Spotlight: Home is where the feast is

Thanks to their mutual love for fish, Karl Marx and good cinema, a Bengali and a Malayali will never run out of things to talk about. I realised this when I met Ananya Banerjee, an artist and cookbook writer, at her home in south Mumbai’s Sewri. From the type of fish used in a traditional Bengali macher chop (fish cutlet) to the shutdown of bars in Kerala, the conversation lasted for close to three hours. I also had my maiden taste of traditional Bengali food. The platter was splendid, with the Bengali version of puris made in maida-luchis, kosha mangsho (spicy mutton curry), kosha murgi (chicken curry), shorshe maach (fish curry in mustard sauce), jhaal maach (spicy fish curry), cholar dal, aloo poshto (potatoes in khus khus base) and the signature baingan bhaaja.

Although we were complete strangers, we spent an evening bonding over food. What brought us together was a startup called Meal Tango, the brainchild of Pune-based couple Saket Khanna and Neeta Valecha. The concept is simple: help people connect and become friends over a home-cooked meal. Having lived abroad for a couple of years, Khanna, an entrepreneurship graduate from Oxford University, and Valecha, a design thinking graduate from Stanford, loved inviting friends over for home-cooked Sindhi meals. They also used sites like CouchSurfing, AirBNB and 9Flats to meet new people. “Neeta was the one who came up with the idea of bridging the gap between home chefs and foodies,” says Khanna. “Everybody loves home-cooked food. So Meal Tango helps amateur home chefsshowcase their cooking skills to food lovers. In this process, friendships are forged and stories are exchanged.” Founded in 2013, Meal Tango now has more than 100 hosts who have served more than 400 meals to guests living in 33 cities in 13 countries.

After a happy Parsi meal!
After a happy Parsi meal!

It is a win-win situation for all; be it a person who is new to a city and wants to make friends, someone who wants an authentic taste of a traditional cuisine or ahome chef passionate about cooking. All over the country, many like Banerjee are opening their homes and kitchens to strangers and serving them food. They resort to platforms like Meal Tango, Once Upon My Kitchen, CouchSurfing or just the same old Facebook to help connect with potential guests.

At a time when there are so many restaurants out there serving all kinds of fare, why would you want to dine at a stranger’s house? “All of us take pride in the food cooked in our homes,” says Sheetal Bose Rajashekaran of OUMK. “We always talk about the biryani our mom cooks or a cake that no one except our aunt can bake. So OUMK is a venture to share such stories and bond over them.” In just four and a half months, OUMK has about 40 active hosts in Mumbai and Delhi.

Subhashini Chalam of Bengaluru also feels that some meals are best enjoyed athome. A former communications consultant, Chalam has hosted foreigners and exchange students at her home and served them Chettinad meals. “For them, it is a completely new experience, to sit on the floor and eat from a banana leaf,” she says. “A restaurant can only serve you food. At homes, the same routine transforms into a different kind of cultural experience.” Rajashekaran, who spent some time on the Cayman Islands, recalls how she always met a new friend over informal meals. “It was a small place and everybody would get invited to homes through friends and friends of friends,” she says. “It was a great way to absorb many new cultures and try out different cuisines.”

Meal Tango founders Saket Khanna and Neeta Valecha (extreme right) with a host.
Meal Tango founders Saket Khanna and Neeta Valecha (extreme right) with a host.

It is not just foreigners, even Indians know little about how their Tamilian neighbour cooks his dal or what the main ingredient in a sorpotel or a Sindhi kadi is. Liz Pothan, who works with DHL in Chennai and is an avid couch surfer who regularly hosts people at her home, says that food is reflective of the culture of a place. “Right from the ingredients to the technique of cooking and the vessels used, every household has a different way of cooking the same dish,” she says. “So there is a story behind every morsel you put in your mouth which is why having a conversation over food is the easiest ice breaker.” Chalam, an Andhraite raised in Bengaluru, too, was in for a surprise when she visited a Marwari homeand a Hyderabadi home in Bengaluru. “The cuisine tastes completely different when made at homes, thanks to freshly ground masalas and those secret ingredients that are passed down from generation to generation.” These meetings have not just introduced her to regional cuisine but also helped her form longstanding friendships.

There are also those who offer meals which cannot be found in restaurants anywhere. For instance, Soumitra Velkar, of Mumbai, serves special delicacies of the Pathare Prabhu clan, one of the oldest Hindu

communities of the city. With a marked British influence, the cuisine largely consists of seafood and meat-based dishes and even has a variation of the English shepherd’s pie called the kolambicha (prawn) pie. Velkar explains the history behind each dish and even shows his guests a 100-year-old recipe book he inherited. Similarly, there are the purely vegan and organic meals offered by retired advertising professional Narayana Moorthy at his home in Gurgaon. “In which restaurant will you find a murukku cooked without oil?” asks Moorthy, who serves food based on his own recipes and cooked by his “MasterChef” man Friday. “All the ingredients I use are completely organic and anyone who wants a healthy meal is welcome to dine with me.”

The Iranian platter!
The Iranian platter!

In today’s times, however, trust is a huge factor. How can you make sure that the stranger who comes to your house can be trusted? Valecha says that Meal Tango has thorough checks in place to verify both guests and hosts. “We have food critics in every city who dine with the hosts before we approve them,” she says. “The critics then fill out a form ranking them on various parameters ranging from cleanliness to the warmth of the host.” Every guest on the site has to register with an email id or a Facebook account and has to share his phone number for booking a meal. Meal Tango has tied up with service providers around the world to verify phone numbers.

Rajashekaran has a more personal way of making sure that you want to dine with the person who has booked a meal at your home. Apart from the basic phone number and email verification, there is an added “friendliness quotient” on the OUMK site. “Members have to answer a whole lot of quirky questions ranging from a person’s favourite colour to his political views, his favourite football team, the filmmaker he adores or the music band he follows,” she says. “It is like a compatibility test because sometimes a person could be a safe and decent guy, but still not someone whom you would hang out with. So the FQ tells you little details that might be significant when you meet the guest or host.”

At the end of the day it is a lot about conviction and your gut feeling, says Pothan. “There is always the option of saying no to a request,” she says. “With some experience surfing these sites, it becomes easy to spot the ones who are problematic.” Marina Charles of Bengaluru, who has just hosted an Onam feast at her residence through Meal Tango, says she likes to host couples or groups rather than single men or women. “I believe there is always some safety in numbers,” she says. “As you are meeting people through through social media, which is an impersonal medium, you do not feel bad or guilty in saying no to meal requests.” Charles also conducts baking classes in Bangalore, Hyderabad and Thiruvananthapuram through her blog and her Facebook page.

The time is ripe as people are increasingly getting tired of the restaurant routine, says Khanna. “They are willing to shell out money for a different dining experience now,” he says. “And thanks to shows like MasterChef, many of them are taking tohome cooking in a big way.”

After a Maharashtrian feast of modaks and karanji, the Khannas are getting ready to tie a mundu and sari and head to a host’s house for an Onam feast. There is happiness and excitement in the air. Now I see what Rajashekaran meant by the “joy of bringing people together over food”.

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