When Jack Hemingway and Sarah Kemp failed to secure the tickets they wanted for the London Olympics (athletics for him, gymnastics for her), they decided to get involved in quite a different way. Both huge fans of the global sporting event, the couple planned to take on a challenge almost as intimidating as those facing the athletes themselves: they would eat a dish (whether home-made or in a restaurant) from every country that was entering the 2012 Olympics. From Afghanistan to Zimbabwe, they would sample a national dish, take photographs, and write about their experiences on their blog, Eat the Olympics.
"We just wanted to get into the home-turf Olympic spirit really; it's once in a lifetime," explains Hemingway, in their kitchen in north London, where they are specially preparing me Kuku Paka, a chicken and coconut curry with hard-boiled eggs, popular in Kenya. "I know people are moaning about how busy everywhere will be and how transport is going to be hellish, but it's three weeks of your life when people from all over the world come to London for a party."
While the couple, both 25, love cooking, and say they would happily pick a long dinner with friends over a night down the pub, it is definitely an extracurricular pastime. Hemingway is a designer and Kemp works in food PR (although she also runs another food blog in her spare time, Food for Think).
After getting the list of all 205 countries entering the Olympics, they were surprised (and a little embarrassed) to discover that there were a couple of places that they had never even heard of. They immediately took to the internet to discover more about each nation's cuisine and started to note down suggestions and potential recipes. Naturally, some countries are easier to research than others. "It's hard to know if you're being authentic with some of the more obscure countries, so it can be tricky," says Hemingway.
They started their challenge seven weeks ago – they've cooked around 60 dishes so far – but as the blog has grown in popularity, Hemingway and Kemp have found their readers are happy to help them in their quest. Someone sent them a Nepalese cookbook in the post. Restaurants specialising in far-flung cuisines, such as Peru and Argentina, have had them to dine as guests. People with pride in their national dishes have even tweeted suggestions at them.
As both have to hold down full-time jobs, they take a fairly relaxed approach to proceedings. Some weekends they will cook up to 15 meals, other times they will go a few days without making anything. With the dishes they are cooking themselves, they are aiming to do 75 per cent main dishes and 25 per cent desserts and puddings. Each meal is photographed and receives a ranking based on taste: gold, silver, bronze, and the dreaded "disqualified".
Alas, plenty have found themselves disqualified. Sweet-potato cake from Cameroon was deemed "inedible", while banana and peanut-butter biscuits from Vanuatu were treated with similar disdain. But it hasn't all been bad. The couple have discovered some wonderful dishes and learnt a huge amount about food from all around the world. Flan de Leche from El Salvador, Fijian grilled aubergine with coconut sauce, Chilean braised chicken with coriander, and lime meringue pie from the Ivory Coast are just some of the dishes that have been awarded the gold medal. Others have been more divisive, such as Albanian baked lamb with yoghurt, which Hemingway dismissed because the yoghurt had curdled into a cottage cheese-like substance, while Kemp thought it was actually rather tasty. "He's a designer so he likes things to look nice," she sighs.
Surprisingly, they've been able to get hold of everything they've needed, one of the joys of living in modern-day multicultural Britain, they say. "There's a great Ethiopian store on Brick Lane, and there's a big Asian community in Wembley so there are some brilliant Asian grocery stores. There's a Chinese supermarket quite near us too. There are these little pockets all over London," enthuses Kemp. "But we want people to be able to join in and try out the recipes so we are being careful about what we use. We don't want people to look at it and go, 'Oh we could never do that.'"
For something so ambitious, there have been few real disasters, say the couple. Except for the time Kemp almost burnt the kitchen down. "We were cooking short beef ribs which we were going to do for our United States entry," she recalls. "I heated vegetable oil in a pan and it cracked and went all over the hob and it went up in flames." They ended up baking a pecan pie for their American entry instead.
The main issues the couple have encountered – besides finding the time to fit it all in – is getting accurate recipes. "We do so much online and sometimes a recipe will be translated using Google Translate, so we can't be sure it's right," says Hemingway. "Sarah has trouble transferring all the measurements into grams and sometimes, because we're not familiar with the cuisine, it's hard to tell if we've done a bad job with something or if it's just horrible."
The couple hope to finish their challenge on the day of the closing ceremony, when they plan to invite friends and family over for a British feast. They're still undecided about what to make but have toyed with the idea of a traditional Sunday roast or fish and chips. Whatever they decide on, at least they won't have any trouble finding a recipe.
Kenyan chicken and coconut curry with hard-boiled egg (Serves 4-5)
1kg chicken breast, cut into pieces
1 large white onion, chopped
3 red chillies, chopped
1 inch piece of ginger, peeled and chopped
4 cloves garlic, chopped
50ml vegetable oil
1 tbsp curry powder
2 tsp coriander powder
1 tsp chilli powder
2 tsp cumin seeds
1 tin chopped tomatoes
1 can coconut milk
4/5 large free-range eggs
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 bunch coriander, chopped
Add the onion, chillies, ginger and garlic to a food processor or blender and process until smooth. Add a little water if necessary.
Heat the oil in a large pot over medium flame. Add the onion puree, curry powder, coriander powder, chilli powder and cumin and sauté, stirring frequently, for 5 to 8 minutes, or until cooked down.
Stir in the tomatoes and simmer for 3 to 4 minutes. Then add the chicken, coconut milk, salt and pepper. Reduce heat to low and simmer, covered, until the chicken is cooked through and tender, anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour. Add more water as needed.
While the curry is cooking, hard-boil the eggs. Place the eggs in a pan and cover with two inches of cold water and bring the water to the boil. As soon as the water has reached boiling point, turn the heat off, cover and let the eggs sit in the pan for 12 minutes. Drain, run cold water into the pan and peel.
Stir in most of the coriander (leaving a bit to sprinkle on top), adjust seasoning with salt and pepper and serve with rice or chapati.