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Tastebud Travels

Written by Laura Powers

On an organic farm in Chiang Mai, Thailand, tourists surround a spice garden and take turns smelling ginger and chili peppers that have been plucked from the soil. Then the farm’s owner asks the group to take the fresh ingredients indoors and position themselves at individual cooking stations.

While the farmer directs the guests in the chopping of vegetables, Pitt alumnus Ben Finkelstein (A&S ’05) wanders through the kitchen offering tips. As a co-founder of Global Taste Tours, he leads people on culinary adventures through Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos, teaching them about Southeast Asian cuisine, history, and culture. The tours include stops at traditional restaurants, markets, and farms, along with lessons on how to cook dishes that the locals like to eat.

With a love for adventure abroad, Finkelstein majored in political science and global studies at Pitt, finishing his last semester in Argentina. Then he taught English for two years in Thailand, and another year in Taiwan, China, often spending his leisure time tasting tofu or fried frogs. After he met friend Sam McChesney, a Canadian chef living in China, the two started the culinary-tour business as a way to introduce travelers to some unique facets of Southeast Asia.

In the kitchen at today’s lesson, everyone is making a spicy salad called Som Tum, as well as a red pork curry. Knives, flames, and steam whip in the air as the Thai-chefs-in-the-making give their best efforts. Then, Finkelstein and his guests gather around a table to taste the results of their cooking adventure. Yum.