A decade ago, I spent a year living in Sweden. Despite what mass media might have you believe, the country is in fact more than just bombshell blonds and smorgasbords. While there, I befriended several Iranians, their families having fled during the reign of the Shah and taken refuge in Scandinavia. I was quickly taken in as an extra daughter by these hospitable and warm families, the mothers ready to please and ensure that I was taken care of. I grew to love Persian rice pilaf and the masses of yogurt and dill ever present at meals.
This was several years before words like “axis of evil” and “uranium” became associated with the country, so for me, when someone mentions Iran I immediately envision large family parties with rhythmic Persian dance music, tables overflowing with delicious food, and older Iranian women explaining to me just who had made what and which family recipe was used. To me, Iran means warmth, generosity and, above all, a culinary tradition that deserves respect; a good reminder that food really can bridge cultural gaps.
In the foodie world we’ve seen this happen with places like Thailand and India, countries known for their culinary traditions that have become almost as deeply ingrained in American food culture as hamburgers and hot dogs. Although I don’t have any hard statistics on the link between enjoying food from a certain country and our relations toward it, it’s logical to assume the more we love the food from a certain place, the more we’re inclined to learn about it and discover the country’s culture – and we all know that cultural understanding is a key component in promoting a more peaceful world.
There are some new tastes on the block trying to do just that, and they’re from places you might only have seen referenced in news headlines. Conflict Kitchen, based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is making a name for itself by serving up takeout food only from countries that the United States is in conflict with. North Korea, Iran, Afghanistan; these might be household names when it comes to the nightly news, but with a focus on their culinary prowess, more emphasis is being put on the cultural forces of the country and less on their current standing in global affairs.
The food served at Conflict Kitchen will rotate every four months to feature another country. The takeout storefront is currently decked out in a colorful Iranian exterior and serves up the country’s traditional kubideh in freshly baked barbari bread with onion, mint, and basil. Beyond providing delicious and unique food, the ultimate goal is to encourage discussion. According to the website, “Each Conflict Kitchen iteration will be augmented by events, performances, and discussion about the the culture, politics, and issues at stake with each county we focus on.”
How the food is served is also a key component in educating the general public on cultural issues. “Developed in collaboration with members of the Pittsburgh Iranian community, the sandwich is packaged in a custom-designed wrapper that includes interviews with Iranians both in Pittsburgh and Iran on subjects ranging from Iranian food and poetry to the current political turmoil.”
Recently, the grant-funded Conflict Kitchen held a simultaneously meal between Pittsburgh and Teheran, where dinners in both cities were joined together by Skype. Free and open to the public, this is an excellent example of how food can bring people, who normally are worlds apart, together and inspire long lasting conversations that tackle difficult questions like tradition and culture and in turn change our perceptions.
You can keep up with the Conflict Kitchen and what food they’ll be featuring next on their website.
Editor’s note: This is the latest installment of Anna Brones’s column at EcoSalon, Foodie Underground. Each week, Anna will be taking a look at something new and different that’s taking place in the underground food movement, from supper clubs to mini markets to culinary avant garde.
Images: Conflict Kitchen