Given my enthusiasm for food and my lack of shame in dropping obvious hints, I get invited to some amazing dinner parties. Last week, I received such an invitation: My classmate, Andrew, was throwing a party to thank his host family for its hospitality. Andrew had met the couple in question through CouchSurfing.org, and they had put him up when he first arrived from Taiwan.
For the uninitiated, CouchSurfing.org is an online phenomenon through which people offer a sleeping space in their home — for free — to a stranger. If time permits, the hosts often induct their guest into some cultural experiences. Hosts then take on and stay with other surfers, and surfers themselves may become hosts in time. The whole system is fueled by tremendous amounts of goodwill, so I was eager to meet the couple that had graciously hosted Andrew on his arrival.
Upon arriving promptly at 6:30 p.m., the kitchen was calm and organized, and many dishes already adorned the table. I was impressed both with how amazing the food looked and smelled, and also with the punctuality and calm in the kitchen.
When I host a dinner party, my trademark state when guests arrive is to have a half−full wine glass in hand, apron on, hair wet from the shower and dinner only half−prepared. I had thought it was standard to hand over the cooking to your guests while disappearing for half an hour to finish getting ready. Not so at Andrew’s place. He was willingly assisted by his two commis chefs/roommates, and everything was ready bang on time.
And what a feast! Andrew had prepared two huge steaming pots, one with chicken and mushrooms, and a tofu assortment for the vegetarians in the other. In addition, there was hot−and−sour soup, Taiwanese omelets, green vegetables, chicken with a spicy sauce and a dish consisting of firm white strips with red sauce and tofu. This last dish puzzled us Westerners. While it seemed familiar, we could not put our fingers on what it was, but we agreed it was some sort of root vegetable. Finally, Andrew made the great reveal — it was potatoes. I love being surprised like this, when a familiar ingredient is prepared in such an unusual way that it is unrecognizable yet still delicious.
The food was outstanding and infused with wonderful flavors, despite being altogether less spicy than I was expecting. I was also impressed with the use of tofu in the dishes. Tofu is one of those ingredients that I have always found a bit intimidating to cook with. I know it is very good for you and delicious, if prepared in the right way, but I don’t know where to start with preparing it myself. However, Andrew’s tofu was so delicious that I’m inspired to try cooking with tofu myself. I also fully intend to start dropping hints now to acquire some Taiwanese cooking lessons.
And what of the couch−surfing veterans? It turns out Andrew’s host family was an interesting, traveled and professional grown−up couple. It was interesting to hear their take on economics, life, culture and travel. Indeed, the assorted company from four separate continents provided a rich discussion on subjects from Taiwanese literature to economics to healthcare to where to live in America. I now know that the Chinese character for “risk” is a combination of those for danger and opportunity, that it is not easy to cycle in the Gobi Desert and that local beer is always best — well, I already knew that last one.
I felt that this sort of discussion and gathering is exactly the sort of cultural exchange that the founders of couch surfing envisioned. I am inspired and will be opening up my London couch on my return next May. Potential surfers who can cook great food are especially welcome.