Food is the easiest and quickest way to get acquainted with a foreign culture. When traveling, I like to bookmark restaurants and markets, and use the local cuisine as an entry point into the culture. When you sit down to eat as the locals do, the food — what’s best and plentiful — tells the story of where you are. A little more discernment will reveal historical detail: who was there first, which foreigners came and left influences from faraway lands, what is loved, what has fallen out of favor and more. Even the pace at which you eat reflects the pulse of a place. “Food is not only for the eating,” Doreen Fernandez, the late, great Filipino food writer and cultural historian, once said, “but also for the contemplation of history, society and taste.”
However, there are times when checking places off a where-to-eat list can only take you so far. As eating is such an intimate activity, the best way to get an unfiltered, personal experience is to dine at someone’s home. A few years back, I was able to open up the home my partner and I share to travelers via Traveling Spoon, a website offering private and authentic food experiences around the world. I met Aashi Vel — who, together with fellow American Steph Lawrence, founded the site — while she was in Manila to meet potential hosts for the Philippines. Over a meal of pork adobo, prawns in crab fat, beer-pickled mangoes, ensaladang talong and crisp banana turon, we talked about the huge difference between the meals she’d had at restaurants in the past few days and what we were currently sharing in our tiny city loft.
The food we had was fairly simple, but it was the kind of home cooking we would trot out for special guests as we want to put our best foot forward, and have them try something local and new; preferably something that comes with a story. Aashi was a great guest — eager to try everything and full of questions. Her eyes glistened brightly as she encountered each dish. “What’s turon?” (Sweet saba bananas wrapped in a thin flour wrapper, rolled in brown sugar and deep-fried.) “Where does crab fat come from?” (Well, from crabs, I explained. She was surprised because she didn’t think of crabs as having fat.) The textures and flavors blew her away, and Aashi grilled me about ingredients and cooking techniques.
Ours was a two-way exchange. She shared a bit about her own family’s cooking traditions, and told us how she and Steph got the idea for Traveling Spoon: like Grab or Uber, it was conceived as a way to share home-cooked food, in this case, instead of rides. “It’s food you were going to cook anyway, so why not share it?” Aashi explained.
Just like its ride-sharing counterparts, Traveling Spoon has also evolved. Now it’s about booking a meal to share with a local host, with the option to also include a cooking class and even a trip to the local market.
When Traveling Spoon launched, I was one of a handful of Manila-based hosts, and over the next few months, I welcomed a number of guests to our cramped dinner table. They ranged from husband-and-wife retirees on a tour of Southeast Asia to two young Jewish besties on a gap year before going off to college in different countries.
The dinners stretched out for hours, long after dessert was served, because the conversations were free-flowing. First, there were questions about the food, and then about the country and the local culture. Later, we would hear about their trip and their lives back home and compare notes. We also gave tips on the restaurants to try, and people they should meet at destinations. I would keep in touch over social media, and even met with them again to see how their trip was going.
This made me realize the value of a home-cooked meal to travelers. It adds another dimension to their experience in a foreign country; one that’s very relaxed and in a cozy setting. At the same time, as a cook, it felt great to share recipes I’d learned from my family, and to talk about our food and country at depth. Each shared meal and cooking session also became a learning session for both me and my guests, and I truly enjoyed how one encounter in a tiny space can open up new horizons for everyone. Of course, I’ve stayed in touch with guests— and the offers to meet up, should we ever be in the same city, stand.
Today, Traveling Spoon has more than 1,000 hosts in 134 cities across 49 countries. The profiles vary, but everyone is a seasoned home cook, each with their own regional and personal specialties. You could be meeting someone’s grandmother, a working mom, a student — people from all walks of life, ready to share their world with you over a good meal.
Traveling Spoon also helps travelers and hosts have meaningful experiences that go beyond a single plate or a quick photograph. “One American guest told us he was a soldier stationed in Korea about 30 years ago. This was his first visit since then, and he was so touched by all the economic development [that the country had undergone],” remembers Jessie, a host from Seoul. “And then he suddenly started to sing a Korean kids’ song every Korean knows. He remembered every single word of the lyrics, which he’d learned at the barber’s when he was in Korea. My mom and I almost cried — it was the most memorable of my Traveling Spoon experiences.”
In Manila, host Isi received a booking at short notice from a guest who was hearing-impaired. “I got an interpreter for this booking, and we hit a good stride when cooking together,” she says. “We were able to communicate with ease because kitchen work is totally understandable in any language.”
There are all sorts of stories from hosts around the world. Thanks to his popularity as a host, Dewa from Bali says that, in spite of having to retire early due to medical reasons, he’s been able to send his kids to school and supplement their family income with Traveling Spoon bookings. Hang from Hanoi loves the interaction between guests’ children and his own: “While we cook, they happily play together, share, smile, laugh and even exchange toys.”
Before the website, such connections would’ve been difficult to make. The whole experience of being with someone who knows the place on an intimate level, and being welcomed into their home as well as eating something you’ve prepared together takes one’s knowledge about a place up several notches. Even with a language barrier, anyone can understand good food and the warmth and togetherness of having a home-cooked meal. It truly is the best souvenir.
Here Are Some Hosts To Check Out On Your Next Trip:
“I hosted a group of researchers from Google who had been studying Filipino travel and tourism, and this was their first time in Manila. I gave them a proper introduction to our cuisine. We did a Pinoy-style grill and prepared a boodle fight together, and then I taught them how to eat everything we’d cooked with their hands from the big, family-style spread on banana leaves.”
Signature dishes: ginataang adobong manok, tortang talong and pinakbet
“We’ve entertained guests who were allergic to shallot, garlic, chili, nuts and fish — afterward, they said it was the best meal they’d had in Bali. In our tradition, a good life is not about how long we live, but how much we can share with and serve others. Hosting allows us to meet other people. Not only do we teach recipes, we also learn more about their culture, and what makes us all unique.”
Signature dish: Balinese chicken curry cooked over a wood fire in the garden
“I love traveling and have had the chance to travel to many countries in the world. My childhood was attached to food prepared by my mom, who’s an exceptional cook. She uses her own recipes, passed down from generation to generation in our family. Being a Traveling Spoon host actually drives me to explore more about traditional Vietnamese cuisines in a systematic way.”
Signature dish: cha ca Ha Noi — Hanoi-style grilled fish seasoned with dill, turmeric and galangal
“Growing up, I wasn’t aware of the type of Korean food that would be appealing to foreigners. It was only after I got a job and started traveling abroad that I realized Korean food is special — and a great part of Korean culture. One of the things I’ve learned along the way is that everyday food I thought would be too funky, like doenjangjjigae or soybean paste stew, is actually delicious to foreigners.”
Signature dish: kimchijeon (kimchi pancake)
“I love cooking and talking with people about our food and produce, our Australian way of life, our culture and our history. When talking with guests, especially those from India and other parts of Asia, I love hearing about their favorite dishes as I rarely cook their cuisines. I find that these discussions on cooking and food bring us so much closer to understanding the lives in other parts of the world.”
Signature dishes: ones that emphasize seasonal ingredients and other native food, like finger limes, warrigal greens and mountain pepper berries
“There is a ton of beautiful Japanese food out there, and yet only sushi, ramen and tempura are the food most people know. I want to introduce beautiful Japanese home food to people. What I serve and teach depends on the season — people have no idea how seasonal Japanese food is! I’ve met guests from 86 countries, and I always learn from them. They tell me about their food and sometimes they bring their local ingredients to my class!”
Signature dishes: seasonal Japanese food; soup using miso made by Satoru’s family