Four different kinds of mouth watering arepas (golden crispy corn cakes with an array of stuffing) catch my eye on the menu. And then there is the Ensalada Palmito (a fresh salad of marinated palm with tomato, red onion, bell pepper and avocado), Pabellon Criollo (shredded beef served on steaming rice, with black beans and fried sweet plantains), the Besitos de Coco (sweet coconut cookies), Tequenos (crispy fried pastry) and the Arroz con Leche (rice pudding with cinnamon). While this is staple fare in Venezuela, it’s hardly the kind of food you’d expect to find in the heart of an American city. But what is unique is that America’s ideological differences with some nations has fueled the gourmet menu at Pittsburgh’s quaint Conflict Kitchen. What’s really cooking here is food for thought!
Their Venezuelan theme has just ended its run. This take-out only spot in Schenley Plaza rotates its menu every four months, selecting the cuisine of a different nation every time (and always one that’s been in conflict with the United States), hoping to spark an awareness that could help Americans regard political issues without prejudice while promoting cultural integration.
“Experiencing different cuisines is an ideal way for people to relate to another culture,” says artist Dawn Weleski, co-founder and director of Conflict Kitchen. “It’s logical too. Often, the first exposure that citizens of a country have to an immigrant culture is vastly through its cooking.”
In 2008, Jon Rubin, also a co-founder and director of Conflict Kitchen and a professor of art at the Carnegie Mellon University, had involved his students in a performance art project set up in East Liberty called the Waffle Shop: A Reality Show. The Waffle shop was a restaurant that not just served waffles, but engaged diners in impromptu interviews and conversation that were streamed live online. It went on to become a huge success. Weleski, then one of Rubin’s students, was involved in thinking of new ways and ideas to further engage the community. Storytelling sessions offered at the restaurant proved to be popular, but their first real challenge came when the Waffle shop, (which was bookended by numerous clubs and bars on a crowded street), faced intense competition from a local hotdog vendor.
“We decided to set up another restaurant next door that would offer a more versatile menu and made a list of cuisines that weren’t available in the city,” says Weleski. “On our list was Iranian, Afghan, Cuban, Venezuelan, North Korean, Palestinian cuisines and it struck us then that these were all countries that were in conflict with the United States—and that’s how the idea for Conflict Kitchen took root.”
Today, Conflict Kitchen has engaged public attention so effectively, that it’s not just another restaurant, but a place where customers can learn about the nuances of new culture, acquaint themselves with the way people there think and not least, sample its culinary specialties.
Initially, they needed to find ethnic recipes on a shoe-string budget. For this, they sought out Pittsburgh based immigrants who were only too happy to share their culinary expertise.
“We would cook in their homes or invite them to the restaurant to oversee our recipes,” says Welski. “This intimate setting often gave us the opportunity to bond, to ask them questions about the lives they had left behind, their customs and politics. We made it clear that we were interested in their personal opinions, which often differed vastly from contemporary media reports.” These interviews were then printed on the gaily colored food wrappers, further encouraging discussion and debate with customers.
Currently operating on a budget of half a million a year, the directors of Conflict Kitchen now receive grants to actually visit the countries whose foods they feature and this allows them to interact with the locals and research cuisines in greater depth. Developing the menu for the next cuisine begins months in advance and is often linked to global events.
For instance, the current theme which focuses on Afghan cuisine was developed to mark the Afghan elections in April’14. In September, the restaurant is gearing up to feature food from Palestine. During the Iranian theme last winter, an inter-continental dinner party was set up, with diners engaging in a live Skype conference with people from Tehran!
Interestingly, the make-shift storefront changes with every cuisine to reflect native colors, designs and motifs. “The aesthetics are very important,” explains Weleski. “It becomes a cultural symbol and I think it’s important for immigrants to see signs of their culture in the city.”
Kamala Thiagarajan writes on travel, health and lifestyle topics for a global audience. She has been widely published in over ten countries.