So far he’s 129 countries in.
When Charles Bibilos moved from Iowa to New York City he gave himself a mission: to eat the food from every country in the world. “I figured that I'd never get past about 80 or 90 countries,” said Bibilos via email. “But I also figured that it would be blissfully fattening to give it a try.”
Since he started the project in 2010, he has sampled the cuisine of 129 different countries, making his way through the world’s cuisines via the restaurants, food trucks, churches, and private homes of New York City. He documents his experiences on his blog, United Nations of Food.
Stepping outside his culinary comfort zone has brought both the biggest joy and the biggest challenges of the project. After a bad encounter with a pickled herring as a child, Bibilos was hesitant to give it another go, but he gamely went for it. “Now I kind of love the stuff, thanks to Swedish and Estonian friends I've met through this project,” said Bibilos, who recommends wrangling an invitation to the Estonian House, a private club in Midtown, to sample their herring dishes.
It was the same story with offal. “I knew that I'd have to choke them down to be polite, but I never thought that I'd learn to love things like cow hearts,” said Bibilos. Though he isn’t eager to eat brains again, blaming the “awful, mushy-gritty texture,” other offal has won him over. Particular favorites include cow hearts from Argentine steakhouses like La Esquina Criolla in Corona, Queens; Ecuadorian guatita (that’s a traditional beef tripe stew) at Mitad del Mundo in Corona, Queens, and the chicken kidneys in the Lao laab salad at Mangez Avec Moi in Manhattan.
It was that salad that inspired Bibilos and his wife to take a trip to Laos. “I'm a huge travel addict, and this project has only made the addiction stronger,” said Bibilos. “I keep meeting great people from countries that were never really on my radar screen— places like Malawi, Mongolia, and Algeria—and it just makes me want to travel constantly.”
The United Nations of Food project has proven that New York City has a staggering array of food from around the world. But there are about 25 countries, including Kuwait and Gambia, which have so far proven elusive for Bibilos. “I guess my fantasy is that an extremely well-connected United Nations employee will take me under their wing, and invite me into the kitchens of African ambassadors,” said Bibilos. “I swear that I'm really fun at dinner parties! Even when brains are on the menu.”
Have a tip for Bibilos? Head to his website.