Schlepping 3,000 miles for a banana leaf and burned rice

Who would fly 3,000 miles for dinner?  With a drink that tastes like burned rice? And a dressed-up banana leaf for dessert?

I would. And did a while back.

It’s what they eat in Madagascar, that island nation off Africa, better known as the locale for those animated movies with Ben Stiller and Chris Rock. But I didn’t need a passport because the meal was in Portland, Oregon.

It was something I’d heard about on NPR. A couple is in the process of hosting 194 dinner parties, one for every member of the United Nations, in alphabetical order. They call it United Noshes. They do this mostly at home in Portland and sometimes take it on the road. Anyone can show up, so long as they make a donation to help fight world hunger.

I like the catchy title. And that whole United Nations thing. I’ve always been a geography geek. And because I can’t cook, I’m in awe of anyone who can. Let alone anyone confident enough to experiment with fare from far-flung places. Plus, I’m an NPR junkie. I love that I might be able to experience something I heard about from Scott Simon.

I sign up. When the Madagascar dinner opens up on a Saturday night, I book my flight from Philadelphia. I’ll be in Portland for less than 48 hours. But I’ve been there before and don’t mind revisiting. And I’m really curious to meet my hosts and see who shows up.

I stay at an airport hotel to be able to get in and out quickly, and use public transportation.

I start that Saturday shopping, and and score some sweet plastic rose earrings (Portland’s known for its roses).

Matzo ball soup and onion-potato knish, Portland-style.

Matzo ball soup and onion-potato knish, Portland-style.

Lunch is at a reliable Jewish deli I’d tried before that’s so Portland: Outdoorsy Pacific Northwest types especially appreciate a hearty bowl of matzo ball soup on a raw day.

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Then Powell’s, the Taj Mahal of bookstores. An entire city block of people actually buying actual books. It’s a beautiful thing.

I find the perfect dinner contribution: Local chocolate, made with Madagascar cocoa beans. It comes highly recommended.

My hosts, Jesse Friedman and wife Laura Hadden, share a pretty house with their border collie mix, Emmylou, in a well-tended neighborhood.

Friedman’s a marketing guy for Google. He and Hadden, a multimedia artist, have been hosting United Noshes for several years. With more than 100 meals under their belts, they’re past the halfway mark on the UN list. And they’ve raised more than $30,000 for charity so far.

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It’s about an hour to dinner for 16 and ingredients are still being thawed. There’s a banana leaf simmering in a pot, and I’ve volunteered to cut up some tilapia. If this were my party, I’d be crying cause I want to, and frantically ordering takeout. How and why do they do it?

Jesse Friedman, left, gets meal pointers from Mimy Manavihare, a Malagasy.

Friedman, left, gets kitchen pointers from Mimy Manavihare, a Malagasy.

Friedman, who’s honchoing the entire meal, likes it that way. He enjoys cooking for crowds, and finds these trials by fire relaxing, and the whole experience fun.

“At the end of pretty much every meal, we come away having learned a bit about the world, met some fascinating new people, and (usually) eaten something tasty, which is motivation enough to do it again,” he says.

Hadden and Emmylou take care of all the other details.

Hadden and Emmylou take care of the other details.

Hadden, who does everything else, explains it started when they moved to Brooklyn. “We grew tired of meeting up with friends in bars and restaurants instead of in living rooms and backyards,” she says. They longed to entertain, and saw the hunt for ingredients as an opportunity to really learn about The Apple.

They tried out their first dinners on friends in their 500-square-foot apartment. Then, an epiphany. “We decided to make it a fundraiser to fight hunger because we felt we had to acknowledge the fact that many people couldn’t even enjoy the sorts of foods that we were celebrating from their own country,” Friedman says.

United Noshes continued after they relocated to Portland.

Friedman does tons of research in his quest to cook authentically. If he can hook up with someone familiar with the cuisine, even better. He’s had his share of flops, most notably the Bhutan dinner, where he was forced to use yak-dairy substitutes, which didn’t cut it.

The project has been an insight into the workings of the UN, if you’re into that sort of thing. For instance, he says, “Macedonia we’re not going to do until ‘T’ because it’s listed as ‘The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.’

I just love that sort of geopolitical minutia.

Friedman’s getting an assist with the meal from Mimy, a Madagascar native who lives in Portland. So I get to meet a real Malagasy. Along with, as it turns out, the reporter who did the NPR piece. And the grandson of a former missionary in Madagascar. He and Mimy wonder if their people ever crossed paths.

Dinner is served. Madagascar cuisine, I learn. is a stew of African, Asian and French flavors. Our meal is typically served on Sundays and special occasions.

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What makes this different from Sunday dinners at my grandparents are a side of something called cassava leaves, the beverage of water spiked with burned rice and the banana leaves with rice and peanuts for dessert. Certainly exotic, but that was about it.

I fill up on decent rice and fish; my chocolate, which was fabulous; and later, at the hotel, that good old American staple, Oreos.

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But there were endless helpings of laughter and chatter. And that’s all I’d really hoped for.

If you’d like to get in on a United Noshes dinner, there’s no charge, but charity donations of up to $20 are suggested, and they’re matched by Google. For more information, click here.

 

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