About six years ago, after 30 years of never setting foot in the kitchen for fear I’d accidentally poison myself (again -- don't ask), I took it upon myself to finally learn to cook.
And, since I have a thing for geography (and an OCD-based list obsession), I decided to cook the food of every country in the world. In alphabetical order, of course.
I found recipes online, learned there's a small community of people who do this, and completed some 200 countries. Now I'm in my second go-round.
And, I have learned these 10 truths — global truths, if you will.
1. Everything starts with an onion
Seriously. I’ve cooked probably over 300 savory recipes of the world. And only about 20 didn’t involve some kind of onion, be it yellow, green, white, red or shallot.
This meant I finally had to learn how to peel and chop those suckers quickly without my eyes tearing up if I was ever going to get dinner on the table on time.
Who knew the simple edible bulb was so completely universal? (Well, aside from people who already knew how to cook.)
2. Things are the same all over
Someone else who had attempted this every-country thing (and had to give up) gave me an early suggestion: If all else fails, there will always be a chicken-and-rice recipe for any given country.
It's an awfully broad generalization, but it covers a good hunk of the world.
You also find that — maybe obviously — places that are close to each other and share a similar topography and/or colonial history have cuisines that overlap almost entirely.
Food from northern Europe will always make you break out the dill. West Africa almost always involves peanuts, and island nations of Oceania and the Caribbean will have you stocking up on more coconut milk than you ever thought possible.
3. Nothing is the same anywhere
I can’t count the number of times people asked me, "What do you cook for the U.S.?:" But there isn’t just one thing! And that's the case with any large, ethnically diverse nation.
Some countries, like India, China, Mexico, Italy and even Croatia, have multiple, distinct, highly developed and very specific cuisines. Even Europe's tiny Andorra (2.5 times the size of Washington, D.C.) has different foods in its north and south.
That's right — I learned from just the fourth country in the A's that no one recipe can speak for any nation, no matter how small.
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4. You'll have to substitute some ingredients
You can go into international cooking with every intention of being completely authentic to a nation’s cuisine. But short of smuggling, you won't be able to score every precise ingredient for every traditional recipe you can find.
There can be legal or cultural reasons. Like, did you know that Scottish haggis, which contains sheep lung, is illegal in the U.S.? And, face it, African bushmeat and Central Asian horse meat will likely not be making it to your American kitchen.
Even uncontroversial items may be unobtainable.
For instance, many African nations cook with a variety of fresh, local greens which can’t be imported easily across the ocean. And there probably isn't enough demand for your local market to stock them.
5. When you have to improvise, keep quiet
If you have to make substitutions, be careful about telling your international friends. People get really riled up about the food of their countries. It's a huge part of national identity since, well, our food is literally what we’re made of.
Many people will be grateful that you, as an outsider, care to experience and learn about something that’s so central to their everyday experience.
But I’ve also seen people get into digital fisticuffs over whether garlic belongs in a dish. A live-stream viewer from Serbia once ripped me a new one over my use of one particular ingredient.
Later, a prominent Serbian chef/restaurateur gave me needed perspective. He told me that in his country — as in all of them, when you think about it — folks will insist the way their grandmother cooked a certain thing is the one right way.
6. Living in a major metro area helps
If you live in New York, Los Angeles or any other Western megalopolis, you're probably within an hour’s drive or subway ride of laying your hands on items for cuisines of every far-off land.
But, if you're in an area with few immigrants from a particular part of the world, good luck finding, say, yak dairy for your Bhutanese feast. (I’m not kidding. I was never able to find that one!)
Then again, people in smaller cities have pulled off around-the-world cooking using a combination of ingenuity and online shopping. That takes more planning than I’ve ever been able to do.
7. You'll discover local immigrant communities
You may know if there's a Chinatown or Italian Village in your city. But unless you already have some family connection, you may not realize there's a small pocket of Tanzanian people, or a Guyanese community in a neighborhood across town.
In attempting to cook every country from my home in Florida, I figured that food items from Latin America and the Caribbean would be within easy reach. And I knew I’d be hard-pressed to locate Pacific Island and Asian delicacies.
But I was pleasantly surprised to discover pockets of recent German, Finnish and assorted eastern European immigrants in our region. And it was cool to stumble into a Guyanese market on one drive home.
8. Vegetarianism is really pretty rare
For all its health benefits and karmic virtues, doing a thing like this as a vegan or vegetarian will be a steep hill to climb. Most of the world’s main courses, savory dishes involve animal protein.
You can dish up all the delicious Indian and Indian-influenced vegetarian dishes you can uncover. And you can honor the millions around the world who don’t eat animal protein owing to food scarcity, not personal choice.
But that only gets you so far, if you hope to cook food from every country.
For when you look at a Bolivian recipe consisting of six types of meat and sausage piled on top of one other, you wonder how Paul McCartney could survive there.
9. You'll wind up with a million rare food items
Depending on what order you cook the countries in, you’re either going to be totally bored with one particular regional item (“West African red palm oil? Again?”) or you'll end up with a world of specialty items you may use only once or twice.
(That is, unless you decide to make that one great Japanese kamaboko fish loaf dish for multiple dinner parties outside of this culinary challenge.)
I tell people I have the "Cabinet of 1,000 Flours of the World." And, yes, I know that those things go bad and have to get thrown out after a while.
So you have to get creative with your leftovers or deal with unfortunate waste.
10. You learn a lot about world history
Here’s where a challenge like this gets educational on levels you probably wouldn't expect. As you examine recipes, collect ingredients and consume the world, you see the patterns of history.
For as long as people have been preparing meals, they have been moving from place to place — either voluntarily or by force. And they've brought their food with them.
Centuries later, you see African greens and peanut dishes in American soul food, stuffed peppers from the Ottomans across their vast former empire, and Indonesian satays on menus in the Netherlands.
Riding the world atop your stovetop, you’ll see the patterns. And, if you’re lucky, you may come away with a deeper perspective into the human experience and how, in the end, we’re all really sharing the same meal.
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