Eating with Strangers

Posted on January 21, 2014


Through Internet start-up Plate Culture, REENA KARIM has ghar ka khana at the home of a woman she’s never met before.

I wasn’t sure what to expect as I waited at the door of an apartment on Sukhumvit Soi 20, but I knew I was excited. Sunil opened the door and let me in. I met his charming young daughter, who said, “I’ve always enjoyed Masala.” And right away things got comfortable. Soon after, we were joined by a Polish English teacher, Ania, and Susan, a writer at a Chinese-language publication in Bangkok. We got settled into the plush couch in the living room, while Sunil poured us glasses of red wine. None of us had ever met before.

Then emerged Sunil’s wife, Aanchal Dembla, our hostess for the evening. She was the picture of perfect Indian hospitality, setting down a platter of dried fruits and kachoris even before we could formally introduce ourselves. So began Aanchal’s scrumptious home cooked meal and an evening with total strangers.

If you think your family home is the only place to find ghar ka khana, you’ve been living under a rock. Internet based start-up companies like Plate Culture are creating new dining experiences that appease your heart quite literally through your stomach. The service connects home cooks with diners who are looking for a unique gastronomic experience—like the website Airbnb, but for food.

Plate Culture’s Lithuanian co-founder Reda Štare, who is currently based between Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur, says the idea came about when she was on a  holiday in Kerala and went to a private home to have what she called “the greatest Indian food ever”. “She was serving the food in her yard and charging for it,” Reda told me over email. “I thought it was a great idea, and more people should do that.” Reda collaborated with fellow Lithuanian Audra Pakalnyte to start the website in Malaysia. Users can search for hosts by city and by date, browse host profiles and menus, and make a reservation. After making a payment through Paypal, users receive a confirmation and the host’s contact information. “It was supposed to be only for tourists, but then we saw local people joining.”

Aanchal first heard about Plate Culture from her daughter’s teacher. The Mumbai native moved to Thailand 20 years ago and has since been honing her repertoire of recipes handed down to her by her mother and grandmother. The ability to share her love of cooking is what got Aanchal interested in becoming a Plate Culture host. “Having skills is not enough,” she explained. “I wanted to put these to use and be proactive.” With encouragement from her family, she decided to list her kitchen online.

Having strangers over is, of course, not everyone’s cup of tea, but Aanchal was not daunted. “Everyone is a stranger until you get to know them. I do not see hosting dinners and calling people over as opening up my home to strangers but rather as an opportunity to meet new people and make new friends. From [my] experiences, people who enjoy eating and exploring different cultural cuisines are very jolly and friendly people.” Besides, it’s not a total surprise who is coming to dinner. When I first registered on Plate Culture, I had to provide a short self-introduction and food preferences. This information was shared with Aanchal when I signed up for her dinner. “I get [to see] the profile of the guests before I accept their booking,” she said.

Even the hosts are screened to some extent. When a host registers their home and lists what they would like to cook and at what price, Place Culture pays them a visit. The menu is taste-tested and then endorsed on the website.

Still, for many people, a Plate Culture event is a step out of their comfort zones. Fellow diner Ania, who was at her first Plate Culture dinner with us, shared her thoughts. “After booking, I was a bit concerned. I didn’t want to find myself in a room full of men. So I called Aanchal and asked. I also left details of Aanchal’s house with my friend and asked her to call me during dinner. However, as soon as I crossed the threshold of the house, I knew I was safe.”

What eventually puts all doubts to rest is, of course, the food. Aanchal and Sunil led us to the dining room. For a home-cooked meal, the place settings were surprisingly professional—white porcelain salad dish over a service plate, bread plate, a water glass, and a red wine glass beside it. As we sat down, Aanchal smoothed down the creases of the sequined table runner and adjusted the order of the plus-sized glass candle jars. I sat across from Ania, who sat next to Susan, our enthusiastic shutterbug for the evening. We were also joined by Sunil, Aanchal, who would often excuse herself to oversee the food in the kitchen, their daughter Neha, and family friend Seema. The menu was
one common in every Indian home. “I decide the menu based on the seasons and use produce available in the fresh markets,” Aanchal said. She also accepts special requests from guests for regional Indian cuisine other than
what is offered on the menu.

We started with a round of flavourful chicken kebabs and samosas served with mint chutney. Aanchal’s eye for presentation was evident in her use of raw onions for garnish and the perfect circle of chutney next to each crunchy samosa. She got creative with our third appetiser, using lemongrass stems to hold up cylindrical croquettes of aloo tikki. For the mains, Aanchal served bowls of paneer butter masala and dal makhni. I squealed in delight when I saw an even bigger bowl of chicken biryani. Having had proper Muslim biryani all my life, I know instantly how to spot the difference between the real deal and watered-down versions. Aanchal nailed hers—long grains of basmati rice in saffron hues tossed with pre-cooked chicken coated with masala and cooked together in dum.

The biryani was a mouthful of aromatic flavours that reminded me of my mother’s cooking. When I said this to Aanchal, the corners of her mouth curved up into a satisfied smile. We ended the meal with homemade dried fruit kulfi, which arrived on a plate decorated with rose petals and dry ice.

My fellow diners couldn’t stop gushing about the food. Ania, a big fan of Indian food even knew the names of the mains. “I didn’t have any expectations really. I wanted to get authentic Indian food and what Aanchal wrote on the website promised that I would get that. In fact, I was given much more. It was food to die for!”

Aanchal also hosts a vegetarian thali dinner on Mondays, to which she graciously invited me the following week. She started with an assortment of Mumbai street food such as pav bhaji, pani puri, stuffed chilli peppers, and papri chaat. The thali consisted of bowls of mixed vegetables, chhole, palak paneer, peeli dal, boondi raita, and gajar ka halwa alongside basmati rice and light and fluffy pooris and homemade mixed pickle sent by Aanchal’s mother from India. Her Argentinian guests and I also enjoyed a chilled falooda drink, made with rose-flavoured milk and crushed nuts.

Plate Culture is still in its early stages, operating in Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, and Vietnam. As of press time, there are only about six hosts (from Mexico, Ghana, and Lithuania, among others). But the response has been extremely positive and many people, Reda reports, come back for a second dinner with Plate Culture. In the future, Bangkokians can expect Korean food and English afternoon tea with cupcakes.

PDF Eating With Strangers

Published in Masala December 2013, VOL 5 Issue 3

Posted in: People