Visiting a foreign country can seem overwhelming – so much to do, so little time! But it can also feel a little cookie-cutter, particularly if you’re part of a big tour dedicated to simply hitting the major landmarks and tourist spots.
Yet for those who want more than a picture of a museum or landscape to take home, there’s no better way than to sign up for an in-home food experience. As someone who has now participated in multiple stay-overs and dinners in locations as diverse as New Zealand and Italy, I have to say that this is how a visitor can really get to know the country – by hanging out with the locals who live in it every day.
Stephanie Lawrence, co-founder (with Aashi Vel) of Traveling Spoon, understands this concept intimately. “After a vacation to China, I loved what I saw but after two-and-a-half weeks in the country I felt I hadn’t connected with real people,” she says. Instead, Lawrence recalls her tour group eating in large banquet halls in hotels – and only with fellow Western tourists.
“I wanted to meet a Chinese grandmother and have her teach me how to make dumplings,” she says. “That was the first lightbulb for me: Why is it so hard for travelers to connect with local food experiences?”
Traveling Spoon emerged out of that desire, and now provides in-home meals, cooking experiences and market visits to travelers in 18 countries, largely in Asia – though they’ve recently expanded to Mexico and Turkey. Visitors can search through all the vetted hosts on the company’s website and decide what sort of experience works best for them.
“For me, it was such a clear win to meet a local person in their home,” she says. “It’s such a unique way to experience a new culture. So often if you ask someone, ‘Oh, where can I find the best chicken biryani when I go to India,’ they’ll say, ‘my mother’s recipe.’ So these are traditions you can’t find in restaurants.”
All of Traveling Spoon’s hosts speak some level of English, so language is not a barrier; often, notes Lawrence, the hosting is done by a younger member of the family who is internet- and language-savvy and an older member who has the food know-how. Costs of the experience ranges from $18 to $250, depending on what kind of experience a visitor chooses.
“Not only is it a cultural experience for our travelers, it is for our hosts, as well,” she says. “They want to share their culinary traditions with foreigners and want to have their kids exposed to other cultures around the world.”
Meanwhile, the in-home food experience I had in Italy was only one part of a magical evening. Jack Benson, who guided us through our visit, is a transplanted New Zealander who coordinates meals via his Dinner with a Family in Chianti website; he has three families he calls upon to provide Tuscan meals in Chianti Classico style.
“[Those families] helped me a lot without thought of reward when my family first came here 30 years ago, and during the recent hard times I was happy to do something for them in return,” he said via email.
When my husband and I met Benson in Montefioralle, he gave us a walking tour of the town as the sun began to set, and then we visited an older couple in their rustic home right in the middle of town. Much of the food was prepared with food raised in or around the home itself (green figs came directly from a tree in the owner’s yard) and the selection of dishes nearly reached the double-digit mark.
“Its more of a tasting meal that covers many dishes rather than the standard quite frugal meal eaten every night here,” he explains. “Visitors interested in Tuscan native cuisine are able to get beyond the standard dishes offered in almost every Tuscan restaurant, to the dishes that have been the staples of the Tuscan country folk for centuries.”
Benson translates for guests and also gets a meal out of the bargain; he gives 100 percent of the cost (around $50 per person) to the hosts.
“It’s such an eye-opening way to connect with the culture that you can’t do when visiting a museum,” says Lawrence. “Once you enter someone’s home and sit down with them and share their meal, it can make the world a smaller place by breaking down cultural barriers.”
Photos from Traveling Spoon