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Monday, 8 July 2013

Around the World in 193 Courses

Words & Photography by Felicity Spector

Now I’ve never had Liberian plantain upside down ginger cake before, nor Omani sweetened condensed milk pudding, still less a Timman Jazar rice and carrot based dish from Iraq. Certainly not all together, and all before 7 o clock in the morning in a virtually deserted Soho restaurant.

But this was part of the “Around the World in 193 Courses” challenge, an attempt to create the world’s longest tasting menu, with one dish from every country across the globe.

A courageous group from the continental food company Unearthed had signed up for the full 24 hours, pledging to try every single one of the dishes. By the time I got there for the last two hours, they were still going strong - just about - the endless succession of dishes washed down with some very large cups of coffee.

Eight different dishes had been brought out every hour, on the hour, prepared over the previous few days by team led by an army of trained chefs - aided by a legion of helpers: anything which could be prepared in advance was chopped, baked and plated up ahead of time. This was truly a military operation - not least a tribute to the chefs who managed to keep cooking for the entire 24 hours, even after some exhausting days of preparation. In total, it took five chefs 130 hours in the kitchen to create the entire menu, which included more than 150 separate ingredients.

Recipes came from all sorts of sources - I’d supplied one from America - pumpkin pie - although I missed the chance to try it. “That one got eaten HOURS ago”, I was told. Some of the more obscure dishes came from embassies, or NGOs which work in the developing world. Some had been a revelation - the Chilean Pisco Sour was a particular highlight, along with some tasty Syrian kibbeh and some Panama tequila punch. To be honest, I’m surprised the Unearthed team remembered much after that. A low point was, unsurprisingly, some “toasted seasonal weaver ants” which hailed from Zambia. I wasn’t sorry I’d missed out on that one.

I settled down to my unusual breakfast - slightly more enthusiastically than the guys from Unearthed who couldn’t quite believe they were still eating. I tucked into the gingerbread, which was rather nice, and something called a Velvet Coffee Creamer tart from Namibia, which was like the middle bit of a banoffee pie, without the banana. Or the biscuit base. Or any coffee. It was delicious. I whisked through some sweet potato frittata from Sao Tome and Principe, which to be honest I would struggle to find on a map, and enjoyed some Slovenian sweet bread. I gave the Yetakelt Wet - a spicy vegetable stew - from Djibouti a wide berth, though: sometimes my chilli allergy comes in handy.

My favourite dish was the Somalian sandwich cookie, a fig-roll type concoction - described as a traditional sweet. Who knew they ate fig rolls in Mogadishu? Another stereotype, shattered.

And this, I think, was partly the point: as well as aiming for a world record, this was about raising awareness about other countries’ cuisines. Unearthed say their research shows most Britons have only sampled food from between 1 and 7 countries: it’s presumably much higher in London where it’s easy to try street food from all over the world. Maybe not Djibouti, though, or Sao Tome.

It wasn’t really about an extreme eating challenge, either, despite the 24 hour marathon. For two days, Unearthed laid on a chance to try a selection of bite sized dishes for £10, with all profits going to Action Against Hunger: the tickets, I was told, were snapped up within a few minutes.

I was full of admiration for the team who pulled off the 24 hour feat - and for the idea behind it - celebrating authentic food from across the world in the spirit of curiosity and adventure. As Unearthed brand manager Simon Day put it, as he managed the final spoonful of those 193 dishes - “The idea is to encourage people to unearth exotic new tastes, from Spain to Australia, without stepping on a plane”.

Apart from that record breaking attempt, though, maybe it’s best not to try them all in one meal.

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