Real Home-Cooked Meals for Roaming Foodies
November 28, 2013
In the second part of this new series by Jim Algie on the “Sharing Economy” as it pertains to travel, we look at a new website that connects real cooks with travelers for authentic eating experiences in their dining rooms.
Published on Nov 28, 2013
The dinner table is one of those sacred spaces reserved for family and the closest friends. In a way it’s as exclusive as the fanciest restaurant. But the main difference is not a question of money so much as a sense of community.
To bridge that gap between the professional and the personal comes Plate Culture. Started in June 2013 by a couple of Lithuanian ladies living in Malaysia, the website is already simmering with hosts in their adopted country, Singapore, Thailand, and a sprinkling in Vietnam.
How it works is like a foodie’s version of Airbnb, the service for non-standard accommodations. Hosts sign up online. Then they have to organize a dinner so Plate Culture’s representative can give their meals a taste test.
Speaking over the phone, co-founder Audra Pakalnyte says, “Our community is built on trust. What we do is vouch for them and verify. We check the quality of the food, the ability to communicate in English and cleanliness.”
Have there been any complaints?
“So far all feedback and reviews has been very positive. The only complaints are from hosts who say that sometimes the guests come late and the food gets cold,” she laughs.
SPICES OF LIFE
If variety is the spice of life, then Plate Culture offers a veritable spice box of exotic and ethnic seasonings. Looking at a recent date of different hosts in Malaysia offering their wares, would-be diners could choose from such home-cooked meals as “Healthy Chinese Food with Herbs” to “Grandma’s Recipes with a Modern Touch” to “Malaysian Fusion” and “Incredible Indian Cuisine”. The prices range from US$9 to US$38 dollars per stomach.
In Thailand, you can vote with your taste buds for local fare, Mexican, Lithuanian, Indian, or even more exotic specialties from Ghana.
The website allows hosts to explain a little about themselves and their cooking styles so guests can twin their tastes. For instance, the chef serving up “Grandma’s Recipes with a Modern Touch” is Stefan D. Under “My Kitchen” he lists Southern Indian, Thai, Hokkien, Penang Eurasian and Hungarian dishes as his staples. Under “About me” he writes, “I love classical music. I like to think I'm a witty host who can set you at ease and I am very "cincai" like a typical Penangite.” Each host must list their available nights, mealtimes, and other house rules like whether you can smoke or bring your own drinks. Google maps serve as pathfinders and photos complete the picture.
CURIOSITY & ADVENTURE
Talking about the website’s users, Audra says, “We have two sides of users, people who are cooking, they are foodies, and the hungry ones, the guests. I’d say there’s a good mix of them. They’re not just going for the food experience. Because you’re going to some place you don’t know, where you don’t know who the hosts are, so there’s curiosity and adventure.”
Adventure and curiosity are two qualities in short shrift as GPS systems map the world, tourism packages it and countries reap the spoils.
While hosts specify the type of cuisine and ask for dietary requirements and preferences, the guest does not know exactly what dishes will be prepared. This is not your generic restaurant experience. So your palate is in for a trip “off the eaten track” as Plate Culture’s slogan goes.
KITCHENS OF CULTURE
Perhaps no place is as reflective of a particular culture as the kitchen and dining area. It’s not only the etiquette and cultural peculiarities, such as the dishes shared while sitting cross-legged on the living room floor in Thailand, or the communal bowl of couscous passed around in Morocco, but an entire way of life, of familial relations, of spiritual values, are also revealed.
Over the course of a three-hour dinner guests and hosts get a chance to share much more than sustenance. It’s a learning experience on both sides of the table, because there is no better bonding agent than food and drink. When served in the privacy of one’s home it makes for a greater sense of intimacy and a sounding board for conversations than in public places.
As a side dish, guests can also enjoy first-hand travel tips as they home in on a new destination from the inside out.
For die-hard foodies, sharing recipes is another vital ingredient in this surefire formula.
In countries like China, where the language barrier looms as high as the Great Wall, visitors are doomed to eat at fast-food franchises or expensive hotels or join the herd at overpriced tourist-trap buffets with lukewarm dishes and tepid shows. Having hosts with skills in different languages is the only way to hurdles those barriers.
THE ORIGINAL INGREDIENTS
Combining great food with good conversation while traversing foreign lands and making new friends was the original inspiration for Audra, and the other co-founder, Redra Stare, to start cooking up Plate Culture.
“The most memorable moments in travel are meeting local people and if you’re lucky you get invited for a meal. That’s when you learn the most about a culture, not from the reggae bars where travellers go. So we wanted to start a platform to let people do that,” says Audra.
Judging by a sampling of enthusiastic comments from guests, Plate Çulture is fulfilling that mission. Shashank 5 writes of Stefan D and his home cooking based on his grandmother’s recipes, “Stefan is an excellent cook and a very gracious host. He also livened up the evening by sharing some insightful details about the history of Malaysia, one of his many interests.”
That guest also brought up the biggest difference between food made at a restaurant and in a home. “Stefan had prepared a delicious fish curry, the recipe for which was passed down to him from his grandmother who was also present at the occasion. The amount of effort and love invested into making the dish was evident from the first bite.”
It’s one of those folksy beliefs, passed down through the generations like a cherished recipe, that home cooking, prepared with love and gusto, really does taste better. Is there any scientific proof to back up that claim? A blogger on Plateculture.com notes: “Japanese scientist Maseru Emoto showed the healing power of love on food and water. Exposure to the thought and feeling of love changes the molecular structure of food and water.”
FEAST OF OPPORTUNITIES
In this potentially immense sector of the “sharing economy” competition will brew and it could turn into a free for all. But Plate Culture’s advantage, Audra points out, is being based in Asia.
The other major player is Cookening, a French service started in 2012 after one of the co-founders, Cedric, booked a room through Airbnb in California. His imagination was fired when he noted the similarities between them and the French equivalent of the bed and breakfast.
To date, Cookening remains largely Eurocentric, however, dominated by eating experiences in France and Italy.
For the foreseeable future, Plate Culture’s founders are intent on finding new hosts and ambassadors all across Asia. Preparations are also in the works to launch programs to “contribute back to the society, for foodies and travellers looking for unique experiences to help underprivileged communities,” says Audra.
What motivates her and Reda is a different set of values, which could apply to much of the “sharing economy” – it’s a backlash against soulless, money-hungry corporations and a celebration of humanity’s buffet in all its cultural and culinary diversity. As she explains, “We’re building a community with a sense of belonging and contributing. We don’t run a business. We run a community.”
Check plateculture.com and cookening.com to find out how to become a host or guest.