There is a famous Arabic adage that states, “When you eat with someone, you cannot betray them” (عند تناول الطعام مع شخص ما، لا يمكنك خيانة لهم). Similarly, the term ‘break bread’ is used throughout New Testament, to refer to the communal eating that would occur before discussion or prayer – hence the phrase, “It is hard to remain enemies when you’ve broken bread together”. This belief is shared in many cultures around the world – so much so that being invited to eat with someone when visiting a foreign country is regarded by many as the highest honour. Sharing food has long been held as an indicator of respect, trust and community, and not just within one group.
As the world becomes increasingly globalised, culinary trends from different countries are travelling at an impressive rate, so that you can now eat Japanese sushi in Canada and Italian pasta in West Africa with ease. This is great news for foodies, as is the rise in ‘fusion food’ – taking the best elements of different cuisines and combining them into new and exciting dishes. However, it also holds huge potential for connecting not just cooking styles, but cultures, too.
When we eat a new dish and enjoy it, it gives us an appreciation of the culture that created it. Better yet, if we can learn about how dishes from different countries to our own are made, and the significance they hold, we are broadening our horizons and coming to appreciate others’ customs and the value of multicultural connections.
Asli Zengin from Food Connects People – an organisation celebrating diversity through communal cooking and eating of international dishes - says, “Food is a universal language which everyone knows how to speak. In fact, it is a powerful channel of getting in contact with the other at different levels. It's actually like a matryoshka doll (or a Russian doll). At the outer level, let's say the most visible and immediate one, we can tell from which culture we are coming from. Going towards inner levels we can express our personal tastes for flavours and colours. At the inner most level we can recall stories and memories which taught us something, left a sign inside us.”
With fusion food becoming increasingly popular, and people looking for more ways to spark conversation about the world between groups, food is increasingly being mobilised as a way to bring different viewpoints, quite literally, to the table to share dishes and stories alike.
Food as connection
In the video above, chef Marcus Samuel claims, “In the best way, food can connect us, and it can tell us a story about why we eat the way we eat.” This notion is perhaps the basis of the food activism movement – the belief that what people eat can reveal more than simply what is in their pantry. Many cultures practice particular food customs – from celebratory feasts to courting gestures – so understanding the role food plays in different societies can really open up a range of discussions about the historical development of certain traditions and what they mean to locals.
Jennifer Dery from the blog, Butter Sage, comments on how sampling new styles of food can actively broaden diners’ cultural references, sparking increased interest in multicultural learning:
“I believe food is an incredible bridge to engaging people with new people and cultures. The rise in popularity of large-scale food tasting events, for example, has really allowed consumers to be exposed to new tastes, flavours, and some cultural elements they would have never experienced before. Once hooked on something new and delicious, a person may be inclined to further explore food of that type.
“I know my love of food from Baja pushed me to go explore Valle de Guadalupe. Veering off the main beach toll road in Mexico was considered by many to be unsafe when I was growing up (here in San Diego). So it was a bit of a leap to drive into the valley one day. I’m so glad I did and I’ve never looked back. I have many more stories like this for other places in the world. Every time, the food and the people make any new leap so worthwhile.”
Even if all fusion food does is tempt the eater to try something new, this could lead on to a much deeper exploration of a culture, fostering tolerance and curiosity in myriad areas.
Fusion food: fostering multicultural understanding
It is not just an idealised sense of cultural harmony that food can nurture. Cuisine can, in fact, actively counter some of the more regressive cultural stereotypes that groups are faced in the media and political spheres. Olivia Sibony from Grub Club comments:
“When we are bombarded with images in the press about war-torn countries, we forget about the humanity of those impacted. Through Conflict Café, diners celebrate the beautiful aspects of countries like Syria, sharing a meal with other diners. Chefs from that country showcase their culinary and hosting skills, giving an engaging, welcoming and open-armed representation of the beauty of their culture.”
Various social initiatives have harnessed this power. Conflict Café, as Olivia mentions, is one prime example. Founded by peacebuilding NGO, International Alert, this pop-up was named by Time Out magazine as the ‘Most Inspirational Pop-up’ for its celebration of international cuisines. Combining foods from various conflict regions, the café serves up delicious dishes for diners to bond over as they discuss global socio-political issues in a respectful environment. Having served over a thousand diners and hosted events highlighting conflicts in countries as diverse as Syria and Colombia, Conflict Café is a testament to the potential that communal eating can have for bringing people together to engage in a dialogue about important issues.
A similar enterprise was founded in 2010 in Pittsburgh, U.S.A. At Conflict Kitchen, activists Jon Rubin and Dawn Weleski serve multicultural cuisines through a takeout window, celebrating the culture, of countries, including Iran, Afghanistan, Cuba, North Korea, Venezuela, and Palestine. The genius of these programmes is that the waiting period for food quickly becomes a hotbed of discussion – and not just small talk. In the takeout line, Pittsburgh locals engage in debate and relate with cultures that the media often misrepresents. As grassroots activism training portal, Beautiful Trouble, explains:
“The takeout counter is staffed by chefs and public artists who are trained to facilitate conversations about the featured country. Each food wrapper is printed with personal profiles of people who live in the country being celebrated, as well as articles on the country’s food, art, religion, culture and government.
“To extend the experience beyond the takeout line and further encourage cross-cultural dialogue, Conflict Kitchen also organises public events that centre around food. Pittsburgh locals and Iranians in Tehran shared a meal via webcam in a virtual, city-to-city dinner party where both groups made the same Persian recipes, then sat down to eat together. Other events have included informal lunch hour discussions on food and politics, dinners with invited speakers, and live cooking lessons through Skype.”
As Dave Oswald Mitchell, co-editor of Beautiful Trouble and Beautiful Rising, comments, “Conflict Kitchen shares food as a way to share knowledge and understanding.”
Another model programme dedicated to harnessing the bonding potential of dining is Food Connects People, a series of cooking events where attendees learn about traditional recipes from around the world, tapping into the culture that makes the food. Previous events have transported guests to countries such as Togo, Armenia, Pakistan and Argentina – all through the taste buds. After their events, recipes are featured on their website, where you can find various world fusion recipes such as Crescione romagnolo with samosa filling - an Italian-Pakistani pastry dish. Asli Zengin from the organisation explains how these events forge bonds that only something as personal as communal cooking can create:
“When people cook and eat together at our events, they find their own space to express their creativity, introduce themselves and get to know others. They collaborate, create emotional bonds and share a unique transformational experience where they get closer to themselves and to the others. The experience sets them free towards new personal and interpersonal discoveries and they go back to perceive that collective wellbeing capable of restoring the faith in humankind.”
Is ‘snacktivism’ part of the future of politics?
Because of the inherent joy associated with food and drink, indulging in these treats can also be used as an incentive for political action. Last month, various pub landlords in the UK joined forces to encourage young people to register to vote in the general election, by offering them a free pint if they do so. The ‘Vote This Year – Get Free Beer’ campaign was launched in Bristol, and required customers to register online and then take their confirmation email to one of the participating bars as proof. As landlord Joby Andrews told Pub and Bar:
“I was apathetic and not engaged when I was younger and didn’t vote as I didn’t see the point, but with what’s going on around the world and here in the UK these days it seems more important than ever. I’m motivated by this to try and get people, especially the young, to engage in what will massively affect their futures and register to vote.
“If they love beer as much as I did back then, a free pint will hopefully encourage them to register, so when it comes to polling day on 8 June, it’ll be much easier for them to vote and make their voice heard.”
Clearly, with several food-centric projects successfully invoking conversation between people with various different backgrounds and viewpoints, the potential of dining and cooking as catalysts for cultural understanding is strong. With the rise of real-time media making the socio-political issues around the world ever more apparent, the popularity of such initiatives seems only set to rise.
Quite simply, as Dave Oswald Mitchell puts it, “For those hungering for a way to defuse the xenophobia boiling up all around them, maybe a serving of ‘snacktivism’ is just what's needed.”