Meet the women behind Traveling Spoon, a startup that invites you to connect with hosts in Asia and share unforgettable experiences over an aurhentic meal. By Rosella Stephen
Even while the food-obsessed in our cities take to pop-up restaurants, secret suppers, community dinners and culinary walks to fuel their weekends, the ‘sharing economy’ concept witnesses unusual startups in the rest of the world. Some like Cookening connect locals to tourists so they can invite them to their homes for an authentic culinary experience. EatWith is also creating a global community and encourages you to dine in homes around the world. And Mealku in New York, a homemade meal cooperative, sees members sharing their leftovers with strangers. Meanwhile, one sharing startup that is creating a buzz is Traveling Spoon, a service that sees hosts offering tourists home cooked meals and lessons across Asia.
WOULD you like to make the Japanese premium green tea, Matcha, using a special bamboo whisk? Or forage for “sansai” (wild vegetables) by a waterfall in Kyoto, and bring them back to your host’s kitchen to be turned into a meal? Launched last July, Aashi Vel and Stephanie Lawrence’s Traveling Spoon (TS) gets people from across the world to eat food cooked in a stranger’s kitchen and enjoy the hyper-local experience. Vel, 35, met Lawrence, 29, at her MBA class in Haas, University of California, Berkeley, in 2011. Their shared love for food resulted in a project that took much research and travel. “Steph had lived in China and had wanted to learn how to make dumplings from a home cook. I was in Mexico as a product designer and would pass houses and notice people cooking, and wish I could taste their food,” begins Vel, a Tamil-Sindhi who was raised in Chennai.
An industrial designer, with 11 years in the field, she is fascinated by the culture embedded in a cuisine. “Once I came to terms with my love for food, I joined business school to become a food entrepreneur. Steph was into non-profit marketing. We had a similar vision. Four months later, in December 2011, we had our first pilot tour to Kochi,” she continues, adding how their host, Roshni George, cooked a “terrific Syrian Christian feast” with beef fry and karimeen pollichathu. “On so many levels, it was such an educational experience. To have such an authentic meal in a residential area. Guests included Americans, Canadians and Europeans, and they all loved it,” she insists. The duo then began mailing friends about their startup.
“It helped that college had a multicultural atmosphere, but in the future, social media and Facebook ads will play a role in marketing,” she predicts. They have been “out there, understanding hosts,” following entrepreneur and startup veteran from Silicon Valley Steve Blank’s motto — ‘Get out of the building and talk to people!’ Today, TS has about 120 hosts across 32 cities in 12 countries. And hundreds of travellers who are “adventurous and culturally engaged.” Joining Delhi, Chennai, Bangalore, Kochi, Jaipur and Hyderabad in India are cities in Japan, Tokyo and Sri Lanka. There is a home dining experience in Tezpur, Assam, if you wish! “We have about six hosts in Bangalore and 10 in Chennai alone. And we added Hyderabad as there are a lot of people who visit the city from Silicon Valley. It has to happen organically,” says the Good Shepherd and Kodai International School alumnus. Guess who’s hosting?
As for the hosts, there is a pattern of sorts emerging, in India at least. Most of them are over 50 years, enjoy hosting dinners, have travelled extensively or lived abroad, with children settled in the US. “Initially, we thought people would be doing it for the money. But that’s far from the case, and many of our luxury hosts are from India. They just want to show off their cooking skills, share our culture,” says Vel, recalling how one host, a doctor, was keen to sign up as it would get her grandaughter to interact with people from around the world. “Another, a lawyer, said her husband used to “get grumpy in the evenings,” but now enjoys entertaining guests. In Vietnam, an English teacher invites her students to help her cook and chat with guests to improve their diction. Another hosts’s husband said that after years of savouring his wife’s food, he wanted to share it with the world.” The two-member team (they have volunteers who include bankers) agree that this is a business at the end of the day. Most meals are priced from Rs. 1,200 onwards, but there are cheaper options too. Tourists are welcome to include a cooking class and a market visit. The team’s focus for now is Asia. “We are going with the Airbnb founder’s advice that instead of getting 100,000 people to ‘like’ you, get 100 people to love you,” confides Vel, admitting that they have just raised funding from The Chennai Angels and industry influencers in the travel space, including the former CEO of Expedia. “There are a lot of players now and the competition is hotting up, but the differentiating factor would be in execution and the community that is being created,” she shares. Lawrence, who has added China to TS, agrees and says their hosts and some of the things she has eaten on her travels have changed her as a person. ‘‘I love meeting people from other cultures, noticing how we are different—but even more so, how we are the same,’’ she concludes.
Making the cut
To be selected, hosts must have a clean house in a safe neighbourhood, easy access (preferably no steps), no pets, and must be willing to serve bottled water. A working knowledge of English is required, as is internet access to take reservations. ‘‘The only concern was that some Indian hosts, like Jewish mums, pile on food. And while Americans are used to a chaser or cocktail with a meal, they must be prepared for alcohol served ‘straight’ or a hefty glass of rum in Kochi,’’ says Vel. Payments are to be made on the website.
Takeaway: When I went to South Korea, my host had a unique homemade plum sauce that is aged in a barrel for 100 days and used in Bulgogi, a grilled, marinated beef dish. She packed some for me to take home.
Heritage spin: I love the element of surprise on our travels, like having a vegetarian thali on a thatched rooftop in Mysore. Or getting hosts, this includes royalty in Jaipur, to introduce us to recipes passed down generations.
Food chain: About 50 per cent of our hosts are through referrals. We offer Jewish cuisine in Kolkata, from the family that opened the first Indian restaurant in Jerusalem.
Lesson in a bowl: A major faux pas was sharing a bowl of ramen at a very famous restaurant in Japan. It is considered bad manners, you know.
At her table
Iti Misra, Kolkata: This Kolkata resident offers a typically Bengali meal. Misra, 73, says you can choose from “what they call a tasting menu and we call a thali, and a three-course meal.” Her specials are prawns in a tender coconut shell, and bhekti paturi. For dessert, her patishapta (crepes with sugared coconut filling) is a rare treat.
Geeta Batra, New Delhi: The former education expert who has roped in her mother for this project, has hosted food journalists from the UK and had a young British family join them on Diwali. Her mother offers old school recipes, like a dry mutton preparation, while Batra is proud of her stuffed peppers and whole cauliflower in masala.
Vasudha Sanghi, Jaipur: Vasudha Sanghi, who lives on a farm in the heart of Jaipur, makes authentic lal maas. Well-networked, she also organises culinary workshops and offers an amalgamation of different cuisines. There is a workshop on dry roasting spices and exotic offerings like rabbit slow cooked under the earth. She will be taking guests on a masala tour in the Old City.
Similar to eatwith.com, Once Upon a Kitchen connects home chefs to people looking for a new food experience. Hosts can decide on a menu, and upload it, with the fee. Launched by advertising and wellness experts Sheetal and Ranjith Rajasekharan in Mumbai and Delhi, the experience will be coming to Chennai, Bangalore and Kochi soon. They have a database of 180 hosts and 300 guests in three months. ‘‘It involves a leap of faith as you are dining at a stranger’s home. But I have noticed how people are more comfortable about attending on their own now, and not always in a large group.’’ Choose from exotica like tribal Assamese food in Mumbai, where the bamboo used to cook fish is sourced from the Bodo region. Meals cost Rs. 1,500 to Rs. 1,800, with seasonal options at Rs. 200.