Washington — Nosh is a Yiddish term meaning snack or light meal, but you will not find light meals at United Noshes, a Brooklyn couple’s five-year project to cook their way through the United Nations.
“I feel about it the way most people feel about going to church. There is a spiritual element, but there is also a community element in gathering to explore different ideas and themes,” said Laura Hadden, co-founder of United Noshes.
Hadden fills the role of hostess. Her husband and United Noshes co-founder Jesse Friedman prepares the meals. From Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, Hadden and Friedman hope to prepare 194 different cuisines and donate more than $30,000 to the World Food Programme (WFP) by 2016.
The idea sprouted on a drive through New York. “If there’s anywhere in the world to eat the world’s cuisines, it has to be New York, but we discovered that isn’t the case,” Friedman said. So they decided to cook the meals themselves.
Moving alphabetically through the countries, the process refreshes each week with one question: What would be served at a wedding here? Friedman says it is important to involve people from the host country early to ensure the appropriate recipes are selected. Potential dishes are then whittled down based on feasibility.
“You just can’t find a good yak butter,” Hadden said. Finding authentic ingredients is one challenge. Another is meeting the dietary restrictions of guests while staying true to the country’s cuisine. Argentina, for example, is not for vegetarians.
Success requires legwork. For Friedman, this comes through research and exercise as he rides his bike through New York’s five boroughs in search of foreign ingredients and cooking instruments.
Friedman is impressed with New York’s selection. “It’s a testament to immigrants and how strong the connection is between food and home, how intense the need to participate in your own culture,” he said.
In addition to procuring the right recipes and ingredients, the couple selects music from each country to play during the meal. Hadden’s favorites so far include Belarus and the “hauntingly good” women’s choirs of Bulgaria.
In return for this cultural experience, they ask guests to make a small donation to the WFP.
“We didn’t want to just take from these cultures,” Hadden said. “We wanted to explore, and to some extent, help.”
While the couple typically hosts 8–10 guests in their Brooklyn, New York, apartment, they celebrated Cameroon with an April 22 WFP fundraiser. Through donations from 30 guests, the couple raised enough money for 2,000 school meals. In October, Hadden and Friedman will host another big-meal fundraiser to honor World Food Day.
Freidman’s Cameroonian menu featured miondo (steamed cassava), ndolé (bitter greens with dried shrimp and peanuts), koki (black-eyed pea cakes steamed in banana leaves); and poulet DG (braised chicken with vegetables).
As the food arrived from the kitchen, a guest commented that the smell was completely unfamiliar — and that’s the point.
“It isn’t just about eating food; it’s about spending more time with friends, meeting new people — like people from the countries whose cuisines we are cooking — and learning about the culture,” Friedman said.
And for those who cannot attend the dinners, the couple maintains a blog. A blend of historical and culinary commentary, it features recipes, music and photographs from each country along with the couple’s reflections on the dinner.
After completing each letter of the alphabet, Hadden and Friedman dish out “Noshies”: awards for anything from best overall cuisine to most exotic ingredient.
What dishes do they suggest for someone wishing to sample U.S. cuisine? That goal is complicated by the United States’ size and diversity, so Friedman suggests a regional approach: a Northeastern clam chowder followed by Kansas City barbeque with jalapeno cornbread, fried green tomatoes, and an arugula, strawberry and avocado salad on the side.
“I try to represent different regions, so that rather than finding the lowest common denominator, we can appreciate the variations and explore the historical derivations,” Friedman explained.
And for dessert? Apple pie.
Through a September 9 spotlight on the Czech Republic, Hadden and Friedman have prepared 45 cuisines. With every completed meal, the couple exposes the country on their scratch-off map.
"It’s like we’re revealing the world,” Friedman said.