By Carol Antman for The Island Connection
My best travel memories are the times I’ve connected with locals: tea at an Arab home in Jerusalem, being a houseguest in Peru, joining a camping group in France. Making friends, not just photographs. The burgeoning sharing economy has made these sorts of opportunities as easy as a mouse click.
Launched in 2012, EatWith is now the largest global marketplace of communal dining. In just five years, over 80,000 travelers have dined at over 11,000 homes all over the world. Their colorful website profiles over five hundred home chefs in 150 cities eager to share a seat at their kitchen table. Susan Kim, EatWith’s CEO, describes, “Through communal dining, we’re facilitating meaningful human connections for locals and travelers, while creating economic impact on the lives of the chefs…” I’ve made the website part of my travel planning whenever I’m going to a big city.
Even arm-chair travelling their menus is fun: how about an Argentine BBQ with Malbec in Buenos Aires, an 8-course “Drunken Vegan Feast” in Montreal, homemade bacon and prosciutto in Croatia, a traditional Sabbath dinner in Jerusalem or a seven-course Cambodian feast in Hong Kong starring banana blossom salad?
I’m eager to try them all after the impressive dinner that my mom, sisters and I had in Washington, D.C. at the home of Catherine Nissen. She describes her life as “socializing around food” gained from her cosmopolitan travels and living in Laos where her family owns a farm.
“When I cook, I strive to fuse the original four culinary pillars (Chinese, Indian, Ottoman and Italian) into an alluring, delightful meal.”
The menu we booked, Summer on the Silk Road, is her most popular although she happily made a few adjustments to accommodate my sister’s gluten-free diet.
We were immediately entranced by her light filled, artistic apartment where she also creates commissioned portraits. A nearly finished one rested on an easel. An array of dignitary-filled travel photos filled a wall. “My philosophy when it comes to food is the fewer ingredients the better,” she explained as she began the four courses and poured us each wine. We perched on stools to watch her confidently cook.
All the EatWith hosts have to adhere to safety and cleanliness standards and pass a review process and demonstration before they’re accepted. We began with what she calls a Faux Caesar Salad anointed with her “Elixir of Life” special olive oil. As we munched and chatted, she expertly molded lentil and feta cheese topped with shitake mushrooms, pomegranate vinegar and walnut oil inside round metal rings. A beautiful presentation resulted when she deftly lifted off the rings to reveal colorful round layers of complex tastes and textures. As she seared the fresh salmon, we noticed that she oiled the fish, not the pan and added the glazed sauce after the fish was cooked. “We’re all good cooks but we all learned something,” my mom later commented. After an almond cake dessert, amuse-bouche candies and plenty more wine, we were satiated. We all agreed it was a fun way to spend the evening, so much better than a restaurant.
Another meal sharing website, Traveling Spoon, provided Jeff, Meryl and their children with a travel highlight in Bali. The patriarch of their host family is a master gardener and began their day by pointing out the provenance of the ingredients as he drove them to his family’s compound.
They spent hours around an open fire with generations of family members who live there together. As logs were fed into the flames, they ground, chopped and grated to create an expansive meal. All the while, they chatted with their hosts and learned about their daily lives. Family members don’t typically eat together in the evening, they were told. When they get home from work, they’re too stressed so they eat whenever they’d like and then join together as a family later in the evening. It was a lot of enjoyable work, Meryl said, particularly since one of the family members who was expected to help was away at a “tooth pulling ceremony”. These authentic experiences are the hidden gems of traveling.
Most EatWith meals are communal and available on advertised dates but you can also request a date to suit your schedule, as we did. The menus are the allure but the experiences transcend the food. Travelers get an inside glimpse into the hosts’ lives, meet interesting people, share stories and learn foodie wisdom. José, a chef in Mexico, describes the encounters beautifully: “Every time we have an EatWith dinner, our table turns into that very special place in the world where strangers become friends — distances between cultures and countries get reduced across a 28-inch table.”
Roadtrips Charleston highlights interesting destinations within a few hours drive of Charleston as well as more far flung locales. Carol Antman’s wanderlust is driven by a passion for outdoor adventure, artistic experiences, cultural insights and challenging travel. For hot links, photographs and previous columns or to make comments please see peaksandpotholes.blogspot.com