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Eating with the enemy

Anne-Sophie BrändlinSeptember 19, 2013

In the US city of Pittsburgh, a restaurant dishes up food for thought. The menu features cuisine from countries with which the United States is in conflict. The goal: better political and cultural understanding.

A woman chats with customers
Image: conflictkitchen.org

The post-industrial US city of Pittsburgh seems like an unlikely place for trying to improve diplomatic relations with countries that Americans may consider enemies. But in fact, a restaurant here in the country's old "rust belt" could be the closest one can get to a sit-down dinner with Fidel Castro or Hamid Karzai.

The project, called "Conflict Kitchen," not only dishes out exotic food, but it offers its customers the chance to learn more about the culture and thoughts of people living in a "hostile" country and its former citizens who now live in the US.

It all started with a waffle shop that turned into "a live streaming talk show with the customers," said Dawn Weleski, a former art student, who ran the place with her professor, Jon Rubin. The duo used food as a medium to engage with the community, and when their concept took off, they started brainstorming ideas for a new restaurant.

"We started naming cuisines that we could serve in Pittsburgh," Weleski said. "Since the Pittsburgh culinary landscape isn't so diverse, we thought we could serve Cuban, Venezuelan, Iranian and Afghan cuisine, and we realized we were naming all these cuisines from countries with which the US government is in conflict. That's how Conflict Kitchen got started."

Food for thought

The restaurant, which opened in 2010, changes its focus every few months depending on current geopolitical events. Venezuela in the news? How about some hot arepas (stuffed corn cake)? Iranian elections? Try some fresh kubideh (Iranian kebabs). And with the current theme of Cuba, customers can try dishes such as lechon asado (slow-roasted pork), or ropa vieja (Cuban-style shredded beef).

But trying an exotic cuisine is only part of the experience. Conflict Kitchen aims to encourage discussion and foster better political understanding and cultural awareness between diners and the featured country - using food to create a space in which the alleged enemy becomes less abstract and giving a face to the people that live in countries the US has troubles with.

"When you receive the food, it actually comes in a paper wrapper or a box that has a sticker on it and printed on that paper wrapper are interviews that we've done with folks from that country and those who have immigrated to the US," Weleski said.

Every country theme is accompanied by events, performances, and discussions, giving customers the opportunity to learn more about countries, cultures and people they might otherwise only rarely encounter.

"When you come to our Cuban iteration, you might find a Barack Obama look-alike dressed up and standing in front of a podium giving a speech based on interviews that we've done with Cubans, where we asked them to produce a speech that they would like Barack Obama to give," Weleski said.

Other special events include informal dinner parties featuring an expert on a selected world conflict. Cooking classes and Skype dinner parties are offered with participants from - for instance - Tehran, who are beamed in via a live video stream.

Tehran diners are beamed in via live video stream and eat and talk with Pittsburgh diners
Image: conflictkitchen.org

Customers can spend their lunch breaks with the "enemy," such as 24-year-old Sohrab Kashani, who lives in Iran. Every Wednesday Pittsburgher Elise Walton connects to Kashani via headset and acts as an interpreter for Conflict Kitchen's customers curious to hear what an Iranian thinks.

Easier to digest

Six months in advance, Conflict Kitchen starts researching a new national theme by keeping an eye on the news, evaluating which geopolitical conflict deserves more attention and then deciphering why things are happening. They look into a country's history and seek out experts and locals to hear what people are predicting for the future, Weleski explained. "Then we dig deeper and try to hear what people's personal stories are," she said, either by conducting Skype interviews or even travelling to the respective country.

Head chef Robert Sayre also has his hands full, creating a new menu every couple of months. The goal is to create affordable dishes, while offering a large spectrum of authentic food.

Upcoming culinary themes look at border conflicts between people: North and South Koreans, and Palestinians and Israelis. Conflict Kitchen has already started talking with South Korean chefs and North Korean refugees, trying to find out what they think about the US, what they like to cook and what food means to them.

The food comes packaged in wrappers that include interviews with citizens from the theme country on subjects ranging from culture to politics
The food comes packaged in wrappers that include interviews with people from the theme country on subjects ranging from culture to politicsImage: conflictkitchen.org

Weleski recently returned from an exploratory trip to South Korea, where the team learned to make - and eat - dumplings. "We were able not only to share a plate of food with locals, but at the same time share something that could be very sensitive - for example, information about a North Korean defecting into China and then South Korea," she said.

Such experiences are exactly what Conflict Kitchen is trying to give its customers. And as they have found, a delicious plate of exotic food makes political and cultural conflict much easier to digest.