When we travel abroad, we look to have the most authentic experience possible. Sure, we’re going to see some touristy sites and eat at one or two over-hyped restaurants, but for the most part, we want to live like the locals do. If you put eating and drinking as high on your vacation pedestal as we do, then learning about the local cuisine is probably one of your main priorities when visiting a different country. You might even search for cooking classes to get a more hands-on experience. That’s where Traveling Spoon comes in.
When you book an experience with Traveling Spoon, it’s like having a friend’s mom cook for you in their home.
Founded by Aashi Vel and Steph Lawrence, two women who bonded in business school over their passion for good food, Traveling Spoon encourages adventurous palates to “travel off the eaten path” instead of visiting the same restaurants as everyone else. Whether you want to learn about traditional Japanese cooking in a historic Kyoto home or cook with a gastronomic historian in Mexico City, they offer local culinary experiences in more than 40 different locations around the world. Each host is personally vetted through a Traveling Spoon ambassador, so you know you’re getting the most authentic cooking experiences, exciting market visits, and seeing some of the most gorgeous homes across the globe. When you book an experience with Traveling Spoon, it’s like having a friend’s mom cook for you in their home — it’s a special experience that’s nearly impossible to find without the help of this extraordinary service.
To learn more about Traveling Spoon, we sat down with Vel and discussed how they came up with the idea, which experiences are their favorites, and what’s next for the travel company.
What made you want to start Traveling Spoon? Was there a specific personal experience that made you say, “This could be so much better if I had this type of situation available to me”?
In 2011, I traveled to Mexico to discover the local food and culture. I scoured review websites looking for the most authentic restaurants, but found myself in overcrowded tourist traps time and time again. On my way to yet another touristy dinner, I saw a local Mexican woman cooking dinner through her kitchen window. I thought to myself, “That’s where I want to be! I want to be inside her home sharing a homemade meal and hearing her stories.”
Similarly, my co-founder Steph Lawrence set out to China in 2009 with the intention of immersing herself in Chinese culture and specifically dreamed of learning to make dumplings from a Chinese grandmother. She found herself shuttled from one tour bus to another, surrounded by tourists, with little interaction with the local food and culture. So she decided to move there after her vacation in 2007 to learn the language and specifically connect with the culture through food.
Steph and I met in 2011 during our MBA program at UC Berkeley, and our idea was born fueled by what had been missing from our travels. It’s our mission to connect travelers to authentic culinary experiences to create more meaningful travel. We believe in the power of travel in making the world a smaller place.
You personally vet every host to ensure quality of experience. How has this process changed now that you’ve expanded to so many countries? Do you have teams on the ground in different locations?
Vel: Yes, every host goes through a three-step vetting process. First, hosts fill out an application online. Next, they have an online interview with a Traveling Spoon team member. And finally, they have an in-person trial experience in which a Traveling Spoon team member, or an ambassador meets with the potential host and goes through the entire experience, taking detailed notes of the host’s home environment, kitchen cleanliness, personality, etc. Since we have expanded to 40 countries, we have regional community leads in select locations to be our on-the-ground point person. Their responsibility also includes recruiting new potential hosts.
What are some of the cooking experiences people can expect to have when booking with Traveling Spoon? What are some of your favorite dishes you helped make and eat when visiting these hosts?
Vel: A couple personal favorite dishes and experiences jump to mind. I had the most incredible time meeting our host Dewa in Bali. He is such an incredible, thoughtful soul, and meeting him truly changed my outlook on life. In addition to him as a phenomenal person, the food is also so, so wonderful. My favorite of his dishes was the bregedel he prepared, which are corn fritters that carry some Dutch influence and marry the best of Balinese flavors. The corn is ground from scratch (which you can do, of course!) from their giant ulekan and cobek (Balinese mortar and pestle), which is the foundation of most Balinese dishes; you grind together fresh herbs and ingredients like turmeric and ginger to make these incredibly fresh spice paste mixtures which form the base of many dishes.
Hands down, one of the most delicious bites of food I have had on my travels.
Lawrence: One of my most memorable dishes was making laap pla duk outside Chiang Mai, Thailand with our host Nid. Nid takes you outside the tourist center of Chiang Mai to the village of Lamphun, where she grew up. Just getting to go outside Chiang Mai is almost reason enough for the experience — you get to see an entirely different side of northern Thailand, one without the tourist offices and swarms of travelers, where locals stand in line for buses and go about their daily lives. Nid takes you to the farm home where she grew up, and sitting on mats in their open-air kitchen, you make dishes I had never heard of or associated with Thai food before. Laap pla duk was my absolute favorite, a minced catfish salad. Nid and her mom taught me to take an entire catfish, fry it whole, and then mince it by hand with a machete (my arm was about numb by the end), mixing in lemongrass, galangal, and other fresh Thai herbs. The whole thing is then fried again in a pan, and it was, hands down, one of the most delicious bites of food I have had on my travels.
Can you think of an experience that really blew you away and changed the way you think about home cooking across the world?
Vel: Dewa, the host in Bali, particularly left an impact on me and changed my philosophy of food in a beautiful, transformative way. I spotted a ripe papaya on a tree as we were collecting food from his garden for our experience and asked, “Why aren’t we eating that?” It seemed like the perfect fruit. He responded, “In Bali, we don’t take more than we need.” We had taken one papaya, and we left the rest for the monkeys to eat and spread the seeds.
We handpicked Balinese herbs near Dewa’s home then joined his family for a communal cooking experience, complete with grinding spices on a large stone grinder, chopping ingredients, and wrapping fish in banana leaves.
What’s next for Traveling Spoon? Are there specific places and cooking experiences that aren’t yet on the roster that you’d like to add?
Vel: We’re continuing our expansion geographically, specifically in Europe as well as Central and South America. In addition, we are actively expanding the types of experiences that we offer. While we started with meals, cooking lessons, and market tours, we are now expanding to add farm tours, producer tours, and street food tours. As an example, one of our newest experiences is with a third-generation, family-run balsamic vinegar producer in Italy; we also have a family-owned smokehouse in Ireland.