Conflict Kitchen Serves Up Street Food With a Side of Political Discourse
Meet Dawn Weleski, one of the cofounders of Conflict Kitchen, a Pittsburgh take-out restaurant serving up foods from countries with which the U.S. is in conflict militarily, diplomatically, or otherwise. Every three months, the concept changes, including its menu, outside décor, food wrappers, and a billboard atop the restaurant overlooking the East Liberty neighborhood. The restaurant’s specialties have rotated through Iranian kubideh (a minced meat kabob), Afghan bolani (a vegan flatbread), Venezuelan arepas (stuffed corn cakes) and now, Cuban lecho asado, a roast pork dish in mojo marinade.
Cocina Cubana, as the restaurant is currently called, began when Weleski and Jon Rubin were deciding what to do with a storefront they wanted to use as a takeout restaurant. The storefront was attached to another art project, The Waffle Shop, which served waffles and brunch while producing a live streaming talk show with its customers. “We started thinking about cuisines that we could have,” she explained. Rubin, a professor who had recently moved from the Bay Area, complained, “‘You can’t get any good Mexican food out here, and not only that, people don’t know the difference between Cuban and Venezuelan and all those different cuisines,’ and I said, ‘I’ve traveled to the Middle East a little bit, and people don’t know the difference between Iranian or Afghan or anything like that, and then as we started naming these countries, we realized we were naming cuisines from countries with which the US government is in conflict, and it was sort of a light bulb moment, and Conflict Kitchen was born.”
In 2010, when they opened the restaurant’s first iteration, Kubideh Kitchen, “we were very surprised to see we didn’t close down within the first three weeks.”
Instead, the city’s reaction was enthusiastic. “We have different levels of invitation into the project. The first is the sign at the top of the restaurant facade. When we first put up the Farsi sign, we didn’t realize Iranian people were going to be stopping in the middle of the road and saying, ‘Oh my gosh, they’re selling kubideh! There are no Iranian restaurants here!’ To this day, we’re the only Iranian, Afghan, Venezuelan and now Cuban restaurant that’s ever been in Pittsburgh. So it’s been interesting to see these immigrant communities or first- or second-generation communities coming out of the woodwork, who we didn’t know existed — they were living in the suburbs, or in small subsets in the city.”
“The second level of invitation,” she continued, “is obviously through the food. As you’re eating the food, you’re also tasting the culture and reading about the culture and politics. The food is wrapped in interviews we’ve done with people in that country, and those who have immigrated to the US, on topics ranging from culture to politics. Within each of those topics, there are diverse views so that you come to understand the nuanced, personal, opinionated views connected to the laws that exist.” Cuba was the team’s first chance to travel in-country to do the interviews in person.
“The food itself is a street food, the everyman’s food, something that you can cheaply get, and it represents not only the culture, but the culture of the conflict,” Weleski explains. For instance, growing the mint and basil found on top of Iranian kubideh is largely being outsourced to China. So what is the relationship between Iran and China, and what implications does it have on its citizens?
The next level of invitation is discourse with the restaurant staff. “Our employees are trained to engage strangers in conversation, to admit their ignorances and to talk about what they do know. We then decided we needed to do some sort of public programming, not only in our local community but to our global community.” These programs have included live Skype meals with Tehran, film screenings, and organized school visits to the restaurant. “The project is certainly an educational project, and when we say educational project, for me in particular, it means more of a coming to your own personal knowledge, a coming to an understanding of what you do and you don’t know, and an understanding of your own personal identity and how you fit within the world. And mainly, the knowledge that your opinion matters and that you have a responsibility to find out what that opinion is.”
Still, food is the central enticement. “Food is a more seductive invitation than ‘hey, come have a political discussion.'” Diners may learn, for instance, that there are varying views of consuming alcohol in Iran. While some adhere to the Muslim rule of law banning alcohol, others say that they consume alcohol nightly with their families. Many restaurant guests are surprised to learn that the Iranian city of Shiraz originated the Shiraz grape found in so many Australian wines. Perhaps the most common question asked and answered in different ways: “do they hate us?”
Not all engagements are so heady, however. If a young person came to the window, it might be shared that 70% of the Iranian population is under the age of 30, and the last conversation that the staff had was with a young Irani who just broke up with his girlfriend and was having a really hard time finding a date. “This idea of a girlfriend and dating in Tehran is sometimes more useful than speaking directly about the conflict.”
This fall, in an effort to expand and diversify its audience, Conflict Kitchen will move from the East Liberty area to downtown Pittsburgh. It may also open a second location in San Francisco. The potential Mission District location will have two corner storefronts representing the border conflict between North and South Korea. Each window will offer foods reflecting the country’s cuisine. Typically in North Korea, the noodle used in soup is made of buckwheat because it’s a heartier grain, cheaper to produce, and stands up to the colder climate. In South Korea, the noodle is made of rice. The soups will also represent the different availability of proteins and vegetables.
The French poet Jean de La Fontaine once wrote, “a hungry stomach cannot hear.” Perhaps by filling our stomachs, Conflict Kitchen allows its diners to listen a bit better to our neighbors around the world.