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Changing Americans' Perception Of U.S. Adversaries, One Dish At A Time

In the United States, Iran is better known for its nuclear ambitions than for its "fesenjan," the traditional Persian stew of chicken, pomegranates, and walnuts. Jon Rubin would like to change that.

Rubin is the co-founder of Conflict Kitchen, a carry-out restaurant in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, that only serves food from countries with which the United States is in conflict.

In addition to Iran, Rubin and co-founder Dawn Weleski's list of "conflict cuisines" has included Afghanistan, Venezuela, and Cuba since the restaurant opened in 2010.

Rubin, who is also an art professor at the city's prestigious Carnegie Mellon University, says the idea for Conflict Kitchen sprang out of two desires: one, to liven up Pittsburgh's lackluster ethnic-food scene, and two, to give Americans a new way to think about countries they've been told to fear or distrust.

"We realized we could create a restaurant that introduced people to countries like Iran that we're either in conflict with in terms of rhetoric, or about to be in conflict in terms of actual military action, and introduce them to it through a different lens, through the lens of culture and food -- which is always the most inviting way to learn about a place," Rubin says.

Street-Corner Geopolitics

But Conflict Kitchen is much more than a carry-out restaurant. Its two founders refer to it as a "project" and use it to bring people together to eat, discuss, and experience the culture of countries that are almost always portrayed negatively by policymakers and the media.

Kitchen staff members are trained to engage customers in conversation about the culture of the country whose cuisine is on the menu, with the goal of sparking a discussion and challenging their assumptions about Iranians, Cubans, Venezuelans, or Afghans, says Rubin's partner, Weleski.

"The main mission of the project, in a lot of ways, is to create an opportunity for a public discourse," she says. "You don't often find strangers in the street talking about the politics of Iran or North Korea, but you'll find people talking about the weather, or [if] the latest sports team has won or not, which isn't bad in and of itself, but wouldn't it be great to be having a more diverse conversation going on in just the daily stream of life instead of just in the news media?"

Weleski and Rubin reach out to local immigrants from each country they focus on and hold events, discussions, and performances that shed light on daily life and culture in each country. It's a kind of community center for geopolitics.

Not long ago, staff and customers held a dinner party with people in Tehran over Skype. The group in Pittsburgh and the group in Tehran served the same dishes and sat at long tables that Weleski says almost looked connected on the large projector screen.

Conversation flowed as naturally as if everyone were in the same room, she says. "Moments like that are very impactful for people because they feel that there's sort of this simultaneity, there's someone living on the other side of the world that's eating the exact same food, and that we're going through the same situations in our daily lives," Weleski adds.

Skype dinner parties have also been held with documentary filmmakers in Kabul and radio activists in Caracas, Venezuela.

Up Next: North Korea

So it can fully explore each country's culture and cuisine, Conflict Kitchen only focuses on one place at a time. It rotates the menu and carry-out window decor accordingly every six months.

Even the food packaging changes -- boxes and wrappers are printed with facts about each country and quotes from people still living there and who have immigrated to the United States.

Iran is currently being featured, so in addition to fesenjan, the restaurant is serving up minced-meat-and-onion sandwiches known as "kabab koobideh," and "khoresht gormeh sabzi," a savory herb stew.

For Cuba, dishes like the classic roast-pork dish "lechon asado" were offered, along with broiled yucca and that staple of Cuban cuisine, black beans and rice.

The Venezuelan version of Conflict Kitchen featured "arrapas" with a variety of meat or cheese fillings, and Afghan Conflict Kitchen sold "bolani," pastry-style turnovers with a variety of fillings like red lentils, spinach, and pumpkin.

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One local chef does all the cooking. Robert Sayer left his job at one of Pittsburgh's best restaurants to cook at Conflict Kitchen, according to Rubin, because he wanted to learn about new cuisines. He gets his recipes from all over -- books, the Internet, and often from customers who pass along their mother's favorite recipes.

With only four countries on their roster, Rubin and Weleski say they're thinking of adding North Korea, whose recent nuclear saber-rattling has angered Washington.

But not Syria, which President Barack Obama believes may have crossed his "red line" by using chemical weapons on its own people.

"I would love to concentrate on Syria," Rubin says, "but we have to move out of the Middle East. We have to have a discussion from around the world."

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