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Why your neighbour's house might soon be your new favourite restaurant

Evening Standard logo Evening Standard 5 days ago Richard Godwin

© Provided by Evening Standard Limited "How much do you know about Cameroonian cooking?" asks Carine Ottou as she hands me a length of cassava. It is fair — and perhaps a little shameful — to say that I know precisely nothing. Which is why I have come to Carine’s sun-filled terraced house in Brixton to learn a few basics.

Over the course of the afternoon I will learn how to select a succulent cassava from my grocer and turn it into a banana beignet; I will hone my grinding technique on Carine’s pepper stone; and I will familiarise myself with hiomi bark, njansa, grains of paradise and all the burnt spices required for an authentic mbongo tchobi — a charcoal-grey fish stew that we will steam in banana leaves.

Carine is one of a handful of Londoners who have opened up their homes using VizEat, a site that styles itself as the “AirBnB of food”. If you’ve used the original AirBnb, you’ll be familiar with the general concept. Hosts use the platform to invite strangers into their homes to share their culture, cookery and hospitality.

The site comes from Paris, which both makes a change from Silicon Valley and also explains the slightly cringeworthy pun in its name. Co-founders Camille Rumani and Jean-Michel Petit hit upon the idea while travelling. Camille realised that the best food she’d had in Shanghai was not served in restaurants but in Chinese homes. Meanwhile, Jean-Michel had an epiphany while lunching with some indigenous tribespeople on Lake Titicaca in Peru.

Their home city provided a steady stream of tourists looking for “authentic” French eating experiences, including Apple CEO Tim Cook, and so social eating was born (or re-born — antisocial eating is itself a relatively recent regression). 

The site now has 20,000 hosts in 110 countries, with French and Italian homes particularly popular. You pay through the site, so there’s no awks exchange of money. VizEat takes 15 per cent of the fee — typically £25-£50 per head. Hosts use the platform to invite guests into their homes and share culture, cookery and hospitality

© Provided by Evening Standard Limited The London version has a little way to go in terms of user numbers — plus I’m not sure I liked the look of Roland’s goulash on the site. But the sheer diversity of our population means there’s a varied range of experiences on offer, some clearly aimed at tourists, others at those who’d like to get their own neighbours a bit better.

In addition to Carine’s Introduction to Cameroonian Cookery course, a New Yorker named Ryan has set up an American Barbecue and Live Jazz Supper Club. Clair is offering Home-made Delights in Hackney. Fenny invites you to an Indonesian Nasi Tumpeng Feast. And I’m booked in for what Ash Dhillon and Devina Chandra — two financiers with a joint sideline in cakes and curries — promise is the best butter chicken in London.

So it’s a boon if you like poking around other people’s houses — a bit like the short-lived “secret restaurant” trend a few years ago — and it’s a pretty good way to broaden your palate too. 

We’ve all heard friends from different backgrounds denounce what you thought was a pretty good restaurant and declare that the jollof rice/kaeng khiao wan/risotto Milanese you were quite enjoying has nothing on the version that their nan makes. I’d say the same thing of 95 per cent of pub roasts in London, to be fair. But unless you wangle a personal invitation into their family home, you’ll be left wondering.

Carine was born in Douala, near the Atlantic coast, and grew up in the administrative capital Yaoundé, further into the interior. She moved to France for university, spent five years in Dublin and has now been in London for 10 years, with her Swedish-Eritrean husband and their four-year-old daughter.

She has been dispensing her family recipes for a couple of years now and is well on the way to making food her primary business. She has her own site, inspiringchefs.com, where you can book classes with talented amateur cooks — their place or yours, and has a sideline in West African-inspired spice blends which she sells at marielittlejar.co.uk. She also cooks to the music of Fela Kuti, a reliable sign of exquisite taste.

Her lesson is well pitched for a beginner, running through staple ingredients such as cassava, cocoyams and plaintains, hard-to-find spices such as penja — the champagne of peppercorns — and traditional techniques, such as the two-handed grinding motion traditionally used to pulverise sauces. It’s a glimpse of what is clearly a rich and varied cuisine. “I’m pretty sure Cameroon is the only country in Africa where they speak more than 300 languages — so you can imagine how many different traditions there are,” she explains.

© Provided by Evening Standard Limited West African cuisine seems ripe for wider discovery. The aromas of its unfamiliar spices — Carine doesn’t know the names for them in English or French — are a bit like discovering there are a few extra letters in the alphabet.

The mbongo tchobi is earthy, fragrant and light. I could happily eat it a few times a week, though Carine cautions that the authentic version would be made with catfish or snails as opposed to cod. And the banana beignets we make are entirely gluten-free — indeed, most of the dishes work well for the health-conscious. “Our food is incredibly plant-based,” she says. “We mainly use dried fish and meat for flavour and take our protein from beans and pulses. And it’s so organic — though organic isn’t even a concept in Cameroon. You will notice that we all have very well-defined muscles — and that’s not from going to the gym.”

In the evening I head out to Ash and Devina’s in a cul-de-sac in Rotherhithe. The friends met through their husbands, bonded over their differing styles of Indian cooking and now regularly team up at family events. This is much more like the Come Dine With Me experience, with a little of the initial awkwardness that comes from that, but we’re soon chatting pretty freely. And the food is delicious, from the paneer starter to the concluding Victoria sponge (they have a sideline in cakes).

The butter chicken benefited from a clever domestic innovation. Usually the bird would be cooked in a tandoor, a clay oven, which gives it a distinctively smoky flavour. They worked out that you can impart the same flavour by adding burning charcoal to the cooking pot. “You can try this the next time you make a curry,” say Ash. “Take the curry off the heat, place a piece of smoking charcoal in a metal box and put that in the curry, then put the lid on the pot and leave it for a few minutes.”

Almost as good is the dhal makhani, the famous Punjabi lentil stew that Davina cooks for 24 hours in her mother’s ancient slow cooker — which she refuses to replace as they don’t make them like it any more. “People say it’s better than the one they do at Dishoom,” she says. They’re not wrong.

Related: How to Make Chicken and Guacamole Tostadas (Provided by Cooking Light)

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