What’s Cooking In The Kitchen: Peace or Conflict?

I recently read about an innovative takeout restaurant in Pittsburgh, called Conflict Kitchen, which only serves cuisine from countries that the United States of America is in conflict with. This landmark eatery was begun by three Pittsburgh artists - Jon Rubin, Jon Pena and Dawn Weleski - who aptly call it a "public artwork experiment", with the objective "to see how we can get past the conflict that is going on between governments and introduce people to the everyday life and culture of these countries." Till now, it has featured dishes from Iran, Afghanistan and Venezuela, and future iterations hope to focus on North Korea, Cuba and other countries. This unique synthesis of food, art and sociology, is indeed a novel attempt in forging friendships between people of the so called enemy territories, by creating a platform for discussions of international conflict, culture, and politics over a meal.

Unfortunately in India, we see more of a kitchen conflict fuelling family discords. Instead of acting as a unifying factor, food in India whets the appetite for skirmishes amongst the deadly trio of mother-son-daughter in law, as well as between communities. Many a battles have been lost and won (depending on which side of the family you represent) on the hot beds of the kitchen turf. I have yet to come across a married Indian woman, who, at one time or the other, has not been the recipient of this clichéd statement: ‘You cannot cook like my mother’. There is nary an Indian woman who could come anywhere near to the culinary expertise of her ma- in- law. And yet an Indian man comes of age (for marriage) when he starts working in a place away from his parents, and yearns for home cooked food. It is a better bargain for him to look for a bride rather than hire a cook. 

Thus steps the new woman in his life to make her way to his heart through his stomach. But, India is a land of colourful culinary diversity. Each community and caste, nay family, boasts of its own unique recipes and cooking style which, in their eyes, is the world’s gold standard benchmark. So, one family’s food becomes another family’s poison. Woe betide the newly wedded daughter-in-law who cannot cook the lowly potato or the bottle gourd in the manner in which her newly acquired relatives are used to! 

'To put or not to put' becomes the biggest dilemma of her life, be it onions, tomatoes, green chillies, spices—the list is endless. So differently developed are our taste buds and culinary preferences that no two families cook any one vegetable the same way. An interstate or inter religion marriage further stokes the fires of derision and rebuke. Now, one may have a fish eating bride left to rummage in the kitchen sink of a plant eating household which cannot even tolerate the smell of onions/garlic; or a coy vegetarian newlywed battling her tears from the aroma of a freshly made omelette. This kitchen conflict also finds space in most of our soap operas on the idiot box, which revel in depicting designer kitchens of filthy rich families where daughters-in-law, dressed in all their fineries, spend their days stoking the kitchen fires, and chopping, cutting, and brewing intrigues against each other.

All this may seem ridiculous, even inane, to the Pittsburghers who are making a valiant attempt to reduce international conflict, through their novel experiment for a synthesis of food, art and sociology. We need to learn a lot from the concept of Conflict Kitchen where recipes from enemy countries are being used to replace the feelings of hatred with those of tolerant understanding. The Iranian kubideh (minced meat kabab served in freshly baked barbari bread with onion, mint, and basil), Afghani Bolani Pazi (homemade afghan turnover filled with pumpkin, spinach, lentils, or potatoes and leeks), and Venezuelan Arepas (homemade grilled corn cakes served with a variety of fresh fillings), are some of the past takeouts from this kitchen which have been well received in their custom designed wrappers, that include interviews with Iranians, Afghans, and Venezuelans on subjects ranging from the food and culture of their respective countries to the current geopolitical turmoil.

India makes a good study in contrast, where there are still many households who would not partake of a meal touched or cooked by members of certain communities and religions. To be a meat eater or a vegetarian maybe a personal choice, but to ridicule/despise food on the basis of who cooks it and in what style, only shows ones intolerance and prejudice. Eating is a divine fine art wherein each morsel of food should be savoured and thanked for, and not a bit of it wasted. It should not be of much consequence if the colour of the gravy is a little too red/white/yellow; if each grain of rice clings or separates from the other; if the spinach leaves have been finely or coarsely chopped; if the cooking style is different from ours. Family recipes may be no less than heirlooms for us. But we have no right to denigrate those of others.

Food should not upset our appetite for tolerance and love, but break the mental barriers that alienate us from other diverse cultures and communities. Before crossing international borders we need to break our regional/community/caste food prejudices in order to enjoy with equal relish the innumerable varieties of delectable cuisines, irrespective of the social, religious and economic status of the kitchen in which they are cooked.

This coming New Year let our food preferences not create obstacles, but get past human conflict and remove cultural ignorance. Let us resolve not to chop relationships, brew intolerance, simmer hatred, or bake corruption. Instead enjoy the Kashmiri kahwa (spiced green tea), the Bengali mishti doi (sweet curd), the Lakhnawi kebab and roomali roti (handkerchief thin bread), and the South Indian dosa, along with myriad other cuisines, with equal relish. A teaspoon of love, a pinch of sincerity, and a dash of sensitivity will make all food a delightful eating experience, in which we share across the table our passions, hopes and fears, irrespective of caste, creed, religion and nationality.

Wishing all of us a very peaceful, tolerant, honest and healthy 2012!  

Shobha Shukla - CNS
(The author is the Managing Editor of Citizen News Service (CNS). She is a J2J Fellow of National Press Foundation (NPF) USA. She has worked earlier with State Planning Institute, UP and taught physics at India's prestigious Loreto Convent. She also co-authored a book (translated in three languages) "Voices from the field on childhood pneumonia" published in November 2011 and a report on Hepatitis C and HIV treatment access issues in December 2011. Email: shobha@citizen-news.org, website: http://www.citizen-news.org)

Published in:
Blitz Weekly News, Bangladesh
G. Krom News, Africa
Asian Tribune, Sri Lanka/Thailand
All Voices News, Sri Lanka
The Sylhet Times, Bangladesh