Eating out at local hot spots is always a great way to get the taste of a city, but true immersion into the culinary scene often happens outside of a restaurant’s four walls.
While Santo Domingo, the capital city of the Dominican Republic, has an exceptional variety of restaurants, culinary activities can help visitors really delve into the country’s unique cuisine. From food markets to street stands, from cooking classes to culinary tours, it’s the experiences as much as the meals that give insight into the flavors and impressive produce of the Dominican. Check out these interesting experiences, from learning how to prepare chocolate to cooking classes, to develop a fuller appreciation for the Dominican’s blend of flavors and spices.
*This article was written by Joanna Kauffmann, who is a food and travel writer and occasionally dabbles in fiction as well. She loves the food that others might complain has too much spice, too much garlic, or too much cilantro and rarely lets a day pass without eating chocolate. She rambles on Twitter as @jokauffmann.
As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with complimentary accommodation, meals, and flight for the purpose of reviewing those services and discovering more about the Dominican Republic. While it has not influenced this review, About.com believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest. For more information, see our Ethics Policy.
Cooking Class with Chef Martín Omar
Chef Martín Omar has more than 20 years of experience cooking Dominican cuisine. His long history with the country’s traditional foods has given him the knowledge and confidence to elevate even home-style fare to rival the most refined of dishes. By using the best fresh ingredients available and flawless technique developed over his long career, Chef Omar is able to make favorite local dishes taste innovative.
The fun for foodies comes from taking one of his cooking classes and getting involved in the action the action themselves. Chef Omar’s “A Native Taste” class, for example, demonstrates how to make three popular Dominican dishes.
To start, guests learn how to make crispy cassava sticks. Though often mistakenly interchanged with yucca, cassava is actually the starchy, tuberous root that, when dried, becomes tapioca. In Chef Omar’s preparation, the cassava root is seasoned and boiled, and then cut into sticks—a great job for a class volunteer—and fried in hot oil. The fried cassava sticks are similar in texture to french fries and equally addictive.
As a main course, Chef Omar presents a traditional sancocho, which he describes as the “most representative Dominican recipe.” Made from a variety of meats and vegetable simmered together to form a creamy, luscious soup, Chef Omar’s sancocho is finished with cilantro, oregano and bitter orange, which transforms it from a humble soup into a culinary delight.
Finally, a light and refreshing dessert is presented as a perfect compliment to end a heavy meal. Bowls of tropical fruit flavored with local herbs and spices get a drizzle—heavy or light, depending on who’s pouring—of famed Dominican rum for a bite that’s just the right amount of sweetness with a perfect little kick.
Exploring the Mercado Modelo
Located in downtown Santo Domingo, the Mercado Modelo (model market) goes far beyond your typical tourist trap. Though there are plenty of crafts and souvenirs for sale—including Dominican cigars, paintings by local artists, and amber jewelry—it’s the food stalls surrounding the market that really make it a worthwhile stop.
In these outdoor stalls, you’ll find local Dominicans, shopping for herbs, produce, and meats. Plantains, peppers, nuts and yucca are on offer pretty consistently throughout, while salted fish, hanging meats and cinnamon sticks the size of small children are a sight to behold.
Even you have no intentions of purchasing any items, Mercado Modelo is worth a visit of the glimpse of local culture is provides. And if you are looking to pick up a few things during your trip, keep in mind that you are expected to negotiate pricing at the stalls. A few recommended favorites are rich Dominican coffee and white vanilla. For the adventurous drinker, try Mamajuana; made from roots and rum, the potent liquor is believed to have aphrodisiac qualities.
Mercado Modelo is located on Av. Mella in Santo Domingo. While the Mercado Modelo is the city’s largest markets, we also recommend Merca Santo Domingo which has beautiful local produce, such as pineapples and peppers. There are also unique Chinese markets on Avenida Duarte, where visitors will find traditional Chinese spices and food products in the city’s mini Chinatown area. Finally, while Pulga de Antiguedades isn’t a traditional market, the weekly flea markets has loads of street vendors who sell up traditional fare, such as chicharron (fried pig skin), to the hungry shoppers.
Chocolate and Clay Experiences with Tequia Experiences
The Dominican Republic is the number one exporter of organic cocoa in the world, and while treats made from the staple ingredient are available in a number of stores, there’s a whole world to cocoa farming that could never be understood just from unwrapping a chocolate bar.
The Chocolate and Clay Experiences, offered by local tour company Tequia Experiences, exposes that world by taking travelers on a journey outside of Santo Domingo to the heart of old sugar plains, where a few independent local farmers are growing cocoa according to Fair Trade and Organic Certification standards. Every part of the cocoa farming practice is revealed, from the earliest growing stages of the cocoa fruit, to the elaborate drying process that ultimate results in the cocoa bean, to a taste of hot chocolate made from freshly farmed cocoa.
As part of this experience, you’ll have the opportunity to learn the history of pottery in the Dominican Republic, and witness an artisan at work, turning clay into figurines and beautifully crafted bowls right before your eyes. The experience includes a traditional Dominican lunch to be enjoyed outdoors.
Discover Chocolate at the ChocoMuseo
If you don’t have time for a full day’s tour with Tequia Experiences, try the Chocomuseo in Santo Domingo. This large store also includes a brief but informative exhibit explaining the process of making chocolate from cacao beans. After learning about chocolate production, guests can try samples of unique chocolate products, such as chocolate tea, chocolate liqueurs, and chocolate covered fruits and nuts.
The highlight, however, of a trip to the Chocomuseo is signing up for a Bean to Bar Workshops, where guests will take the cacao plant from bean to bar by roasting, winnowing, and tasting cacao tea, before grinding nibs and preparing hot chocolate and then molding chocolates. The two hour-long workshops cost $25 USD for adults and $15 USD for children.
Discover Rum at Ron Barceló Factory Tour
As might be expected for a Caribbean location, one of the strongest industries in the Dominican Republic is the rum industry, and Ron Barceló produces some of the best. While simply drinking rum isn’t in any way discouraged, a tour of the factory gives great insight into the history of the brand’s production and provides a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the beloved liquor in the making.
A knowledgeable tour guide will greet you with a refreshing cocktail to start the party off right, before taking you through the factory’s impressive cellars. There, rum is aged in barrels that were previously used to age American whiskey in Kentucky. In order to qualify as a Dominican rum, the liquor must age for at least one year, but for more premium blends, rum can spend up to ten years in the American oak barrels, and up to two years in barrels made from French oak.
Following the tour, take a seat at the bar for a tasting of Ron Barceló’s various blends, all of which are available for purchase at the factory’s store.