International understanding through cuisine

Food for thought

Can sharing meals together promote peace? At the very least, the culture of cuisine provides people with the opportunity to come closer together, overcome prejudices, and better understand various lifestyles. Laura Overmeyer on cooking as a form of cultural dialogue

There probably isn't a single culture on earth in which food does not play significant social role. A shared meal binds people, it encourages closeness and trust, and creates a sphere in which communication and interaction can take place. Whether it be among friends, with family, business partners, or those we love, food creates a sense of community.

In our day and age, intercultural dialogue is becoming increasingly important, while there is a conspicuous need to overcome prejudices and distinctions. Food is a medium that allows us to bridge these distinctions. On the one hand, food possesses a universal and cross-cultural character that endows it with the potential to create tolerance and community. On the other hand, cuisine is also marked by culturally specific traits – and not only spices and ingredients, but also food-related customs and traditions – that understandably result in people being cautious whenever trying out food from a different culture for the first time.

Conflict Kitchen: Food from an enemy country

For the past few years, the American artists Jon Rubin and Dawn Weleski have pursued their political projects using the culinary arts as their medium and, in the process, have raised a considerably amount of public attention. In 2009, they opened their takeout restaurant "Conflict Kitchen" in Pittsburgh in the American state of Pennsylvania. They only serve food from those countries with which the United States is in conflict. The menu regularly changes its regional focus according to current political events and the "conflit du jour." Iranian cuisine was featured first, followed by that of Afghanistan, Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea. Palestinian food is currently on the menu.

Conflict Kitchen (photo: Conflict Kitchen)
Politics to whet the appetite: The Palestinian version of the "Conflict Kitchen," in particular, has caused a furore in America. The aim of the project is to question the portrayal of events in the media and encourage guests to discuss issues, says Jon Rubin, one of the project managers

In addition to the cuisine, the restaurant hosts information and discussion programmes on current events relating to the featured country. The aim is to provide people from these countries with a voice – and not just to talk about political issues, but also to address everyday social concerns. "We want to overcome stereotypes and prejudices, encourage guests to discuss and think for themselves, and to question the polarizing rhetoric and the inadequate portrayal of events by politicians and the media," explains Rubin.

The Palestinian version of "Conflict Kitchen" has been the most successful, as well the as most controversial so far. For the first time, the project has been subjected to public criticism and has been accused of engaging in "anti-Israeli propaganda." A death threat even forced the artists to close the restaurant for a few weeks last November.

Rubin was outraged by these reactions, yet it makes him all the more determined to continue with his mission. "Conflict Kitchen is a public platform for those voices that American society does not want to hear. All of the criticism stands in sharp contrast to the support that we receive from the public everyday in our restaurant," he says.

Cooking outside of the box

Berlin is home to a project called "Über den Tellerrand kochen" which can be roughly translated as "cooking outside of the box". The project supports eating and cooking together as a means of encouraging cultural dialogue and integration. The project organizes private suppers and professional cooking courses with and hosted by refugees. This provides a forum to discuss refugee issues and lessens the fear of contact on both sides. Out of the hotchpotch of international recipes served since the project's inception, a cookbook has now been published under the title "Rezepte für ein besseres Wir" (Recipes for a Better We).

Über den Tellerrand Kochen (photo: Über den Tellerrand Kochen)
The way to the heart is through the stomach, as they say. The project "Über den Tellerrand kochen" organizes evening meals cooked by and with refugees. A shared meal brings refugees and local people closer together

"I find that 'Über den Tellerrand' is a fantastic and valuable way to encourage the integration of refugees and promote exchange between cultures," says Ninon Demuth, who established the project in 2013 together with three other young Berliners as part of a competition. The concept of refugee cooking courses has since been established in other German cities as well.

Conflict over hummus and falafel

London star chefs Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi have also been contributing to the understanding among nations through culinary means. In the London restaurants that they run together, the chefs have been highlighting the commonalities of Jewish and Arab cuisine and are constantly re-interpreting recipes.

Ottolenghi and Tamimi both grew up in Jerusalem, although in very different parts of the city. Ottolenghi is from Jewish West Jerusalem, whereas Tamimi comes from Muslim East Jerusalem. Nonetheless, their childhood culinary memories are quite similar and, in 2012, this led them to dedicate a cookbook to the city of their birth.

One thing particularly stressed in the "Jerusalem Cookbook" is the fact that Jerusalem cuisine is the result of the city's history and is therefore a melting pot of the most various influences. Over the course of the millennia, different culinary traditions have merged together to such an extent that it is no longer possible to separate its elements. Rather than describe the cuisine of Jerusalem as either Jewish or Arab, it is far more apt to categorize it as multicultural.

Book sleeve: the "Jerusalem Cookbook"
The debate on politics and religion in Jerusalem isn't over until one discovers the commonalities in cuisine. This point is stressed over and again in the cookbook published by the star chefs Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi. They play with the idea of a culinary mediation of the region's cultural and religious conflict. "Maybe someday, hummus will bring together the people of Jerusalem," they hope

Even though the two chefs did not write their book from a political perspective, they are still well aware of the explosive potential of their views. Tensions in Jerusalem pervade all levels of society, even seeping into the sphere of cuisine. In particular, there is a bitter division over the origins of two delicacies hummus and falafel, as both sides have claimed them as national dishes.

"In Jerusalem, the conflict is between two cultures and therefore everything is politically charged, even food. Instead of bringing people together, food has also become a matter of contention," says Ottolenghi.

By contrast, one could view the commonalities in cuisine as the starting point for reconciliation. "Without a doubt, one can enjoy a good meal without knowing to which tradition it belongs," write Ottolenghi and Tamimi in their cookbook. They see Jerusalem cuisine as offering the potential for mutual rapprochement. "There are still huge obstacles to be overcome. We are working on it. Maybe someday, hummus will bring together the people of Jerusalem."

By Laura Overmeyer

© Qantara.de

Translated by John Bergeron

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