This story was originally published by VICE.
The search begins as soon as I arrive in Kuala Lumpur. It’s the same routine I undertake in any new city I visit—a search for the finest Persian food available.
I’ve been told the Malaysian capital is a world-renowned foodie destination and a city brimming with immigrants, so I have high hopes for what Iranian expats might have in store for my palate. I post online, ask around, and consult with local friends. Everyone I speak to tells me there’s only one place to go for KL’s best Persian cuisine—and as you’d expect with a reputation like that, I’m told that I’ll need to book ahead.
The following Saturday, I find myself at a simple, plainly-decorated apartment, a place otherwise known as the “home restaurant” of Iranian expat Ainaz Reihani.
Reihani is a PhD student and part-time chef for the PlateCulture platform, an Asian startup that’s essentially the Airbnb of food. Local hosts create listings on the site and guests book to have lunch or dinner at their house. It would take weeks to try out all of Malaysia’s home restaurants, not to mention learn the intricacies of Vietnamese, Indian, and Malay cuisine through PlateCulture’s fast-growing array of cooking classes.
In typical Iranian style, Reihani’s first question as I step over the threshold is whether my last name means I’m Iranian too. We spend a little time comparing our heritage and our families, as you do in a situation like this, before a more serious discussion takes place—how to make proper Persian dishes if you’re in a country that doesn’t stock the appropriate rice grain. No conclusions are drawn but we’ve definitely established that we have plenty to talk about over lunch.
Reihani prepared a cold starter of salad olivieh—the Persian equivalent of Russian salad, made with potatoes, eggs, and veg—before I arrived, so now she sets to work on our main course of fesenjan (a rich chicken stew) and zereshk polow (a mountain of fluffy rice topped with barberries.)
“I learned to cook from my dad. I was always very interested in watching him and learning when I was a child,” she says. “Of course, I was never allowed to touch the stove! But then he started to teach me and my sister. I think I cooked rice for the first time when I was 12 or 13.”
As Reihani serves up hearty plates of Persian stew at her dining table, I ask her how it’s been going with PlateCulture and whether she’s enjoying being a host.
“For the first year, I hosted about once a month—maybe a couple or a small group. But since January, I have had bookings every weekend,” she says. “I like it a lot, it’s very exciting to meet so many people and have them spread the word about liking your food.”
And through word of mouth, word has definitely spread. Reihani’s guests have been proactive in talking about her cooking on blogs and social media, contributing to a growing consensus that her home restaurant is better than any other Persian eatery in Kuala Lumpur.
“It’s very kind of people to say that,” she laughs. “I have had a very good response here in the city.”
In light of the bad rap her country tends to get in mainstream media, Reihani believes that food holds a special place in educating people about Iran and Iranian culture, and that technology can be used to have even more of an impact.
“It’s nice that whenever I talk about my culture and my country people [I meet] are open-minded. The media and this kind of thing mean that most people don’t have a good vision of Iran,” she tells me. “They’re not aware of the food; they’re not aware of our great culture. So it’s nice when I talk to them and explain about the food and they ask me to join to see how I prepare it. Persian culture is all about the food and it’s exciting to use websites to raise awareness of our traditions.”
I wonder if this open and adventurous approach to food in Kuala Lumpur is a result of the city’s global reputation for all things culinary. Reihani agrees that this has an impact.
“Yeah, it’s true. Malaysians are real food lovers,” she says. “And all of the other nationalities that live here in Kuala Lumpur, and tourists who visit too, they love to try different kinds of foods, especially the diverse range that comes from being in this part of Asia.”
One of the biggest practical challenges for young sharing economy chefs like Reihani is running a home restaurant in a shared apartment. As I’m spooning barberry-infused rice into my mouth, a guy wearing nothing but a towel passes through the living room. Reihani smiles and shrugs. I guess these kind of quirks are what makes a home dining experience all the more unique.
Our gorging session continues, and next up is sholeh zard, a gloopy, saffron-soaked Persian rice pudding, complete with a smiley-face sugar topping.
The whole PlateCulture concept seems like a natural fit for Iranians, given that our culture is known for its sometimes completely over the top hospitality. I know from my own family that the need to feed anyone from friends to strangers permeates all aspects of life-planning and meal preparation. A website that facilitates such acts is bound to stir Iranians abroad into getting involved.
Other home dining platforms like Cookening and BonAppetour are simmering away in the background across the globe, but PlateCulture leads the way in key Asian cities like Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Bangkok.
“Our platform is all about celebrating the diversity of food cultures and promoting authentic cuisines,” Reda Stare, PlateCulture’s co-founder, tells me via email. “We aim to bring people together to share their love of food, and we have formed a very strong community who share our values and are helping us grow. This is what sets us apart.”
This community aspect is perhaps helped by PlateCulture’s personalised vetting process: the company arranges for a representative to visit every chef who signs up. While Reihani and I are digging into the fesenjan, accompanied by lavash (a traditional variety of Persian bread), she tells me about the site’s application process.
“I made a profile on the site with my name and [information] about my cooking. It was pretty easy,” she explains. “The next day, somebody from the team contacted me to say they would arrange to visit for dinner at my place. I invited some friends too and a photographer came to take some shots of the food. We talked a lot about why I wanted to be part of their community. They liked the food and a week later I had my first guests.”
I’m curious whether the company’s values and approach have been reflected in Reihani’s experience and how much she engages with the platform beyond taking bookings and getting paid.
“Cooking for people in my home is a big cultural exchange and means feeling like part of a bigger, global community,” she tells me. “I’ve visited other PlateCulture chefs for dinner too, and it’s very fun and enjoyable. The whole experience is about new people, new cultures and new tastes. I love it.”
Lunch comes to an end with traditional Persian tea. I’m already full to the brim, but the tiny glass cups accompanied by a bowl of sugar cubes are irresistible nonetheless.
I spend the following week trying to sample every other Persian eatery in Kuala Lumpur. There’s one place that seems to serve microwaved desserts and another that calls itself a Persian restaurant but serves a misguided mix of Turkish, Moroccan, and Iranian dishes. Most of it’s fine, some of it’s good—but by the time I leave Malaysia, I feel inclined to agree that the best Iranian cuisine is indeed found at Reihani’s place.