour.
Michael Whiteman, of the international restaurant consultant company Baum & Whiteman, says this newfound culinary bravery, particularly among American travelers, comes partly from immigration to the U.S. over the past 30 years.
"That's influenced the way we eat," he says, "and the kinds of foods we see in the supermarket." He also notes that more Americans are experimenting with foreign ingredients. "Any place where there's a little India or Saigon, you will find increasing numbers of native-born Americans."
A growing desire to know the origin of food has also driven trends in culinary travel. Erik Wolf, president and CEO of the International Culinary Tourism Association, says curiosity about one's carbon footprint and food safety has prompted some to become more knowledgeable about the global food supply.
A trip to an Italian olive oil mill, butcher and goat farm, for instance, can vividly illustrate the food-producing process, an experience further enhanced when tourists meet a purveyor or farmer.
Which trip is right for you?
Those who are not yet self-proclaimed gourmands may find choosing a culinary tour a bit daunting. But Wolf recommends narrowing the choices by evaluating one's expectations (some tours charge up to $1,700 per couple, per day, and most do not include airfare) and interests.
Someone who prefers organic food should try a tour of an organic farm or winery. If one draws inspiration from the French masters, a trip to Burgundy to learn classic technique might be in order. Sushi lovers can flock to Japan where there is now at least one tour that incorporates visits to Michelin-rated restaurants.
The experience and background of the operator is also important. Some tours are organized by an army of people who have scouted a location and made connections with local guides and chefs while others are conducted by just one or two enthusiasts with a wide range of knowledge of the cuisine and region. Neither is necessarily superior to the other, but the varied approaches affect the trip's focus and activities.
Aside from exposure to a foreign culture and cuisine, participants also get something money can't buy: bragging rights.
Whether it's hunting for mushrooms and truffles in France or purchasing spices at a historic market in Istanbul, gastro-tourists enjoy regaling friends with tales of a very unique tasting trip experience.
"[They] are increasingly important to today's culinary tourist," Wolf says. "People want to be able to say, 'I learned how to make chocolate in Belgium.' "