A Partner Post by PerpetualExplorer.com contributor, Emma Corcoran.
Two or three times a week, Jay Savsani hosts a meal on the rooftop of his Chicago apartment complex. Last week his dinner guests were two Swiss tourists, and this week he’ll be hosting some fellow Chicagoans. Jay and his fellow diners are strangers but have connected through MealSharing.com, the food-centered social networking site Jay founded last year.
MealSharing allows diners and hosts from around the world to meet and share a home-cooked meal. Hosts put a profile on the site, which lists the types of food they usually cook and displays photos of their past culinary creations. Guests can then make contact and request a meal. MealSharing is a free platform; it costs nothing to participate as a guest or a host in this “couchsurfing for foodies” social movement.
“We come from a mission where we care about bringing communities together; be it from an international standpoint or within the local area,” says Jay, who says that “MealSharing is platform that connects travelers; however people also use it as a way to eat with other meal-sharers in their hometown.”
Jay calls on his Indian heritage when catering for guests, cooking “watered-down” versions of his mom’s and grandmother’s meals. Spend an evening as a guest on Jay’s balcony and you’ll not only enjoy views over inner-city Chicago but could also sample dishes ranging from potato saag to his Asia-meet-Mexico treat: salmon sori tacos. “Last week I made a peach-curry soup, which ended up being a smash hit,” he says.
MealSharing was founded after Jay traveled to Cambodia in 2012 with a cousin and a friend. “We were in Siem Reap and were really excited to meet locals and learn about the culture, but we found ourselves eating at overpriced ´authentic´ restaurants and not meeting anyone,” he says. Feeling frustrated at the difficulties he was facing in connecting with the local culture, Jay asked the front-desk manager of his hotel whether any staff members could offer him a home-cooked meal.
“The instant I asked, he lit up and brought 15 to 20 people from the hotel and asked ‘who can have this guy over for a meal?’.” At a certain point it was like people were almost fighting over who could take me home. It dawned on me that there was a reciprocated curiosity from both sides; they wanted to meet us, and we wanted to meet them.”
The evening that followed was the highlight of Jay’s time in Cambodia. “We took a rickshaw out into the countryside and had a meal with a gentleman named Mr Pon and his family. It was awesome,” he says. “It was everything you could want from a traveling experience. We met his family and ate authentic, real Cambodian food. We ate on the floor and talked about everything from Pop Pot to Michael Jackson. One of the highlights was when Mr Pon busted out his keyboard and started playing these beautiful Cambodian classical songs.”
Jay came home to Chicago and started mapping out the platform for MealSharing, “so that no-one has to awkwardly go to the front desk of a hotel again to ask for a home-cooked meal!” Earlier this year, the fledgling company received funding from Open Table foundation, and Jay was able to quit his job developing start-ups for other entrepreuners to devote himself to building his own company.
Halfway across the world, on the outskirts of Barcelona, lives Monica McCoy, an amateur cook who lives by the quote: “Cooking is like love. It should be entered into with abandon or not at all.” A new convert to EatWith.com, another food-sharing website, Monica will soon begin studies at the prestigious Hofmann culinary school. EatWith works on a similar model to MealSharing – hosts upload photos and describe the meals they offer, then connect with guests – but it offers more gourmet-style meals, which come with a price-tag.
Monica, who often cooks Middle Eastern cuisine and says, “I really love a squeeze of lemon juice and fresh chilies to bring a dish alive,” offers pasta-making classes for $62 a session, and an evening of tapas for $38. In keeping with the style of other beautifully photographed EatWith listings, Monica’s images of her home-cooked meals look as though they may have been lifted from a Martha Stewart magazine.
Monica says that she finds EatWith easy to use and “if you have great photos and a good headline you’ll attract lots of new clients. The fact the guests can recommend you also helps give potential guests a peace of mind to book.”
Many of EatWith’s hosts are chefs who offer relaxed dining in their homes. Guests can choose between such tantalizing gastronomic offerings as a “Royal Brunch Buffet” in Jerusalem or a “Six Course Meal with Amuse Bouche and Cheese” cooked by a professional chef in the UK.
Like Jay, Monica says that the moments she enjoys most about participating in a meal-sharing site are the cross-cultural connections she makes with diners. “There have been so many great moments,” she says. “The best moments are when I meet a person who shares the same passion for food, and we can both learn new things about food around the world. I’ve had guests from seven countries and have learned so much from them.”
If you’ve ever traveled overseas and found it difficult to connect with locals, participating in a meal-sharing adventure may allow you to break through that confining ¨tourist bubble.¨ Stepping into the kitchen of an ordinary Berliner or Chicagoan — whether it’s to enjoy a six course meal or a bowl of soup — can provide an insight into another culture that can rarely be gained through participating in conventional tourist activites.
This partner post originally appeared on PerpetualExplorer.com.
About Perpetual Explorer
Taking an inquisitive approach to accessing cultural news, resources, and information,PerpetualExplorer.com challenges readers in their understanding of people and places, creating a global community of participation, interaction, engagement, and dialogue.