Growing up in such a socially and economically complex country as America, it’s easy to develop a narrow national consciousness, becoming so overly concerned with our own homeland that we lose sight of the countries that the other six billion inhabitants of the world call home. I’m not talking about full-fledged xenophobia, merely a sort of general ambivalence or semi-willful ignorance. One delicious way to expand our national consciousness is through the use of something we can all relate to and appreciate: food.
Now, I love a good old-fashioned hamburger as much as the next carnivorous American, but a fantastic way to familiarize oneself with otherwise unknown cultures is to explore the diets and dishes of foreign countries. Here’s a challenge, however: do this at home. No eating or ordering out. Instead, create a home cooked meal showcasing a country’s national dish.
Sarah Scoble Commerford, a food lover from Metrowest Massachusetts, decided to take cultural exploration through food to the next level. This past April, she started “What’s Cooking in your World.” In so doing, Sarah set out to prepare two meals per week from the world’s 193 countries, in alphabetical order from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. Each post in this fascinating blog begins with thorough background information about her country of the week, followed by a descriptive explanation of the recipe Sarah has chosen to make. Pictures and captions give step-by-step instructions on how she prepares the dish, and whether her family and friends enjoyed it. Sarah’s writing is incredibly informative and humorously informal, simultaneously accessible and educational.
I recently contacted Sarah, and she enthusiastically agreed to answer a few questions. Here is the transcript of our online interview.
1) What originally gave you the idea to begin this ambitious undertaking?
About a year ago, my son Tim asked me to make a meal from a different culture one night a week. I thought it was a great idea, but like so many things I think about doing, I let it slip past me. Then in April we watched Julie&Julia together. In a typical 15-year-old tone of voice, he turned to me and said, “Well, if Julie can cook her way through a cookbook in a year, why can’t you cook a meal from a different country once a week?” That did it. He’d thrown down the gauntlet and I took up the challenge. I spent a few days thinking about how I’d frame the project, starting with finding out exactly how many countries there are in our world’s ever-changing map. Turns out there are 193(ish) depending on shifting political agendas.
2) Do you have a professional background in food, or do you simply love to cook and eat?
I don’t have any professional background in cooking at all. I love to cook and eat, and am blessed with a family of adventurous, sometimes brave, eaters. I credit my Mom with instilling an appreciation and love of cooking in me at a very young age. My earliest memory was being 5 years old, sitting on top of the counter, making meatloaf with her. She let me add the spices, including a whole tin of cinnamon, which I’m sure ruined the meatloaf, but she never said so. All I know is she made me feel like a million bucks because she trusted me to take risks and to trust myself.
3) Besides cooking, what are your other interests? I notice you have a wonderful DH Lawrence quote on your Facebook page. Do you enjoy great literature?
I love to read, write, garden, horseback ride, swim and bike. And, yes, I was an English Major (UMass/Boston) and I love DH Lawrence, too – his writing is so passionate and sensual, sort of the way I feel about food. You’re the first one to comment on the quote. Now I like WBUR even more.
4) You include extensive historical information on each country’s history and culture. How do you do the research for your posts?
One of the biggest motivators for this project, other than cooking, was to connect with other countries and their cultures I’ll likely never get to visit. I spend a lot of time researching the countries on websites, some are better than others. Generally, I like to go to links that are written and compiled in the country I’m researching, although there are others that are very good as well. I have a wall-sized map of the world in my office that I use as a reference point. Once I complete a culinary visit to that country, I put a sticker on it – it’s cool to watch the map fill up. And, I’ve learned about countries I never knew existed, like the tiny country of Andorra, located between Spain and France in the Pyrenees Mountains. I also have a new appreciation for the extreme challenges families in so many countries endure just to get a meal on the table. As a country, I don’t think we (Americans) give that much thought.
5) It must be at least somewhat challenging to find recipes from far-flung countries. How do you locate all these great recipes, and how do you choose which one’s to make?
One of the things I try to do is find each country’s national dish. Believe it or not, they’re usually fairly easy to locate, although finding the ingredients can be a little challenging. For example, tonight’s meal is from Canada, but I’ve been unable to find a particular cheese called for in the recipe. Despite my best efforts, I’m going to have to improvise, but overall, I’ve been able to stay true to both the preparation and the ingredients. I have deviated from the national dish on several occasions, mainly because I like to venture out of the routine to keep things interesting. In that case, I’ll research until I find a recipe that looks fun and interesting and represents the country. I stay away from “nouvelle” and “fusion” cuisine, not because I don’t like it, but because that type of cooking doesn’t generally represent the way the average family eats.
6) Do these recipes call for hard-to-find ingredients? If so, how do you locate them?
Some do, and that’s part of the fun and the challenge. I’ve ordered wild boar from a great exotic meat vendor in New Jersey (http://www.dartagnan.com/ for anyone who’s interested), and searched for galangal root for a Cambodian meal. Believe it or not, I’m having the most trouble finding the ingredients for tonight’s meal from Canada, Poutine – ‘peu-tin’ – which calls for cheese curd. I’d have to drive to Vermont, or possibly western Mass, to find a cheese vendor who has curd in stock. And, there are some countries that use large rodents in their cooking. While I’m not averse to trying rodents, I simply can’t get that in the U.S. Surprisingly, my local Market Basket, which caters to a very diverse clientele, carries almost everything I need.
7) What country’s food are you currently researching / cooking?
Tonight, Canada, whose national dish is Poutine, a French fry, gravy and cheese concoction that my teenagers can’t wait for. I feel a little guilty because it’s heart-attack food, but since we don’t normally eat like that, I’m going for it. After that, Cape Verde (EU) and Central African Republic (AF). I start days in advance so I can give ideas about themes and prose plenty of time to perk around. I’ve been known to conceptualize an entire blog entry while running or swimming. Then of course, things just spontaneously pop up and I toss them in as you might an extra pinch of sugar.
8) So far, what has been your favorite recipe to make and eat?
Antigua: Red snapper fillet, papaya, mangoes, coconuts, sweet potatoes and pineapple salsa. And, Angola: curried brown rice with tomato peanut sauce and plantains, served with chicken.
9) Which country’s food are you most looking forward to cooking?
Malaysia (at least that’s what I think so far) – I love the light combination of seafood and fruit and lime that’s so often used in Malaysian cooking. I love West African cooking too!
10) You’ve set out an ambitious schedule for yourself. How confident are you that you will be able to see this project through till the end? How difficult is it find the time to get all the research and cooking done each week?
Honestly, most of these recipes don’t take much more time than any dinner I’d make for my family – but they do require planning. I’m really happy when I’m in the kitchen, cooking listening to NPR (really!) or my favorite CD’s, so it never feels like a chore. I don’t want to rush through a country as it would feel disrespectful to give one country more attention than another, so I make sure to carve out the time. A secondary gain from this project is that my kids have learned to do their own laundry – I had to let SOMETHING go! As for time to research, I just make it because I feel passionate about it and it’s a fascinating learning experience. Most nights I join my family in the living room with my laptop…I’ll have one eye on a recipe and one eye on The Office. I’m completely committed to following the project through to Zimbabwe.
11) What do your family and friends think of your project?
I couldn’t possibly accomplish this without the support of my family and friends. They are encouraging and supportive and my teenagers give me great, un-sugar-coated feedback, which I appreciate. I’ve also made new friends with people from all over the world who comment on my blog – that might be the best part of this whole project. So far, people from 25 different countries are following this project. I absolutely love that technology, an idea and a meal can bridge geographical, linguistic, and cultural divides.
If you’re interested in Sarah’s project and want to follow her progress, visit “What’s Cooking in your World?” There, you’ll discover the universally unifying power of food.