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Turn tantalizing foreign cuisine into budget meals

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“Well, if I’m going to cook an authentic Argentinian meal, I’m going to have to buy grass-fed beef,” I said to myself. “But the spousal unit is totally going to kill me when he sees how much this meal cost.”

It’s thoughts like that that almost derailed the personal challenge I had taken to to cook a signature dish from all 193 countries in the United Nations.

But I’m off and running now, and you can follow my culinary adventure at Cliffieland: The Global Cooking Challenge.

One of the first things I learned is that some international cuisine can be a little pricey. Grass-fed beef [about $9.99 a serving] and authentic Cypriot Halloumi cheese at about $2.80 a serving (well, most cheeses actually) will set you back some.

But, happily, I discovered that the most familiar dishes from many less well-known countries are actually not only tasty but pretty damn easy on the pocketbook.

Take Botswana, for instance.

Seswaa, something of a national dish, is simply boiled beef, which, in and of itself sounds as exciting as fried dirt. But slow cooked for four hours, properly seasoned and paired with Bogobe, or sorghum meal, and you’ve got yourself a surprisingly tasty, authentic and inexpensive meal, with roast chuck being about $2.99 a serving.

Oh, yeah, sorghum. You’ll get really familiar with unfamiliar things quickly. (And at less than a dollar a serving for sorghum meal, you may want to remain familiar with it.)

For comparison, between pricey meats and various ingredients, your standard boeuf bourguignon (hello, France!) would cost about $8 a serving when all is said and done.

In my book that’s a pretty delicious budget meal. It certainly beats the cost of picking up dinner at the average rotisserie chicken place.

Convenience has its costs.

Authentic(ish) global cooking will inevitably result in a cabinet filled with a dozen different grains-of-the-world. However, most will taste great and will have you coming back for more uses in the future.

And, bonus, you’ll be a step ahead should any celiacs show up for a dinner party.

Pork in Soy Sauce and Jakarta Fragarant Coconut Rice from Indonesia

Plus, in most cases, these flours aren’t nearly as expensive as the fine wines and oils that are called for in “cuisines” that are more “haute.”

As you’d imagine, generally speaking, the more rustic the cuisine, the more affordable its dishes are to make.

Foods from Africa and Latin America lean heavily on rice, plantains and a variety of beans, all of which make for far more affordable meals. And the many differences in preparation methods and spices allow for variety, too.

Yes, global cooking will involve regular ingredient scavenger hunts. But here, depending on the ethnic mix of your area, that can be easy and cheap or hard and expensive, depending on the nation and ingredient. Most of those will be for produce items, though. And, if you’re willing to substitute, say, spinach for amaranth greens, you should be fine.

As for spices, there isn’t much you can do to get around one basic fact: some are ridiculously expensive. But if you realize you really enjoy Central Asian food, you’ll find that that jar of cardamon won’t go to waste in the spice rack over time. (Oh, and look for spices that are sold bodega-style in cellophane bags instead of glass jars for savings on those.)

Of course, half the fun of a project like this is learning the fancy restaurant-style meals of some high-end countries; but a farmhouse ratatouille represents France just as well. And it helps save you money for next week’s fillet of sole.

Stuffed Grape Leaves from Armenia

There are also ways to save on the most elemental items from any cuisine, something I would have learned years ago … if I had learned to grocery shop/cook years ago.

But there really is only one main lesson here: One way or another, you will pay. If not with money, then with time and hassle. If not with time and hassle, with lesser food and your long-term health.

If you have access to a local produce shop or stand, use it. You’ll feel a lot better throwing out the rest of the dill you didn’t use when you bought a bunch for under a dollar instead of a $3.50 plastic package at the grocery store. Plus, you’ll likely be buying local, fresher ingredients that are in season. And that’s better for a host of reasons.

And, sure you can buy a can of beans or a package of pre-crumbled feta cheese, but if you have the foresight to soak dried beans overnight and the manual dexterity to crumble cheese, you’ll save there, too.

So, with enough planning and time, you can be cooking your own way from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe without having to drop your wallet down the Mariana Trench.

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