Rani Cheema is the CEO of Cheema’s Travel, a boutique travel agency which specializes in gastronomic adventures around the world. Whether working with individuals or leading tour groups Cheema specializes in curating luxury culinary itineraries. Rani, a Puerto Rican and Punjabi foodie, raised in New York City, worked for five years as an art director at the Food Network & Cooking Channel. The she moved to Dhaka, Bangladesh to design textiles; then Lugo, Spain to "kind of learn Spanish, but mostly eat," and then Gwangju, South Korea to teach English. Those experiences honed her sense of the best places to visit to experience the world's most notable tastes.
In this exclusive interview, Cheema talks about her favorite places to visit/eat, her commitment to inclusive travel, and why travel is our birth right.
You’re Puerto Rican and Punjabi. What kind of cuisine did you eat growing up? Do you have a favorite dish from your family?
I grew up eating Greek food and whatever you want to consider as “New York” cuisine. My dad lived in Greece for 6 years and I’d like to believe that in a past life he was Greek. He speaks the language fluently, he always cooked Greek food at home, and we practically had all of our dinning out meals in Astoria. I actually thought Greek food was Indian because my dad made it so much, and he’s Indian -soooo it’s Indian! I didn’t have Indian food till I was 17 years old. My mom is a Nuyorican so of course we had Puerto Rican food but even the Italian food she made had Adobe seasoning. It was never just salt and pepper. She also loved pastrami and knishes, so we ate all that too.
Rani Cheema, culinary travel expert.
For me, food is a critical part of travel, but its not on the top of everyone’s bucket list. Why should it be?
Food is the Triborough bridge to culture, history, and community. Everyone eats, everyone loves to sit at a table and have a great meal paired with great stories and laughs. Food and drink are the unifiers.
Do you have a favorite country for culinary travel?
I hate this question so much because I really have to think about it and then I start day dreaming and then I’m hungry. I’ll have to say South Korea. South Korea because I’ve had a lot of amazing meals in my life and a majority of them were in Seoul, Busan, and Gwangju. Many of the dishes were total mysteries to me and to this day I still have no idea what I ate in Busan Fall of 2018 at a seafood stew joint in downtown. The chunks of meat or fat were so, so, SO delicious they were like jewels of of fat. I was popping them like candy and didn’t want my partner to have any. Ha!
If someone can only visit one city in the world, where should they go to get the most variety of amazing cuisine?
OK, I love this question! Immediately I thought of London. Great Britain, you know, because they COLONIZED THE WORLD! So, you get the best South Asian food outside of India and Bangladesh, Jamaican food, and foods from Africa. They have so many outdoor street food markets to snack on all the things. I also really want to say Mexico City but it’s diverse in Mexican Cuisine.
I once did a New Orleans press trip where we went to a new restaurant every 2-3 hours (I was literally like, Oh god, we’re eating again? Even though it was delicious!). Can you do culinary travel without losing your figure?
Totally, that’s why we walk a lot. There’s also enough free time to take a breather. With our wine filled jaunt through Galicia, we actually don’t included dinners on most of the nights because lunch will be heavy and honestly, no one wants to eat, I might get some cheese but that’s it. Also, there’s lots of driving on this trip since Galicia is so very much off the beaten path. Also, our Japan trip is Coffee, Whiskey, Tea focused so for those on liquid diets, I’ve got them covered too!
We all had to rethink travel last year, I feel that culinary adventuring was one of the most travel-like experience one could do without leaving their home (hello Goldbellly for those of us out of delivery range). Do you agree?
Oh my gosh, yes! Thank you Goldbelly! Because of Goldbelly I had my first Italian Beef Sandwich from Portillos. I even got to eat foods from brand new NYC establishments. I spent the lockdown in Oakland, CA so I really missed my NYC faves.
Why is being inclusive of all kinds of folx important to you in the tours you put together?
Having the word “folx” felt like having they rainbow flag on the door of a bar. I grew up with a lot of family and friends that were part of the LGBTQ+ community and many of them refused to go into a bar if it didn’t have the pride flag on it and not because they only wanted to hang at the gay bars but because they needed to feel safe. I literally work with everyone and I want to make sure that all my clients know this. I’m working with partners who can assist me with travelers with disabilities too. If I say I’m inclusive, I need to be inclusive!
Why is it important to you to have some trips for “self-identifying women”?
For so many reasons, but here are the 2 biggest reasons. 1. Places like India, Morocco, and Egypt (which we are going to for New Year’s Eve) can be really tricky or unsafe places for solo female travelers. It’s safer to be in a group. 2. I have transgender family, friends and clients, and they never feel safe. Some worry about traveling and I want them to know that this trip is also for them. I’m mama bear, I’ll take care of the group. This is also why everyone gets their own room and there are no single supplements because the reason you want your own room is NOT my business or anyone else’s and you shouldn’t be penalized for needing your own room. Travel is our birth right, this is our planet, we all deserve to experience it.
Tell me how Cheema’s Travel demonstrates that it cares about humanity, over-tourism, and supporting small business.
Through working with local partners even in destinations that I can plan on my own because the travel industry is an ecosystem and we need to support each other. I do my best to work with boutique and/or independently owned properties. I also take the group outside of the cities because we don’t need to add extra traffic for the locals (hence why we do our best to take public transport), this also allows us to spread the money outside of the more visited and most popular cities. For example with our Portugal trip we will visit Porto and Lisbon and spend a lot of time outside of these cities in the countryside having experiences that keep the money within the community we are visiting.
You’ve been named a “Rising Star” in travel and one of “25 Kickass Women Crushing it in Travel.” What do you do that is so wonderful?
I don't know! But I’m grateful. All I know is I’m just doing my thing. When other people tell me “no, you can’t do that, no one does that.” I go do that thing. I know I’m very loud, I’m passionate, I’m colorful, and maybe people see that? I mean… I’m a New Yorker, Punjabi, and Puerto Rican, I was born loud. I have also been told “I love what you’re doing!” “You inspire me!” Maybe I should ask them what they love about it so I can keep doing it!