War and Peas: Culinary Conflict Resolution as Citizen Diplomacy

By Sam Chapple-Sokol

Food can be used as a tool of public diplomacy, variously known as culinary diplomacy, gastrodiplomacy, and diplomatic gastronomy. It remains a new and understudied field, but the foundations have been laid and this current volume is a major step forward. Food has been used as a diplomatic tool since the first time Neanderthal hunters sat around their kill together, but only recently has it been studied as such. We, as scholars, have started to analyze those people, organizations, and governments who use this tool every day in restaurants, at exhibitions, and at research institutes.

My goal in this piece is to take the concept at hand in a new direction; not only can food be used as a tool of diplomacy, there is potential in its use as an instrument of conflict resolution. In order to make this connection, I will rely on the Contact Hypothesis, borrowed from the field of conflict resolution, and will discuss the power of citizen diplomacy. Through citizen-to-citizen interaction, food can be used to cross battle lines in protracted social conflicts. There are not nearly as many examples of successful or even existent conflict culinary diplomacy projects, but I will endeavor to present what has been done and extrapolate when, why, and how those projects work.

I define culinary diplomacy as “the use of food and cuisine as an instrument to create cross-cultural understanding in the hopes of improving interactions and cooperation.”[1] I have previously addressed all levels of culinary diplomacy, from government-to-government interaction behind closed doors to government-to-citizen public diplomacy efforts, as well as citizen culinary diplomacy. In this paper I will focus solely on the third aspect, as it is at the citizen level that food can be best utilized as a tool of conflict resolution.

No matter how entrenched a conflict seems to be, even including deep debates about the origins of national cuisines, food can be a powerful tool to overcome tensions on a person-to-person level. This can occur on several planes, according to how deeply the parties’ interaction goes. At base, mere contact over food, as simple as sharing a meal, can be enough for a connection to be made. Food, as a vital part of life, quickly removes many barriers to interaction. The act of eating together, or commensality, can set the table for potentially healing conversations.

But for protracted social conflicts, with deeply entrenched sides who have limited interaction, more than mere contact is necessary. Indeed, in those situations, food can be a major catalyst for conflict. In this paper I will discuss the concepts of both Track 3 diplomacy and the Contact Hypothesis to argue that it is not just eating food together, but thinking about it, preparing it, and serving it together as well, that provide true opportunities for improving interactions and cooperation.

Conflict Resolution Through Culinary Track 3 Diplomacy

The theory of culinary diplomacy has not been explored at length, although some work has been done. In a 2013 article, I discussed the roots of the field in Aristotle’s Politics, explored how Joseph Nye’s theory of soft power is connected, and fit culinary diplomacy into the wider fields of cultural and public diplomacy.[2] Scholar and practitioner Paul Rockower has written about the theory of the field, suggesting its value in the context of nation-branding, especially for middle powers like Taiwan, Thailand, and Peru.[3]

In the current analysis, it is necessary to delve more into the concepts of the Contact Hypothesis, as well as so-called “Track 3” diplomacy. In Breaking Bread to Win Hearts and Minds, I introduced the work of Allport, Brewer and Gaertner, and Amir to show that “sharing food … brings people into contact in an intimate and pleasurable setting,” thereby “encourag[ing] people to seek mutual understanding and appreciation.”[4] Allport, who extensively studied race and contact in the 1940s and 1950s, stated that when “barriers to effective communication … are removed the result is the reduction of fallacious stereotypes, and the substitution of a realistic view for one of fear and autistic hostility.”[5]

This provides us the basis of the field, to which we can begin to add to our application of the contact theory. Instead of simple contact, relationships improve drastically when groups are given common tasks to achieve, especially when they involve an economic goal.[6] According to Allport:

The nub of the matter seems to be that contact must reach below the surface in order to be effective in altering prejudice. Only the type of contact that leads people to do things together is likely to result in changed attitudes. … It is the cooperative striving for the goal that engenders solidarity.[7]

This idea of mutual cooperation underlies the ideas of Track 3 Diplomacy, which according to the United States Institute of Peace is defined as:

People-to-people diplomacy undertaken by individuals and private groups to encourage interaction and understanding between hostile communities and involving awareness raising and empowerment within these communities.[8]

Track 3 diplomacy, unlike Tracks 1 and 2, does not specifically aim to resolve the wider conflict, and instead focuses on the concepts of contact and understanding as a way of setting the table for resolution.[9]

It is the cooperative aspects of the contact hypothesis, those that form the foundation of Track 3 diplomacy, that give maximal strength to the concept of culinary conflict resolution. In situations of deep conflict between groups, simple contact may not be sufficient to overcome generations of territorial, familial, ethnic, or national differences. There is a need for cooperation, for envisioning and carrying out a common goal. It is not enough to just break bread with an entrenched enemy; you must make it together first.

Commensality Creates Commonality

There are powerful examples of culinary Track 3 diplomacy, when food is used as a force for peace, understanding, and reconciliation. An exemplar is Pittsburgh-based restaurant Conflict Kitchen, which explores the nexus between food and conflict by serving food only from countries with whom the United States has an adversarial relationship.[10] The restaurant has served food from Afghanistan, Cuba, Iran, and Venezuela, and works to connect American diners with counterparts in each “enemy” country. I and others have written extensively about the goals and methods behind Conflict Kitchen, including its use of Skype to connect diners in the United States and abroad as well as the packaging for each meal, which is printed with information about the country and its food.[11] The restaurant has started a new project, to create speeches that the featured community – Iranians and Cubans so far – would like President Obama to give about their countries’ relationship with the United States. Through the medium of food, diners are introduced to an “enemy country” and its people, as well as its people’s bilateral policy desires. It is a complex connection, but one that resonates due to its foundation in food. The effect of the connection is not felt just in Pittsburgh; while high-level policy shifts have not actualized in Washington or Tehran as a direct result, individuals in both the US and abroad have been able to experience a shift in perceptions. The Iranian artist who hosted the dinner in Tehran said about the experience,

The intention was to open up a dialogue between the two sides of the table and it did happen very organically. … Everyone here was surprised to see tables from the two countries joining one another. I could see people staring at the projected image on the wall and wondering if that was in fact live footage of a table setting in Pittsburgh![12]

The Virtual Dinner Guest Project is another that has taken one angle of the Conflict Kitchen idea – the Skype-linked dinner – and expanded upon it. Eric Maddox, the founder of the project, has worked to bring together groups of citizen diplomats from varying countries and backgrounds for a shared dinner, connected over Skype. The goal is for the virtual dinner party to “stretch across borders, cultural differences, and political divisions, placing a special emphasis on Conflict Transformation and the collaborative deconstruction of media stereotypes.”[13] Maddox believes that using food is the fastest and simplest way to tear down barriers to conversation; groups will immediately launch into questions about what they are each eating, which, in theory, can lead to further conversation.[14] The next step, what happens after dinner, is key – the project’s goal is to have each conversation brought to the conversants’ communities, thereby extending the reach of the meal and the interaction.

Various campaigns and movements have been undertaken to help immigrant communities settle into new homes. After incidents of violence against Indian immigrants in Australia in early 2010, campaigners started a movement called “Vindaloo Against Violence;” Australians were encouraged to eat out at an Indian restaurant to show their acceptance of the population.[15] In Rendsburg, Germany, a group of community leaders brought together German and Turkish women to cook for each other and share the others’ holidays.[16] A cookbook published by the organizers, entitled “Buttercreme und Börek,” chronicled the citizen diplomacy undertaken by the participants, who came to understand and respect each other through the medium of cuisine. While it is difficult to evaluate these programs, whose unquantifiable goal is a shift in perceptions, the Vindaloo Against Violence had a strong response, with 10,000 people signing up, including Prime Minister Kevin Rudd and Australia’s High Commissioner to India;[17] Buttercreme und Börek also had a positive result: the two sides developed a lasting relationship based on cooking, even traveling to Turkey together to learn more about the immigrants’ homeland.[18]

Finally, food can be used to overcome (or try to overcome) internal conflicts. For the past five years, Somalia has been home to a group of restaurants attempting to bring normalcy back to the capital, Mogadishu. Somali chef Ahmed Jama returned to the city from London in 2008, early in the tenure of militant group al-Shabaab, to open a series of restaurants and reintroduce communal meeting points into Mogadishu life.[19] The path has not been easy – 2012 and 2013 each saw fatal bombings at his restaurants – but Jama said that “someone has to start somewhere in history to change a nation.”[20] With nightly crowds in his restaurants and a staff of 140, Jama has demonstrated that conflict-weary Somalis will indeed venture out for dinner, despite the danger.[21] Another movement to reduce internal conflict is in South Africa, a country of 11 different national languages and a deep history of domestic schism, where some are trying to use barbecue to unify the nation. Activists are trying to declare September 24 South Africa’s national ‘Braai Day,’ a time for all communities to unify around the grill.[22] Jan Scannell, the creator of Braai Day, thinks that groups grilling boerewors, a sausage with cross-community origins, around a wood fire, represents the perfect tool for yoking the country.

The above are just a few examples of attempts around the globe to use food as a tool of conflict resolution. In each, the idea revolves around dining together, whether it be at a community restaurant in Mogadishu, a kitchen table in Munich, or a take-out counter in Pittsburgh. Each of these projects fits into United States Institute of Peace’s definition of Track 3 diplomacy, and each participant is a citizen diplomat.

Food as a Force for Conflict

The picture is not all rosy, and we cannot look only at the peaceful side of food. A few examples from Palestine and Israel highlight how food can exacerbate conflict. For example, there is the question of za’atar, an herb commonly used by Palestinians, whose harvest was banned by the Israeli government and confiscated at checkpoints.[23] Gaza, the isolated sliver along the coast of the Mediterranean, has seen dire issues with access to food. This has led to a cuisine of necessity and improvisation. Laila El-Haddad and Maggie Schmitt, authors of the 2013 cookbook Gaza Kitchen, spent time traveling the Gaza Strip to learn about how Gazans view the siege as seen “through the kitchen window.” Referring to the history of the deeply embattled area, they write that:

This geopolitical pingpong, as well as the frequent closure of Gaza’s borders, has isolated the Strip, obligating Gazans to adapt their cuisine as well as all the other aspects of their lives to wildly uncertain economic and political circumstances.[24]

There are deep quarrels on the gastro-geopolitical landscape as well. Who invented hummus, who falafel? The concept of “Israelization” of Arab food has struck a chord in the region, as both sides claim ownership over dishes.[25] Southeast Europe and the Balkans are other areas with deep culinary rifts. Debates flare regularly about the origin of baklava (is it Turkish, Greek Cypriot, or Greek? Even President Barack Obama has entered the fray); lahmecun (Greek Cypriot or Turkish?); and the stew keskek/kashika, which was named to UNESCO’s Intangible Heritage list as a Turkish dish, ignoring the Armenian claim to it; to name just a few.[26]

Beyond Breaking Bread: Common Goals

As I have illustrated, food campaigns have been used as a tool to promote peace and a force for conflict resolution. It is in the most deeply entrenched conflicts – the ages-old struggles of the Balkans, the religio-historical morass in the Middle East – that food has been a powerful divider. We must think beyond the value of just sitting together around the table. Certainly, the soft power goal of culinary diplomacy is for commensality to create commonality; that is, breaking bread to win hearts and minds. But to move beyond, we must look at Allport’s concept of “reach[ing] below the surface” for contact to be truly transformational. There are limited examples of this kind of project, so it is impossible to draw comprehensive conclusions, but looking at these few may help us think about the future of culinary conflict resolution.

At the most basic level, social entrepreneurs have created collaborative food products combining inputs from various sides of conflict. PeaceWorks, a food company whose slogan is “Cooperation never tasted so good!”, started selling an olive and sundried tomato spread under the cross cultural ‘Moshe and Ali’ brand in the mid-1990s.[27] The company, which labels itself as ‘not-only-for-profit,’ has the mission to “act as the catalyst for profitable economic interdependence” between Israelis and Palestinians.[28] Abdullah Ghanim, the Palestinian olive grower who sells his olives to Daniel Lubetzky, the Mexican Jew who runs the production facility in Tel Aviv, says that “Buying, selling, and interacting—this is one way of encouraging the two sides to make peace.”[29] Peace Oil, a British non-profit, combines olive oil from Palestinian and Israeli Jewish growers, with production done by Jews, Arabs, Bedouins, and Druze.[30] The economic importance of olives and olive oil throughout communities in the Levant adds symbolic weight to such a project. Each of these examples may have small impact for the growers and producers involved, but more and deeper collaboration in conflicts all around the world may pave the way to peace through culinary entrepreneurship.[31]

In Breaking Bread to Win Hearts and Minds, I discussed the Club des Chefs des Chefs (CCC), or ‘Club of Chefs of Heads of State,’ an association of chefs who cook either for their head of state privately or serve as the executive chef for official functions hosted by the head of state. In 2012, the founder of the organization, Gilles Bragard, and the chef in charge of official receptions in Israel, Shalom Kadosh, hosted a fundraising dinner for the Peres Center for Peace. Five members of the CCC, including chefs from France, Monaco, the United States, Russia, and Germany, each prepared a course, using a phalanx of sous chefs from Chef Kadosh’s kitchens. The sous chefs were divided equally between Palestinians and Israelis, who were each given an official CCC chef coat and the task to help prepare the meal, which would support the mission of the Peres Center, to “foster tolerance, economic and technological development, cooperation, and well-being.”[32] Bragard’s objective with the meal was to bring together Palestinians and Israelis under one uniform, the chef’s coat.[33] The American representative to the Club, White House Sous Chef Tommy Kurpradit, cited the power of a common goal to unite:

When you put them [chefs] in one room, and they have to do for example a cheeseburger, they work together to put that out for the guest. It’s a single task that brings them together, and they’re not going to fight about it, because it’s food.[34]

Beyond these projects, there has not been enough work done to test the idea that the cooperative and economic aspects of food production can have a positive effect on conflict transformation. It is not even clear that the above have stimulated change; it is difficult to evaluate conflict resolution and soft power programs. But we should keep pushing these ideas. For example, cooperative cooking schools can be established across conflict lines. Training the next generation of chefs in conflict zones to be welcoming of their neighbors and fluent in their cuisines could be a recipe for bilateral culinary partnerships. A series of in-person dinners could be organized in border regions – along the India-Pakistan border, for instance, or in the Balkans – to bring cooks and hosts together with diners to create joint events. Immigrant communities can be welcomed in to new homes by not only cooking for their hosts (and vice versa), as in the Buttercreme-und-Börek example, but with them, as cooks trade lessons and can collaborate on joint cookbooks. These are all citizen level interventions, but as Allport wrote, “It is the cooperative striving for the goal that engenders solidarity” – and solidarity can perhaps engender transformation.

Conclusion: War or Peas?

As we can see, there have been a number of efforts undertaken to use food as a tool of conflict resolution, though it is far from a given that food can bring about peace. Kamal Mouzawak, the founder of the first farmers market in factious Lebanon, Souk el Tayeb, readily acknowledges that though there can be positive movement through food, conflict resolution action should be done at a “higher level – like introducing human rights – before moving to more subtle ways of ‘food reconciliation.’”[35] Maggie Schmitt and Laila El-Haddad, authors of Gaza Kitchen, are unconvinced by what they call “hummus kumbaya”[36] – El-Haddad has tweeted that “breaking bread can never foster coexistence if inequities go unaddressed.”[37]

Two chefs who many see as leading by example when it comes to collaboration are also unconvinced about culinary conflict resolution. Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, partners in a series of London-based restaurants and cookbooks, were both born in Jerusalem – Ottolenghi in the Jewish Quarter and Tamimi in the Muslim Quarter. They published a cookbook together in 2012 entitled Jerusalem, discussing the food with which each chef was raised. In the introduction to the book, they write, “It takes a giant leap of faith, but we are happy to take it – what have we got to lose? – to imagine that hummus will eventually bring Jerusalemites together, if nothing else will.”[38] When pressed about that statement, though, Ottolenghi had the following to say:

People say [we’re] a great example of using food to bring about peace between warring sides. We really resisted this conclusion, but in the intro of the book [Jerusalem], what do we write? Do we put on a smiley face, we say maybe this will solve our problems, and take it? It’s quite a dangerous stance to take, because it’s very far from the truth. Food is not a binding force that brings these two cultures together in reality.[39]

From the words of Mouzawak, Schmitt and El-Haddad, and Ottolenghi, leading voices in the food world, we might think that the situation is futile. Protracted conflicts wear populations out; how could a simple tool like food reverse years of ignorance, hatred, war, and schism? The answer may be built into the question: food is simple. As Eric Maddox stressed, food is the quickest way to remove barriers to conversation. It will not be a panacea to the world’s ills, though at the citizen level it may be able to bring people together for mutual goals and shared outcomes. This new instrument of conflict resolution, as old as human existence, may prove to be a valuable addition to our toolbox as we confront conflicts both new and old.

 References and Notes


[1] Chapple-Sokol, Samuel. “Breaking Bread to Win Hearts and Minds.” The Hague Journal of Diplomacy.

Issue 8, 2013. 161-183. Print. I will exclusively use the term ‘culinary diplomacy’ throughout my work, though I accept ‘gastrodiplomacy’ and ‘culinary diplomacy’ as being interchangeable.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Rockower, Paul. “Recipes for Gastrodiplomacy.” Place Branding and Public Diplomacy. 2012. Print.

[4] Chapple-Sokol, 171-172.

[5] Allport, Gordon. The Nature of Prejudice. Cambridge, MA: Addison-Wesley Publishing Co, 1954. Print. 273.

[6] See e.g. Allport, 274; Marilynn B. Brewer and Samuel L. Gaertner. “Toward Reduction of Prejudice: Intergroup Contact and Social Categorization.” Self and Social Identity. Eds. M.L. Brewer and M. Hewstone. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004. 300. Print.

[7] Allport, 276.

[8] “Tracks of Diplomacy.” United States Institute of Peace, 2011. Web. 14 Oct. 2013.

[9] Various terminology is used to describe the tracks of diplomacy; some consider any unofficial negotiation or diplomacy work to be included as Track II, while others branch out into 4, 5, 6, 7, or even 8 separate tracks.

[10] “About.” Conflict Kitchen, 2013. Web. 23 Oct. 2013.

[11] Joseph Stromberg. “Where War Is What’s For Dinner.” Smithsonian Magazine, October 2013. Web. 27 Oct. 2013; Erika Beras, “A Taste of Iran, Whipped Up In The ‘Conflict Kitchen.’” NPR, 2 July 2010. Web. 27 Oct 2013;  Chapple-Sokol, 179.

[12] Hamed Aleaziz. “Cooking Up a Dialogue.” PBS Frontline Tehran Bureau, 7 July 2010. Web. 16 Nov. 2013

[13] “About us.” Virtual Dinner Guest, 2013. Web. 7 Oct. 2013.

[14] Maddox, Eric. Personal interview. 8 Oct. 2013.

[15] Alhinnawi, Hend. “India Blog Series: Gastrodiplomacy: Winning Hearts Through Feeding the Stomach.” USC CPD Blog. 17 Nov. 2011. Web. 23 Oct. 2013.

[16] Imani, Sarah. “Cultural Diplomacy ‘From Below:’ Bridging the Gap Between the Turkish and German Communities in Rendsburg.” Cultural Diplomacy. n.d. Web. 25 Oct. 2013.

[17] “‘Vindaloo against violence’ Indian food campaign a sell out.” Deccan Herald, 10 Feb. 2010. Web. 16 Nov. 2013.

[18] “Buttercreme & Börek: Miteinander redden – nicht übereinander.” LandFrauenVerein Rendsburg und Umgebung. n.d. Web. 16 Nov. 2013.

[19] Rice, Xan. “Now Serving.” The New Yorker. September 30, 2013. Print.

[20] Ibid. 30.

[21] Rice.

[22] Warner, Gregory. “‘Braai Day’ Aims to Bring S. Africans Together Over Barbecue.” NPR. 26 Aug. 2013. Web. 17 Oct. 2013.

[23] “It’s the little things that make an occupation.” The Economist. 18 Jan. 2007. Web. 23 Oct. 2013.

[24] Gaza Kitchen.

[25] A popular 1958 Israeli song, “And We Have Falafel,” includes the line “Once when a Jew came to Israel he kissed the ground and blessed the creator. Today, he just gets off the plane and already goes to buy falafel.” Shir Hafalafel lyrics. Hebrew Songs. Web. 25 Oct. 2013.

[26] Shleifer, Yigal. “UNESCO Decision Helps Start a Turkish-Armenian Food Fight.” Eurasianet, 5 Dec. 2011. Web. 25 Oct. 2013; Yigal Shleifer. “Turkey: Food Fight with Cyprus Opens New Front.” Eurasianet, 17 Mar. 2011. Web. 25 Oct. 2013; Yigal Shleifer. “The White House Dessert That Sparked a Minor Turkish-Greek Conflict.” The Atlantic 4 Apr. 2012. Web. 25 Oct. 2013.

[27] Pofeldt, Elaine. “Food for Peace.” CNN Money, 1 Dec. 2004. Web. 14 Oct. 2013.

[28] “Mission and Impact.” Peaceworks. Web. 14 Oct. 2013.

[29] Pofeldt.

[30] “Index.” Peace Oil. Web. 23 Oct. 2013.

[31] The concept of culinary cooperation as a means to conflict resolution even led to an Academy Award win for filmmaker Ari Sandel, who directed the 2005 short musical West Bank Story.[31] The film portrays the rivalry between the Israeli-owned “Kosher King” restaurant and the Palestinian-owned “Hummus Hut.”[31] After increasingly tense and damaging interactions between the two sides, the sister of the owner of Hummus Hut and an IDF soldier realize that the only way they can unite themselves and their sides is to serve their specialties, falafel and hummus, together to satisfy the hungry public.

[32] “Our Mission.” Peres Center. Web. 23 Oct. 2013.

[33] Gilles Bragard. Personal Interview. July 28, 2013.

[34] Tommy Kurpradit. Personal interview. September 25, 2013. Chef Kurpradit later acknowledged that cheeseburgers may not be the best example in the kosher kitchen of President Peres.

[35] Mouzawak, Kamal. “Re: Questions.” Message to the author. 21 Oct. 2013. Email.

[36] Schmitt, Maggie. Personal interview. March 26, 2013.

[37] El-Haddad, Laila (@GazaMom). “@4noura @theIMEU we categorically reject notion of “hummus kumbaua”-breaking bread can never foster coexistenve [sic] if inequities go unaddressed.” March 27, 2013, 10:52 AM. Tweet.

[38] Ottolenghi, Yotam and Sami Tamimi. Jerusalem: A Cookbook. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press (2012): 13.

[39] Ottolenghi, Yotam. Interview by Francis Lam. “When Yotam Met Sami,” 2013. Web. October 20, 2013.

Sam Chapple-Sokol is an independent researcher and consultant on culinary diplomacy. He has a Bachelor’s Degree from Bowdoin College and a Master’s from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.

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