Food has always been a potent symbol of international politics. Images of Soviet-era bread lines or of Syrian bakeries being shelled come to mind. Food incites something deep within each of us. As Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, a Jewish and Palestinian chef respectively, note in Jerusalem: A Cookbook. “There is something about the heated, highly animated spirit of the city’s residents that creates unparalleled delicious food.”
Indeed, food has always enjoyed a fond, almost sacred place during wartime (beyond the MRE). Remember the old subway ads calling for conservation by the U.S. government declared: “Food will win the war! We observe Meatless days, Wheatless days, Porkless days [sic].” Yet food is also a weapon of war. It’s no secret why during its recent conflicts, Russia banned Georgian wine or Polish sausage, or why it sent health inspectors to shut down its McDonalds in Moscow.
Food can also be taboo to talk about. A New Yorker writer was briefly detained and interrogated for asking too many questions about bread prices in Tehran. Anthony Bourdain, host of CNN’s Parts Unknown, got into trouble with Egyptian police after trying to shoot a segment on ful, the street food Egyptians gorge on.
In my past life as a freelance reporter based in post-conflict countries, I used to think there was a direct relationship between war-torn places and good cuisine. Maybe an inventive menu was a sign of ethnically diverse cultures, which may be synonymous with internecine conflict. Conflict zones, after all, tend to bestride former empires. Or perhaps the horror of war is what lends itself to good food – as a form of culinary escapism.
The tastiest kebabs I’ve tried are in Aleppo (in a former merchant guesthouse since leveled during the war). Which should come as no surprise: Syria sits at a cultural crossroads — its cuisine benefits from Ottoman, Armenian, Jewish, and French influences. That would also explain why the best falafel in Jordan, at least according to aid workers there, is in a Syrian refugee camp. I remember sampling the best cheese and wine I’d ever tried in Tbilisi shortly after Georgia’s 2008 war with Russia. That makes sense – Georgia has been invaded by the Mongols, the Persians, the Turks.
Blander food conversely seems to go hand in hand with peace and stability. Until Rene Redzepi’s Noma lit up the latest New Nordic foodie craze, peace in northern Europe corresponded with a dull and unpredictable diet of meat and potatoes. The Balkans may be a less stable place, but anybody who’s tried a cevapi in Sarajevo can say that Bosnian cuisine is anything but bland. I have fond memories of my trip last year to Tanzania – a country at relative peace since a border scuffle with Burundi in 1996 – but tasting its native cuisine was not one of them. Ethiopia, which has seen no shortage of war and conflict, boasts perhaps the continent’s best food.
For whatever reason, good native food also tends to correlate with a dislike of America, not just in France but also among countries like Cuba, Venezuela, China, and Iran. In Pittsburgh, a restaurant that calls itself Conflict Kitchen serves only dishes from “rogue” states – think Cuban tostones or Persian-style kebab. The owners even inadvertently waded into the Middle East conflict after recently featuring native food from “Palestine,” which sparked protests from pro-Israel Americans.
Perhaps a byproduct of world peace might be blander, or at least more commoditized and risk-averse, cuisines. Or maybe we should deploy peacekeepers to places based on their number of Michelin stars. The State Department, after all, recently created what it calls its “Chef Corps,” a program that dispatches top chefs abroad to carry out “culinary diplomacy.”
The idea of, say, Tom Colicchio or Gordon Ramsay hammering out a nuclear agreement with some anti-American ayatollah may not be a bad idea. Chefs are everything diplomats are not: brash, independent, blunt, creative – just what we need in good ambassadors. Let’s send Guy Fieri to North Korea.
Food is strangely both an enabler of peace yet also a divider of countries, a way to elevate one’s culture as well as a cudgel to punish one’s enemy. As Ottolenghi and Tamimi write, “[H]ummus will eventually bring Jerusalemites together, if nothing else will.”
That may be wishful thinking. But in a world perpetually awash in war, with U.S. troops redeploying to Iraq and Russia militarily salivating over Eastern Europe, maybe it’s time to break out the hummus.