The globetrotting cook and blogger behind Global Table Adventure shares her story—and makes her way through 195 countries and 650 recipes.

By Sasha Martin
Updated June 06, 2017
Life From Scratch
Credit: © National Geographic Books

The globetrotting cook and blogger behind Global Table Adventure shares her storyand makes her way through 195 countries and 650 recipes.

Cooking a recipe from every country in the world—that was the mission of my blog, Global Table Adventure. When I launched it in 2010, my daughter was seven months old and my husband was a picky eater. By the time I made my way from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe—195 countries and 650 recipes later—I had a four-and-a-half-year-old and Mr. Picky was not so picky anymore.

My decision to take this journey seemed at first like a happy-go-lucky impulse, an upbeat way to learn about the world and raise my daughter with an international perspective at a time when we could not travel. Then I decided to turn the blog into a memoir, Life from Scratch. The serious introspection that followed led me to the truth about why I decided to obsessively cook the world from my small kitchen in Tulsa, Oklahoma. I realized that though the vicarious travel was fascinating, it was my almost irrational hunger for a sense of belonging that held the key to why I’d started blogging in the first place. As it is for so many people, this hunger was rooted in my childhood. And so my memoir began where the real story began—back when I was a little girl, wading through the murkiness of loss.

I was raised in a streetcar suburb of Boston by my bootstrapping mother, a woman who is as creative as she is maddening. She taught my brother and me that there’s a difference between poverty of resources and poverty of spirit. Together we cooked the feasts of our imagination in our makeshift kitchen: 19-layer German tree cakes and lamb roasts we scrimped and saved for. Despite our food stamp budget, I never felt poor. But Mom’s strong personality clashed with the authority figures in our lives, and my brother and I soon endured several stints in foster care. When the situation worsened, family friends became our legal guardians. What came next was a heartbreaking narrative of estrangement and faltering attempts to rebuild troubled relationships.

I spent much of my adolescence in Europe, far from anyone I’d ever known or loved. My new family stressed the importance of a good education but believed the kitchen was no place for a child. So I took to the streets of Paris, wandering among boulangeries, crêperies and fromageries. It wasn’t so much about the food as it was about trying to connect with my faraway mother. Years later, when it came time to raise my own little girl, it was only natural that I looked to cooking for inspiration—not just to feed her, but also to find my footing as a parent.

At first I relished the chance to experiment with unusual recipes for my blog, like babenda, a dish from the African country of Burkina Faso made with dried anchovies, spinach and funky fermented locust beans. It was also thrilling to discover simple new ways to prepare familiar ingredients, like spicy stir-fried cucumbers from northern China. A pinch of red pepper flakes was once enough to make me sweat. But cooking the world fortified my taste buds, and now when I make the cucumbers I triple the heat. We all have the ability to adapt: Even my daughter now eats spicy dishes that would bring many children to tears.

Early successes like those cucumbers inspired me to focus on recipes that are easy enough for a weeknight and elegant enough for the weekend. My husband loves crisp, spicy coconut shrimp from Papua New Guinea, while my daughter adores the Saudi Arabian semolina cake called basboosa—she even requested it for her fifth birthday. My first basboosa was little more than a sweet brick in a sludge of lemon and rose water syrup. I made my way to a local Middle Eastern market to figure out where I’d gone wrong. The shopkeeper guided me toward the proper superfine durum semolina (which will absorb the syrup) and gave me a master class on different ways of preparing the recipe. I left that shop not only with the semolina but also with a sense of friendship and community I hadn’t expected.

With Global Table Adventure, I insisted on celebrating every cuisine in the world—there would be no talk of war or other hardships. With Life from Scratch, I got to the heart of my desire for peace. Cooking the world wasn’t just about appreciating other cultures. It helped me learn to love my imperfect world, too.