It’s all about art-meets-politics-meets-FOOD, because how hard is it to hold onto misgivings about a country when your mouth is stuffed full of delicious tidbits from their land?
Since 2010, Conflict Kitchen has been opening minds and filling tummies by bringing both the cuisine and the inside story of less-understood countries into the heart of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Focusing on “countries with which the United States is in conflict”, every few months the project features menus from a rotating cast of characters—Afghanistan, North Korea, Palestine, Venezuela, Iran, and Cuba—giving the community a chance to sample exotic aromas and flavours from lands far away.
But it’s not all about the food. With each incarnation, the Conflict Kitchen team reaches out to those in the featured country, as well as the local diaspora, to create a programme of events aimed at raising awareness and understanding. These range from simultaneous Skype dinners with Iranians in Tehran to reenactments of speeches by Fidel Castro, to passing out North Korean candy on Kim Jong-un’s birthday. Different guests from each country take over Conflict Kitchen’s Instagram account every few weeks, giving followers a unique look at every-day life in these far-away lands.
The shop itself decorated with eye-popping graphic patterns inspired by each country, along with the name “Conflict Kitchen” written in the local language. It definitely stands out in the middle of the University of Pittsburgh’s campus, where it sits next to a nook of lush green grass. The perfect spot for a takeaway!
I was personally happy that we’d missed Iran (a cuisine that will haunt me to my grave) and landed on Cuba instead. While Cuban food isn’t known for being vegetarian-friendly the menu still delivered with quimbombo con bolitas de platano—tomato-stewed okra with plantain dumplings. Mook took the lechon asado (slow-roasted pork in mojo sauce), and both choices were hearty and delicious.
At the shop you can pick up what they call “food wrappers”, which are large, colourful sheets that feature interviews with Cubans who live in the USA and in Cuba. From ordinary people, the perspectives are fascinating and educational, and give you something to ponder as you partake of their delicious cuisine.
It’s a brilliant project, but conflict and controversy come hand-in-hand. Not everyone supports Conflict Kitchen, a point that came to light when they drew criticism for their Palestinian kitchen. Members of the community and some in the media became upset that Palestine should receive such attention, and criticised the operation as being “anti-Israeli”. Things got so bad that Conflict Kitchen had to temporarily close after receiving anonymous threats, an event that succeeded in pushing the project into the international limelight.
“Conflict” is a loaded word, and the notion that a country is at odds with the United States can carry quite some gravity. That being said, it would be cool to see Conflict Kitchen expand outside of the six nations they’ve done so far instead of repeating them. Syria is an easy one, but what about Russia, Belarus, Sudan, or Libya? And it would be even more fantastic to see projects of a similar concept elsewhere around the world, as there’s definitely no better way to open minds and build bridges than over food.