Adding a new cuisine to a good cook's repertoire is like perfecting a drop volley for a tennis player or mastering a double pirouette for a ballet dancer.
The desire for excellence gets in your blood. It's a creative rush to be the best, to perfectly execute a meal based on a Vietnamese soup or an Indian curry. But how do you learn a new cuisine that contains ingredients you can barely pronounce and have to search all over town to find? And how can you adjust the flavors when you don't know if reducing the chilies will throw off the balance of the tamarind and kaffir lime leaves?
It's not enough to pick up a cookbook. Or to take a cooking class. Or even to go on an ordinary vacation trip to the exotic land of your culinary dreams. What you need is the six step "Total Immersion" plan.
1. Taste the food in its native land.
Travel is one of the best ways to learn about a country's food, but you have to transform the typical vacation into a culinary adventure. Go to the local markets so you can identify, touch, smell and taste the native ingredients. Dine in the street stalls as well as in the fancy restaurants. Take cooking classes. And shoot pictures -- finished dishes, step by steps, insides of pots -- to record textures. Otherwise, you won't remember the details when you get home.
Unless you are the kind of person who has no trouble getting around in a foreign country, your best bet is to go on a culinary tour. Some good sources include:
*"The Guide to Cooking Schools" (Shaw Associates, paperback $14.95) contains descriptions of 289 cooking schools and tours worldwide, including costs, course descriptions and contacts. You can buy it at Books for Cooks in Harborplace or send a check or money order for $14.95 plus $2 for shipping and handling to: Shaw Associates, 625 Biltmore Way, Coral Gables, Fla. 33134.
*Travel Concepts specializes in custom-designed culinary and wine tours to France, Italy, England, Ireland and Switzerland. Those who would like to send a group of 15 to 25 on tour should contact: Travel Concepts, 62 Commonwealth Ave., Suite 3, Boston, Mass. 02116 or call (617) 266-8450.
*The Annemarie Victory Organization offers a series of culinary tours ranging from a spa cuisine series atBrenner's Park Hotel in Baden-Baden, West Germany, to a study of island cuisine at Hotel Guanahani on the Caribbean island of St. Bart's and a Tuscan wine and food experience at Ruffino's Villa Zano, the family estate outside Florence, Italy. Write Annemarie Victory Organization, 136 East 64th St., New York, N.Y. 10021 for a brochure or call (212) 486-0353.
2. Go to the library and take out cookbooks and background on the cuisine.
Learn about the country, the food that grows there and the customs of the people before you pick up a pot. Understand the basics of how the flavors work together. Then you can try a few recipes before you make a major investment at the bookstore.
"I'm a research person," says Jim C. Lawson, author of ethnic food store guides to Baltimore and Washington. "Anytime I have a problem I head for the library. I look for cookbooks that are more than just recipes. I need narrative. I need pictures. I need to get inspired by looking at a cookbook."
Some examples of recent books that give good overviews of a cuisine include: "Giuliano Bugialli's Classic Techniques of Italian Cooking" (Simon & Schuster, paperback, $19.95), "The Foods of Vietnam" (Stewart, Tabori & Chang, $35) by Nicole Routhier, "The Cuisines of Mexico" (Harper & Row, $14.95) by Diana Kennedy, and "Taste of Israel" (Rizzoli, $35).
3. Visit local ethnic food stores.
Paula Tran of San Antonio, Texas, author of "Living and Cooking Vietnamese: An American Woman's Experience" (Corona Publishing Co., paperback $10.95), says she has gotten many cooking tips by going to a specialty store and asking one of the customers how they use an ingredient.
"Try to understand the culture," she advises. "If the person is Asian, a slight little bow or a nodding of the head in deference will give you a friend for life. When I show respect, people show me things that they wouldn't show someone else."
You will find the stores listed in the Yellow Pages under "Grocers -- Retail."
Or you can look for local ethnic food store guides, such as "The Baltimore Ethnic Food Store Guide," by Jim C. Lawson. The 118-page paperback lists stores, locations, specialties, hours and telephone numbers. It is available locally at Kitchen Bazaar stores, Books for Cooks at Harborplace, Greetings & Readings in Towson and Morton's in Baltimore. Or you can send $9.95 plus $1.50 shipping and handling to: Ardmore Publications, P.O. Box 21051, Washington 20009-0551.
4. Take a good cooking class.
The experts agree that participation classes are better than demonstration classes, but participation classes are expensive and hard to find. So how do you pick a good cooking school?
"I believe in my soul that you need to find someone who has a passion for food," says Jane Fallon, a Baltimore County caterer and former cooking teacher. A member of the International Association of Cooking Professionals, she taught locally for nearly a decade.
She says you need to look for a teacher with formal training -- a graduate of La Varenne in Paris, L'Academie de Cuisine in Bethesda, Baltimore's International Culinary College or the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.
If you can't find a participation class, look for a class that has no more than six or eight participants so you can see what the teacher is doing. You need to be able to see what the teacher means when she says the batter needs to "spin a ribbon" or the egg yolks should be "lemon-colored."
A supplemental way to learn a new cuisine is through the restaurant kitchen demonstrations sponsored by the Epicurean Club of Maryland. For a fee of $40, local chefs from restaurants such as the Brass Elephant or the Milton Inn put together their specialties.
To get on the mailing list, send $1 to Epicurean Club of Maryland, 828 Milford Mill Road, Baltimore 21208.
5. Find a native to teach you.
Paula Tran married into a Vietnamese family and learned how to cook the cuisine from her husband's family. Suddenly she was transformed from a woman who grew up eating meat and potatoes to an accomplished cook who can prepare a 15-course Vietnamese banquet.
"I am convinced that the best way to learn Vietnamese cooking is to cook with a Vietnamese person," she says.
But it wasn't always easy. And she advises students to take charge and ask questions.
"I had serious problems trying to get my mother-in-law to commit to how much of an ingredient is needed. She would say, 'Add just the right amount of salt.' I would stand there and watch her do it and I literally measured the amount of salt in her hand and then took it in my hand to see how it felt."
She suggests complimenting the chef at your favorite ethnic restaurant. Then ask if he knows anyone who could help you learn to make these wonderful dishes at home.
"Most of the time, he will offer his services or put you in contact with someone else he knows," she says.
6. Hire a caterer to give a teaching dinner party.
Some caterers will conduct a cooking demonstration as part of their party services.
For example, former cooking teacher Jane Fallon will conduct a cooking/teaching combination for about $30 to $35 a person. She has done a complete fish menu to show students how to cook fish properly and she's taught a dessert at a champagne and dessert party.
"I must do these at least once a month," she says. "What you get are very serious people who are interested in food. They are people with very sophisticated palates. It's a lot more rewarding for me as well because everybody cares about food."