Culinary tourism brings the homesick and the experimental together with expert home chefs and showcases cuisines generally unavailable in restaurants
Archana Rajesh was surprised that I had chosen to have a traditional meal from Karnataka at her home. I mean, as a south Indian living in Bengaluru for many years, I probably get the same kind of food everywhere, right?
Wrong. Even in the Tamil and Kannada heartlands of the city I call home, there isn’t much south Indian food beyond idli and dosa (and oh yes, khara bhath, which is essentially upma with greasepaint on).
That is why I ended up at her north Bengaluru home for a typical Gowda meal, complete with kosambari (a salad), ragi mudde (millet) and holige (a pancake similar to Maharashtra’s pooran poli)—although Archana did sigh at the fact that I was vegetarian, so she could not present her best meat dishes.
She was full of apologies as she served the vegetable saaru in place of the usual mutton stew-like saaru. But since I had never come across that particular combination of spices and fresh coconut earlier, my taste buds were singing.
With her husband for company at lunch and her mother teaching me secret recipe for an easy vaangi bhath (brinjal rice) powder, it was a meal the husband and I talked about for a long time.
Archana is a host with Traveling Spoon, a telecom professional and accomplished home cook who delights in sharing her Karnataka culinary traditions with the world.
Aashi Vel, co-founder of Traveling Spoon, says, “I was in Playa del Carmen in Mexico before starting business school. I wished I could eat at the Mexican woman’s home I often passed by, and hear her stories, instead of at yet another touristy restaurant."
Ditto her business partner Steph Lawrence, who could not find anything in restaurants beyond westernized Chinese dishes during her long stay in Beijing. Ideally, she would have liked to not just eat dumplings at a local’s home but also learn to make it from the grandmother of the house.
The two met during their MBA at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business in 2011 and compared notes on their disappointment. Traveling Spoon was born with the idea that the experience would be “like having a friend’s mom make you a home-cooked meal in every country you visit".
Welcome to the world of culinary tourism, a world so enjoyable and engrossing that, according to the founders of Mumbai-based Authenticook, “People forget to check their WhatsApp for the entire duration of the meal!"
Italian, but not Iyengar
Small companies like Traveling Spoon and Authenticook are ushering in a different way of experiencing food when we get out of our home ground, or sometimes in our own familiar surroundings.
“Our own people don’t have avenues to taste the different cuisines of India. For travellers (both domestic and foreign), the chance to sit down and dine with a local family is right up there in terms of a brilliant experience," says Aneesh Dhairyawan, partner at Authenticook, who responded on behalf of the founding team.
This company now offers 22 regional Indian cuisines, among them some not well known even in gourmet circles, and definitely not available outside the kitchens of people from that community—like Koli, GSB Mangalorean, Pathare Prabhu, Tamil Iyengar, Malabari, Kannauj and Bohri Thaal.
To book a meal, a customer can visit the websites, choose the city, type of meal and date. The host responds through the company to confirm and then corresponds directly, if required. People usually go in small groups of five or six guests, but this is left to the host. Often, a family or group of friends also choose to book private meals.
The cost varies by host and the kind of meal (type of cuisine, big or small city, if festive or special, how elaborate it is, vegetarian or not, and so on) but begins roughly from Rs750 per person. It increases if cooking classes and/or market visits are part of the session.
A percentage of this cost goes to the aggregators, Authenticook and Traveling Spoon.
Bank manager Anne George, from Mumbai, is a diehard Authenticook fan, and first came across this concept through a newspaper snippet about a Parsi meal they were hosting earlier this year. She has now attended over 10 such dinners, and says her joy comes from discovering dishes like litti chokha (a rustic Bihari preparation) and prawns hinga udda (Mangalorean prawns curry in a coconut gravy) that she had not even heard of.
According to Dhairyawan, this is also the story behind Authenticook’s genesis. “We realized that we had access to the quintessential butter chicken with naan, and even Italian and Mexican food across India. But when it came to regional local cuisines, there was never much of a choice."
Meet the hosts
While Vel and Lawrence began Traveling Spoon as a labour of love, they also have strong backgrounds in industrial design and marketing, respectively, along with business advice and investment (an angel round followed by a seed round) from Erik Blachford, the former chief executive of Expedia, among others.
Authenticook is the brainchild of two couples from banking and consulting—Priyanka and Ameya Deshpande, and Sai Ghatpande and Aneesh Dhairyawan. The two men had known each other for more than 20 years, bonding over cricket before bonding over food this way. For this team, it has been a self-funded venture so far, and they are on the lookout for investment.
The hosts are usually found through word of mouth and vetted carefully before the formal association. This includes a video chat with the founders, followed by a home visit to evaluate parameters apart from taste, such as ambience, location, amenities, hosting skills and presentation of the food. Once signed on, the hosts have the flexibility to set their own menu, prices and availability.
Vel describes the profile of a Traveling Spoon host as someone who is not just warm, hospitable and passionate about food, but also takes pride in being the cultural ambassador for their region. So, the host would typically not just share local flavours but also personal stories, and possibly family recipes.
Iti Misra from Kolkata is a perfect example of Vel’s description. Misra is a retired marketing professional who has been associated with Traveling Spoon for four years now. Apart from being a novel way to indulge in her passion for cooking, meeting new people from different countries is an added attraction for her. She also loves that hosting these meals gives her an opportunity to serve her favourite Bengali cuisine (especially her mother’s recipes) to visitors who are not familiar with its unique flavours.
For Narendra and Maya Sachar from Jammu, who live in Pune and run a handicraft store, the big bonus is a chance to talk about food with other foodies. Maya’s munj chetin (radish chutney) and Narendra’s rogan josh (a lamb dish with Arabic origins) have already found several fans in and around Pune, even prompting an injured 70-year-old woman to make it to their dinner on a wheelchair.
For the discerning and the curious, hosts like Misra and Narendra provide what restaurants never can: a commentary about the food being served, the kind of spices and condiments used in their cooking and unique food rituals from their part of the country.
Misra adds to this, “Sometimes my (foreign) guests are more interested in knowing about my country than the food they eat. So, I try to make the meal a capsule of Indian culture."
Flannery Jefferson from Toronto, Canada, who recently had a Bengali meal at Misra’s house (with her parents and sister), confirms this, saying, “So many things don’t make sense when you are in a strange country. So, it was great to hear the stories behind some of them. Eating with Iti was a great chance for us to ask questions, not just about the dishes we were cooking together, but also about other things we had eaten and seen earlier on the trip."
Currently, Traveling Spoon offers culinary experiences in 40 cities, in 20 countries across the world, from Taiwan to Turkey. Authenticook, which piloted the idea last September, now has 50 hosts in Mumbai, Pune, Goa and Kochi, with plans to expand to other cities soon. Authenticook has 50 hosts across the four Indian cities and Traveling Spoon more than 75 in 15 Indian cities.
The idea is clearly catching on, with others like Lithuania-based Plate Culture already popular in South-East Asia and now expanding in India. Local start-ups like Mind and Door No. have also tentatively stepped in.
Dhairyawan explains why the team loves what they are doing, with this story. “One of our hosts’ mother-in-law loves the concept so much that she confessed to lying to her friends, to drop out of an outstation trip with them, just so that she could be around when Authenticook guests were coming over. She declined to be part of the final group picture with the diners lest her friends got wind of it."