No, really, these are the questions we get the most. We didn’t just make these up!
How did you get the idea to do this?
Soon after moving to New York, we grew tired of meeting up with friends in bars and restaurants instead of in living rooms and backyards and Jesse missed having crowds to cook for. We also wanted to find a way to explore the incredible abundance of nations that the city offers, and to give back in acknowledgment of our good fortune. Since moving to Portland in 2014, the project has helped us get to know the people and markets of our new home.
How many meals are you cooking?
We’re cooking one meal for each of the 193 UN members, plus the two permanently observing non-members. We did the Holy See along with Honduras, so the total meal count will be 194. The UN member list doesn’t contain every place many people consider countries, such as Taiwan and Kosovo, because geopolitics. (Also, all of the UK is under one name. Sorry, Scotland.) It’s an imperfect proxy for the cuisines of the world — some countries like India feature intense culinary variety, whereas some countries have almost identical cuisines to their neighbors. However, it’s the world’s most widely recognized list of nations, and we managed to make a fun name with the concept, so that’s how we’re doing it.
Why is the order of the countries a bit screwy?
We mostly follow the precise order of the UN member list as published in English on their website. Some countries choose a name that isn’t what we tend to call them, for instance North Korea is Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, so we cooked it right after Czech Republic. But sometimes we bump a meal up or down a bit so it can accommodate a special occasion, such as when a friend from the country in question is available.
How often do you do these meals?
These days it’s about once a month. Our first full year in New York we did 31. That was insane.
How do figure out what to cook and find recipes?
There’s a few approaches. If the meal lands near a big holiday with special food, such as Day of the Dead in Haiti, I (Jesse) will use that to frame the choices. If it’s a country with a ton of variety, like China, I’ll do my best to pick a variety of regional dishes that in sum represent major ingredients and styles from around the country. Otherwise, my goal is to make a feast worthy of a special occasion (such as a birthday) that highlights what’s notable about the country’s cuisine. This is tough, but not impossible, in parts of the world like Central Africa and the Caribbean, where the distinctions from one country to the next can be quite subtle.
If I’m in contact with someone who’s familiar with the cuisine, I will eagerly work closely with them to develop a menu. Otherwise, I start by finding a summary of the country’s cuisine, often on Wikipedia. I then start searching for the names of what seem to be the most distinctive and representative dishes, trying to find multiple recipes or descriptions to see what ingredients and techniques are consistently referenced. In particular, I try to avoid Westernized/Americanized recipes that might swap out ingredients or use different techniques.
What are the best and worst meals you’ve cooked?
Bhutan was our least favorite — we’re unsure if it’s because our attempt at replicating yak cheese was gross, or if we would have found it unappealing anyway. Kazakhstan wasn’t terribly appealing either.
Is there anywhere that wasn’t previously on your radar where you now want to go after having cooked the food?
Is it harder finding ingredients in Portland than New York?
In New York, we were blessed to have populations from pretty much everywhere in the world big enough to sustain at least one market. I discovered bitter gourds in Kensington, Balkan smoked meats in Astoria, frozen cassava greens in Bed-Stuy, and breadfruit in Crown Heights. Aside from the odd stroke of luck, such as fresh armored catfish in the Indo-Guyanese section of Ozone Park, the most challenging category of ingredient is fish, for which I often have had to substitute.
Portland is a smaller metro area without such incredible breadth of immigrant communities, but we’ve still got enough representation from all the continents that I can find just about everything I need and improvise the rest, though the fish sitch is even more constrained. When I can’t find a sauce or a spice mix, or even sometimes when I can, I’ll make it from scratch if I can find a recipe.
How does one attend?
Sign up for our mailing list. We send an announcement a few weeks before each meal, with a link to a form. We usually have 14 guests, but the majority of the time we get more interest than that so we strive for a balance of ages, backgrounds, friends, and other factors. We’ll definitely prioritize those who are from or otherwise have experience with the country in question.
Can we bring anything?
I want to learn how to cook what we’re serving, so I usually politely decline offers to bring a dish. However, I’d love to cook alongside you if you want to come over earlier. On the other hand, it’s BYOB, so you can get creative and bring a cocktail or something, or simply bring a bottle of wine or a sixpack as most people tend to.
Where’s the bathroom?
Through the kitchen, on the left.
Where should I put my donation?
In the blue box on the buffet.
How did you decide to support Mercy Corps?
In New York we supported the UN’s World Food Program, which aligned nicely with our theme. When we moved to Portland, we switched Mercy Corps, an international relief organization headquartered here, and we’ve been lucky to have several of their great team members join us here. We believe strongly in the organization’s approach, particularly their technique of building up local economies while providing relief and other support.