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Food Bridges Cultural Gaps, Sparks Dialogue

One way to encourage cross-cultural dialogue: Speak in the universal language of food.

“Food breaks down a lot of barriers,” says Chef Michael Nenes, assistant vice president of Culinary Arts for The Art Institutes.
According to Nenes, once we become familiar with different ethnic cuisines, we don’t look at other cultures as being as unusual as we once thought they were. “With food, we can begin to see what we have in common as far as ingredients and preparation while at the same time become familiar with different flavor profiles,” he adds.

Using food to bridge cultural gaps seems like a simple idea, but how is it being executed? Three artists demonstrate with an Iranian takeout restaurant serving only one item but plenty of cultural awareness.

Launched this spring by John Pena, Jon Rubin, and Dawn Weleski, Kubideh Kitchen in Pittsburgh is the first iteration of Conflict Kitchen, a year-long public art project in the form of a takeout window that serves only cuisines from countries the United States is in conflict with. The restaurant will change identities every four months to highlight another country. Next up is Afghanistan and possibly North Korea after that.

“We had done projects involving food before, for example the Waffle Shop is designed to stimulate public discourse,” tells Weleski, who is the assistant director of the Waffle Shop, another art/social project that functions as a restaurant and allows diners to participate in a talk show that is broadcast over the Internet.

Kubideh Kitchen is next door to the Waffle Shop, sharing the same preparation area and staff. Those who pass by Kubideh Kitchen are first struck by the bright blue and yellow façade emblazoned with words written in Farsi. Then there’s the real seduction – the kubideh, an Iranian sandwich of ground beef, onion, basil, mint, and parsley wrapped in barbari bread. The only item on the menu, kubideh not only feeds customers’ appetites but also their understanding of Iran, a country that has long been engaged in political turmoil with the United States.
Americans’ perceptions of Iran and Iranians can sometimes be clouded by what they see in mainstream news media. Kubideh Kitchen interviewed Iranians in Pittsburgh and Iran in an effort to get unfiltered responses to their questions about Iranian culture.
“We could read books and Wikipedia and watch news programs, but we decided to use connection with Iranian community instead,” Weleski says. “We asked questions we thought the average Pittsburgher would ask.”

The kubideh is wrapped in a custom-designed wrapper which has text on it culled from the interviews. The wrapper includes information about Iranian fashion, government, films, and customs.

“We let people engage at the level they want to,” Weleski explains. “We are not asking them to commit to having in-depth conversations but even if they just taste the food it’s an experience. So, if the topic of Iran ever comes up, they can say ‘I’ve eaten Iranian food’ or mention something they read on the food wrapper.”

According to Weleski, Kubideh Kitchen has far exceeded expectations. Approximately 50 people a day come to the window. There are people who have never met having conversations about food and Iran. Some are relating the culinary experience their everyday life and cultural experiences.

Nenes applauds the Kubideh Kitchen project. He says many culinary professionals promote spreading cultural awareness through food.

“The political world does not necessarily hold back the culinary world,” he offers. “When one sits down and breaks bread, it is hard to fight.”
Weleski says food is simply one of the easiest ways to show cultures. “Everyone needs to eat,” she says. “Almost every person on earth has been creative with food. Your taste and smell sensation immediately connects you with someone who was exposed to that food everyday.”

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