Pittsburgh's take-out dining concept serves food from countries in conflict with the U.S.
by Ikechukwu Onyewuenyi
Who thought international disputes could leave a sweet, mouthwatering aftertaste? Well the minds behind Conflict Kitchen—Jon Rubin, Dawn Weleski and John Pena see the savory in skirmish, intending to whet palettes and satisfy appetites while educating the city of Pittsburgh on the tenets of conflict. A truly novel (and tasty) installation, the experiment is a take-out restaurant meets public art project, serving food from countries that the United States is at loggerheads with, although overt combat is not a prerequisite.
For Conflict Kitchen, food serves as the main cultural communicator—a "seduction for engagement [that] opens up a space of conviviality and comfort for people," as Rubin puts it. However, the initiative goes beyond comestibles, intending to spur conversations about the social contexts of the conflicts within these nations. Rubin envisioned a space that "could not only add some culinary diversity to the city, but, more importantly, could create a public platform for a more empathic discussion about the places and cultures that many people are not familiar with outside of the relatively narrow and polarizing lens of the mainstream media."
Currently called "Bolani Pazi," today's iteration of Conflict Kitchen looks to Afghanistan, but the country rotates every four months and I had the chance to check it out when it was representing Iran. Taking on the name Kubideh Kitchen in reference to the staple Persian dish, the restaurant served kubideh—ground beef duly spiced with turmeric and cinnamon, garnished with aromatic basil and mint, and served atop freshly baked barbari bread. "We like to work with simple street food; something that you could make and get easily regardless of your social position within a culture," says Rubin. "The draw of our food has opened up a curiosity amongst our customers that leads to conversations about politics that might not happen otherwise."
Conversations really did spill forth from each bite of the kubideh, as the meals at the concept come wrapped in paper printed with opinions and facts about each culture, in this case with bits about the importance of tea and the sui generis New Year custom of Nowuz. Just the other day I shared an extra kubideh wrapper with a close friend of mixed Persian heritage who was both enamored and touched by the words and efforts of Conflict Kitchen, exclaiming excitedly that she was going to share this with her mother. That, like the heady thinking behind it, goes far deeper than the meal itself.