Conflict Kitchen puts peace on the table

Phil Champain, Director of Emerging Programmes at International Alert, talks about how food can promote understanding between communities in dispute. This article originally appeared in the Guardian Poverty Matters blog on 10 September 2014.

During more than a decade of working in parts of the world affected by conflict, I have never been far from sharing food. As an outsider, invariably I have been the guest at a restaurant or the family home of a relative stranger.

On occasions, food itself has been the subject of argument. In 2008, Lebanese chefs created the world’s largest hummus plate in Beirut and decorated it with the Lebanese flag during a row over traditional dishes. Armenians have taken steps to safeguard what they believe to be the Armenian lineage of tolma (stuffed vine leaves or other vegetables), which are frequently also served in Turkey (where they are known as dolma). And on the other side of the conflict divide, Azerbaijan’s culinary watchdog the National Cuisine Centre has not been reluctant to persuade people that Armenian cuisine is in fact Azeri cuisine. It seems food can be used to strengthen positions in a conflict.

But it can also be an important part of deepening understanding. In the case of chefs Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, food can be a vehicle for exploring the similarities in traditions associated with communities in conflict. The cookbook Jerusalem was written by the two chefs who grew up on opposite sides of the divided city, Tamimi in the Arab east, Ottolenghi in the Jewish west. Notes and essays included in the cookbook convey the authors’ awareness that trying to contain both Arab and Jewish traditions in one book is inherently controversial, but nevertheless important.

Food is wrapped up with the way we manage our dialogues and discussions. As chef Claudia Roden reminds us, “dishes carry the triumphs and glories, the defeats, the loves and sorrows of the past”. It can help our efforts to understand each other.

Food is also part of our rituals. Not only birthdays and weddings, but of rituals designed to reconcile differences and resolve conflicts. For example, the ritual process of sulh (literally meaning “peace”) in the Middle East usually ends in a public ceremony of musalaha(“reconciliation”) performed in a public place. The families of both the victim and the guilty party line up along the road to exchange greetings and accept apologies. The ceremony includes a visit by the family of the perpetrator to the victim’s home to drink a cup of bitter coffee, and it concludes with a meal hosted by the family of the offender. The specific form of the ritual varies from Israel/Palestine to Lebanon and Jordan, but the basic philosophy is based on musafaha (hand-shaking), andmumalaha (meaning “partaking of salt and bread”, ie breaking bread together).

In the UK, some of those advocating restorative justice practices also focus on ritual. In her recent book, Just Emotions: Rituals of Restorative Justice, Meredith Rossner from the London School of Economics uses ritual theory to explore the dynamics at play during an encounter between victim and offender, highlighting the importance of rhythm, emotional highs, preparing participants and managing expectations, and turning points. The provision of food is seen as an important part of such encounters, helping to create a non-threatening environment.

These are the unsung benefits of eating together and the reasons why International Alert has launched the pop-up restaurant, Conflict Kitchen London. The idea is inspired by, but independent of, the Conflict Kitchen conceptualised in the US, which serves food from countries with which the US is in conflict.

The London kitchen will serve dishes from Burma, Jordan and Peru. Discussions around the tables will touch on the challenges Burma is facing during its political transition from decades of authoritarian military rule to the aspiration of a civilian democracy; Jordan’s precarious position in the Middle East as it deals with refugees crossing its borders with Israel, Syria and Iraq; and prospects for Peru’s indigenous people in light of the country’s significant mining industry.

The ingredients and the preparation of dishes tell us something about a place and a community, and can spark difficult but important exchanges between people. Ultimately, food is an important part of the rituals we enter into to resolve our differences and restore a sense of justice and fairness within our communities.

• Conflict Kitchen London runs in partnership with Grub Club and Monikers Restaurant from 11-27 September.

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