Oh, I see! moments
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Daily Cultural Encounters at Conflict Kitchen

by Janine Boylan on September 9, 2013

A cultural encounter with Venezuela at Conflict Kitchen. (Image © Conflict Kitchen)

Venezuelan takeout
© Conflict Kitchen

Sharing a Meal with Our “Enemies”

What do you really know about the people in Cuba? Iran? Afghanistan? Venezuela? North Korea?

Jon Rubin and Dawn Weleski expect that you will be a lot more informed after lunch at their restaurant.

Conflict Kitchen, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is dedicated to encouraging cultural encounters and promoting dialog about countries with which the United States is in conflict.

Every few months, the restaurant completely changes its storefront and its menu, featuring one country at a time. It has served foods from Afghanistan, Iran, Venezuela, and Cuba and is planning to feature North Korean cuisine next. The menu is simple, often only offering a handful of items, but the conversation that accompanies the food is meant to be full of “Oh, I see” moments.

A cultural encounter with Afghanistan: takeout menu. (Image © Conflict Kitchen)

Afghan menu
© Conflict Kitchen

Starting the Conversation

Rubin and Weleski co-founded Conflict Kitchen about three years ago as an art project. They chose food as their medium because, Rubin told the Los Angeles Times, “. . . we use it to get people to open up and talk to strangers.”

They have found that their customers often don’t know much about the country they are featuring. But they are eager to learn more.

Conflict Kitchen hosts a cultural encounter with Tehran through a webcam dinner. (Image © Conflict Kitchen)

A webcam dinner with Tehran
© Conflict Kitchen

Beyond its daily takeout service, the restaurant also hosts performances and events, such as a live, webcam-connected dinner party between people in Tehran and customers in Pittsburgh. For this meal, the same menu was prepared in both countries so the guests enjoyed the same conversation and food. The result was a comfortable, but eye-opening, cultural encounter for everyone with conversation that meandered from dating to politics to, of course, food.

The Wrappers

On a typical day at Conflict Kitchen, customers receive their takeout food wrapped in colorful paper printed with interviews from people of the featured culture.

“We need to create conversations that are much more first person, and more direct, and more humane.” Jon Rubin told the BBC.

Conflict Kitchen's Cuban wrapper, showing a cultural encounter. (Image © Conflict Kitchen)

Cuban wrapper
© Conflict Kitchen

The wrappers are direct messages from people about their culture. The quotes give insight about their lives, values, and beliefs.

  • From an Afghan: Hospitality is the ultimate equalizer, and that’s how Afghans define themselves culturally.  Even now.  They live through this hardship of war and being tormented with poverty.  Still, when you go to the market, you say hi to the guy who is just a small store owner.  If it’s lunchtime, he has a little plate of potatoes and beans with a piece of naan in front of him. And he will say, “Come on.  Have some food with me.”  He sincerely wants you to have the food.  That’s a characteristic that’s been there for generations and still exists.
A cultural encounter with Afghanistan through Conflict Kitchen. (Image © Conflict Kitchen)

Afghan takeout at the original Pittsburgh location
© Conflict Kitchen

  • From an Iranian: All Persians are poets. They memorize poetry and quote it often. They consult Hafez every day to see what their fortune is. Sometimes it takes the form of a bird being released and a poetic fragment being given in exchange for some money. Many poems have turned into idioms, so every day an Iranian uses a number of [phrases from poems] even if they are not aware.
A cultural encounter with Iran at Conflict Kitchen. (Image © Conflict Kitchen)

Iranian takeout at a new location in Pittsburgh
© Conflict Kitchen

  • From a Venezuelan: People in Venezuela are very warm with a great sense of humor. They can make lemonade out of a lemon storm. Venezuelans would consider the noise of the falling lemons as a song and would invent a lyric for it while dancing to the rhythm.
  • From a Cuban: I’m the only one of my friends that stayed in Cuba.  I stayed because I fell in love; for my family; because I found a sense of purpose here. This is my country.  My kids are 12 and 5 and, when they are adults, they’ll do the best they can whether it’s here in Cuba or wherever.
A cultural encounter with Cuba at Conflict Kitchen. (Image © Conflict Kitchen)

Cuban takeout
© Conflict Kitchen

Breaking Stereotypes

Researcher Margo Monteith explains that media, society, and family all play a role in shaping how we think about others. Negative stereotypes run deeper than we might think and changing them can be hard. But recognizing the wrong perceptions we have and gradually changing the habit of the prejudiced response can help reduce and reverse our thinking.

Eating a meal and sharing an enlightening conversation about a culture is a positive step toward changing our views.

As Abraham Lincoln said, “The best way to destroy your enemy is to make him your friend.” Conflict Kitchen is helping its customers do just that.

Bring a little or a lot of Conflict Kitchen to your table with our free download of their Cuban recipes!


Visit Conflict Kitchen’s Facebook page for recent photos and upcoming events.

Comment on this post below, or inspire insight with your own OIC Moment here.


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