The Power of the WFP’s VoucherChef Project

I’ve discussed many topics throughout the life of this blog; some frivolous (semantic discussions of the field’s name), some cheesy (“cultural” diplomacy), some historical (ideas around culinary nationalism and culinary imperialism). I want to write a bit about the work of the World Food Programme, an international organization dedicated to the eradication of hunger through food aid, and more optimistically, through sustainable approaches to development.

The work of the World Food Programme is incredibly important and invaluable for refugees driven by conflict, children in schools, babies in their first 1,000 days of life, and women working to improve their communities’ food security. Food isn’t being used just as a tool to promote peace, but it is creating peace through resilience and security. As WFP writes, “while hunger is a weapon of war, food is a tool of peace.” We have seen again and again that food insecurity is a massively destabilizing force in many situations, and that food can be used as a weapon of war if wielded by nefarious powers. Conversely, when food supplies are managed with sustainability and security in mind, benefits are amplified at all levels, from government stability to a well-fed populace. WFP plays a vital role with this.

woman bread syria

Food aid from World Food Programme in Syria (image by WFP/ Hussam Al Saleh and WFP/Abeer Etefa)

The WFP’s voucher program is a perfect example of the power of food as a tool to promote cross-cultural understanding while also meeting the programme’s goal of feeding the world’s hungry. It focuses not only on getting refugees from conflict the calories they need to survive, but supporting them to create meals that help them thrive. Rather than handing out generic grain rations, WFP provides vouchers that allow families to buy the ingredients they want to cook their own dishes. Vouchers are used in places where there is enough food on market shelves but much of the population is too poor to afford it; it allows refugees and other recipients to make their own choices about what to cook.

world food programme

Syrian refugee chefs make Lahmussiniye (image by Berna Cetin/WFP)

Alongside the voucher program, WFP also launched VoucherChef, which highlights recipes from refugee chefs who have fled violence in Syria and Iraq; most are living in refugee camps in Turkey, far from home. Merve Ismail, who has been living at Yayladağı camp in Turkey after being forced to leave her home of Latakia, shared a recipe for stuffed beet greens, a dish she says her five children love. Though they don’t know when, or if, they’ll be able to return to their home, they are still able to cook the dishes that remind them of their former lives. Not only does the recipe look delicious, but it’s also a great trick to get your children to eat green leafy vegetables – stuff them with rice and spices.

chef beet greens

Stuffed Beet Greens, made by Syrian chef Merve Ismail (Image by Berna Cetin / WFP)

The situation in Syria is a catastrophe of historic proportions. The dead, the injured, and the displaced represent a human tragedy that is impossible to understand in its entirety. We have recently heard stories about massive failures on the part of the Hungarian government to ensure safe passage to thousands of migrants from Syria, and have heard much about the challenges facing refugees across the many countries through which they have been dispersed. To see a different image, though, that of happiness, family, and food, keeps the humanity of the situation in focus. Like Laila el-Haddad and Maggie Schmitt’s book Gaza Kitchen, which looked at the siege of Gaza through the kitchen window, the recipes and stories of VoucherChef help remind us of the human side of catastrophe, instead of the numbers, images, and sound bites that most media is able to share.

palestine chef cooking

The siege observed through the kitchen window (image courtesy of

To learn more about WFP and the VoucherChef program, take a look at their website. You’ll find recipes for Falafel, Kubbeh, Kabsa, Lahmussiniye, Dolma, Tebbuli, and more.

Culinary Colonialism, or, Pour Quoi Bánh Mì?

This is a topic I’ve wanted to write about for a while, and I will dedicate more time (and deeper research) to it if I ever write a book or graphic novel or something like that. For now, though, I want to briefly examine a fascinating component of global foodways: colonialism. How did the establishment of colonies worldwide by (mostly) European powers affect the cuisine of the colonized, and when did that process actually work in reverse?

Let’s look at a colonial map of the world for a bit of background (this one shows the world in 1914):

Colonial map of the world, 1914

World map, 1914 (courtesy of

I won’t bore you with deep colonial history, but from the map we can see that the continent of Africa was pretty well carved up by the Europeans after the so-called “Scramble for Africa” between 1881 and 1914. The British had, of course, made their way around the Horn of Africa and made inroads in South Asia as well as the South Pacific. The French had an outpost in Southeast Asia, the Dutch were present throughout Indonesia, and the Portuguese owned parts of Southern Africa as well as a blip in India, Goa. The list, of course, goes on — the Belgians in the Congo, Italy in North Africa and Somalia, the Germans in Southern Africa.

This global conquest for land, resources, and power significantly changed the world, overwhelmingly for the worse: death, destruction, slavery, state failure, social injustice, and racism are just some of the consequences of colonialism. The seriousness of the destructive history of New Imperialism cannot be overstated. We are still dealing with fallout today.

Our investigation, though, is of a less negative piece of colonialism: its longterm effects on cuisine. Global migration has affected food throughout history (how did potatoes get to Ireland, tomatoes to Italy, and chilis to India?), and the spread of Europeans and Continental tastes had a significant impact on their subjugated peoples’ cuisines.

exchange of foods from old world to new world

The so-called “Columbian Exchange” (picture courtesy of

So, here are a few examples for a bit richer understanding of this idea; from single dishes to entire amalgamate cuisines. Many parts of world history and human migrations can be understood from examples like these; like raw ingredients that compose a dish, components from many cultures and time periods go into making a cuisine writ large. Looking critically at some of these ingredients, these building blocks, allows us to understand colonial history and migratory patterns, as well as politics, war, and peace.

Bánh mì – While the Vietnamese phrase “bánh mì” simply refers to bread, it has come to signify a style of sandwich popular worldwide. Traditionally, a bánh mì consists of a baguette filled with pork liver pâté, sliced ham, pickled vegetables, jalapeños, and cilantro. This is a classic mash-up of a colonial cuisine. It was once called a “French sandwich” in colonial French Indochina (now Vietnam) due to its original composition of pâté, ham, cornichons, and butter on a baguette. Over the years, the sandwich started to include traditional Vietnamese ingredients — the spicy peppers, the cilantro — and modified versions others, like replacing the cornichons with pickled daikon and the butter with fish sauce aioli. The sandwich has gained international popularity, traveling with Vietnamese diaspora populations worldwide, and has retained its place as delicious, quick street food in Vietnam. This is a true culinary alloy, one intricately linked to colonial history.

Lemongrass-pork Banh Mi

Banh Mi Sandwich (photo courtesy of

Baasto – Somalia is a great trade crossroads, and its cuisine reflects a history of influence by traders from India, East Africa, and the Middle East. Its colonizer, though, was Italy, and with the Italians came pasta — spaghetti. Or as it’s known in Somali, Baasto. Baasto is a sort of de facto national dish of Somalia, and is served with a thick tomato sauce, sometimes doctored with decidedly non-Italian ingredients like cilantro, tamarind, and Xawaash, a sweet-spicy spice blend. The dish is recognizably Italian, but distinctly Somali in taste. (Interestingly, the Italian influence in the region also led to a profusion of imported espresso makers which, when combined with the incredible coffees from Ethiopia’s regions of Sidamo, Yirgacheffe, and Harar make for some fine cups of coffee. I discovered this while living in Hargeisa, Somaliland, when I discovered Purple Coffee Corner on my walk to work: it had a vintage espresso maker and freshly roasted beans from neighboring Ethiopia.)

Somali Baasto, Italian Pasta

Somali Baasto (photo courtesy of

Goan Cuisine – A tiny colony on the southwest coast of India, Goa was settled by the Portuguese in the 16th century, who brought with them potatoes, chilis, tomatoes, and more from their colony in Brazil. From the famous pork blood and offal stew Sorpotel, known as Sarapatel in Brazil, to Feijoada, a stew of beef or pork with beans which can be found in Brazil, Angola, Macau, and Mozambique, the cuisine of Catholic Goa is intricately imprinted by Portuguese culinary traditions and imports. Like the wonders of tectonic plate shifts, which allow us to see geological similarities and paleontological brethren thousands of miles apart, we can see culinary kin with slight regional variations on opposites sides of the earth, due to the maritime explorations and colonial exploits of the Portuguese.

Sorpotel, a Goan specialty

Goan Sorpotel (photo courtesy of

This pollination, of course, doesn’t just go one way. Some European cuisines were far more deeply affected by colonial immigration than vice versa. It is well-known that Indian and Pakistani food are the best culinary options in the United Kingdom, and it was once proposed in the UK Parliament that the city of Glasgow be given EU Protected Designation of Origin status as the birthplace of Chicken Tikka Masala. The Dutch colonized Indonesia, which led to an incredible Indonesian food scene in Amsterdam; notably, Rijsttaffel (“rice table”) restaurants have flourished in the Dutch capital, offering dozens of small side dishes served with rice. This was a Dutch invention, as the colonizers wanted to fill their tables with exotic fare; when they left, the tradition retreated as well and exists mostly in the Netherlands.

Dutch family eating rijsttaffel

A colonial Dutch family enjoying Rijsttaffel in West Java, 1936 (photo courtesy of Wikimedia)

There are more questions here to answer than I have time or space for, and I’m sure your energy is flagging by now (and your appetite is rising!) Namely: in which cases did a colonial power’s cuisine trickle into the local mainstream, and when did that stream reverse? Why are some cuisines more “sticky” than others — the Portuguese have spread many more of their culinary traditions than the British, for example. I’m also drawn to learn more about the conflict and slavery that underlies much chocolate and coffee consumption worldwide — the main reason Belgian chocolate is world renowned is the exploitative relationship Belgian King Leopold II had with the Congo.  And finally, another fascinating facet of this is a non-national angle of global colonization: corporate culinary imperialism. This is mostly an American-led phenomenon, the export of American fast food chains and subsequent adoption of American diets globally. McDonald’s and KFC have de facto embassies in more than 100 countries. Starbucks has raised its green and white mermaid in 63 countries. Coca-Cola claims to have their product in over 200 countries, which is even more than recognized by the United Nations.

These are all posts for another day. Now it’s time for a Bánh Mì and a coupe of French Champagne.

To Johan Galtung: On Food, Culture, and Sex

I was recently approached on Twitter by Johan Galtung, the legendary scholar of peace studies and the creator of many ideas used by practitioners and students of peace and conflict: structural violence, negative vs. positive peace, and the whole concept of peacebuilding originated with him. He holds nine honorary doctorates and won the Right Livelihood Award, an “Alternative Nobel Prize.” I studied his work in depth during my Master’s program and wrote many essays based entirely on his work. To say I was shocked (and pleased) to see his comments directed at my feed would be an understatement.

Tweet from Johan GaltungScreen Shot 2015-03-15 at 10.09.55 PM
What Dr. Galtung was tweeting to me about, though, was not truly conflict resolution or peacebuilding but food, and food’s role in culture. Also, the role of sexuality as an indicator of civilization. I won’t get too much into the latter, but I understand why he sent me his piece “Civilization, Time, Sexual Rhythms and Conflict” from 1997 – we’ll get to that later.

Screen Shot 2015-03-15 at 10.10.02 PM So, Dr. Galtung, some feedback.

In your 1986 piece “Carriers of Cosmology” you analyzed the idea of ‘Cosmology’ as “the code of a civilization,” where civilization can be in turn described as a “macro-culture,” one that spans nations and generations. Therefore, a cosmology is the code – the underlying language – that, when taken in its entirety describes the entirety of a cross-generational, multinational culture. You make many interesting points throughout the piece, about how a civilization can survive its own inhabitants and how a civilization’s code is learned, not innate. In this piece, I will need to focus a bit more narrowly (so that I’m not in over my head) on a few of your points about food; after all, this is a blog on food and diplomacy, and I shouldn’t attempt to enter into the deep end of sociological analysis!

So on to food, and maybe a bit of sex.

I agree wholeheartedly that food is a cosmological carrier; that is, it is one of the pieces of a civilization’s code that is programmed into each of us as we enter into our respective cultures. This has been shown by many people smarter than myself: food is culture. Brillat-Savarin’s famous phrase underlines this: “Tell me what you eat, and I’ll tell you what you are.” You state that food is the most basic carrier of cosmology in a structural – not cultural – context. This is due to its importance as a basic human need – we need to eat to survive. You connect the foundational significance of food in a structural context to language in a cultural one — each is given to an individual from the first moments of life. This is fascinating: both food and language are building blocks of civilization and are learned by each of us from birth.

Carriers of Cosmology, Galtung

Table 1 from Galtung’s 1986 paper “Carriers of Cosmology”

I may push back a little here and say that food, while a basic human need, also resides further down on both the structural and cultural lists: food as leisure, food as art. We find ourselves in a moment in which chefs are rock stars, chefs are gladiators, chefs are entertainers. We watch cooking shows as pornography, as competition, as comfort. Chefs themselves are creating finer and finer pieces on the plate and charging extravagant sums for the privilege of seeing them, and perhaps enjoying a bite or two (one or two bites tends to be the extent of what’s on the plate!) Gourmands worldwide debate the finesse and touch of the hand of Thomas Keller or Daniel Humm as aesthetes analyze the paint strokes of van Gogh or the harmonic structures of Beethoven.

A plate from Chef Thomas Keller

One of many beautiful plates from Keller’s French Laundry (picture courtesy of Pinterest)

But back to your parallel between food and language. I would jump off here and suggest that there may be a similar parallel in the structure of each. You cite Chomsky’s work on the deep grammars of language; I’ll cite Paul Prud’homme’s concept of the Holy Trinity in Cajun cooking (and I’m sure many smarter food scholars than myself have taken this on; please point me to some good research on this!) to posit that there are deep grammars of cuisine. In this case the building blocks are the ingredients in a civilization’s cooking that provide immediate signposts to its provenance. Rice, of course, is an indicator, as is the use of certain types of flour, whether corn or wheat. Then there are spices – NPR just published an interesting piece about cumin’s role throughout history and around the world, and the use of cinnamon, chili, citrus, black pepper, and others can definitively identify from which civilization a dish emerged. The Cajun Holy Trinity is onions, bell peppers, and celery, while French mirepoix replaces the bell peppers with carrots and Italian soffritto mixes onions, garlic, and tomato. These are the deep grammars of cuisine.

Spices in a Moroccan market

Building Blocks of Cuisine (picture courtesy of Fodor’s Travel)

And now onto sex.

You got going in an interesting direction right at the end of the piece; I searched and searched for its continuation but couldn’t find anything. Maybe there’s more somewhere and I didn’t look hard enough, or perhaps you continued in your 1997 piece on sexual rhythms among various civilizations. You wrote about the difference between Western and Chinese cooking, and the idea of “climax” in Western cooking. The “classical French meal” moves from light (hors d’oeuvres and fish; white wine) to heavy (meat and red wine) before it relaxes with cheese, dessert, and coffee. It is asymmetrical, irreversible, and notably masculine. Like Western male sexuality, there is the foreplay of bubbly and nibbles, the build-up of light white wine and delicate fish, and the climax of deep, blood-red merlot and rare steak, to be concluded with a bit of sweet dessert, some coffee, and perhaps a cigar.

Unlike the classical French meal, the Chinese meal is “long lasting, many dishes with the same dishes reappearing, no clear climax, undulating, no clear order.” There is no roast, no big reveal, no apex. This, you say, is similar to Chinese sexual patterns of “lasting longer, distributing the climax over time in undulating, sinusoid patterns.” Notably feminine, of course. Now, this isn’t my territory, to be conjecturing about various civilizations’ sexual rhythms – I’m firmly outside my comfort zone. This sexuality talk borders on the edge of Orientalizing, but in terms of meal order, I think you’re on to something interesting. The classical Western meal order and the classical Chinese meal order are certainly different, and have different gustatory rhythms. While I’m not sure we can signify one as masculine and the other feminine, it would be interesting to get into a deeper analysis of how these gustatory rhythms arose, and what they indicate about their respective cultures.

Now, I’ll throw a kink into this thinking by stating that what we think of as the “classical French meal” is in fact Russian in origin, and only was introduced to France in the early 19th century. Prior to the introduction of service à la Russe into French dining habits, meals were served family style. I’d love to hear your sexual analysis of that little morsel!’

Service a la Francaise

Typical early service à la française (photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

To sum, as I’ve gotten a bit longwinded. Civilizations have a deep structural identity, defined by a code – a variety of indicators or cosmological carriers. Food is, perhaps, the most basic of these carriers, introduced from conception by a mother to her child and remaining a basic human need throughout life. Its significance as a signifier of culture goes well beyond the need for calories to survive, though – food is, and has always been, an integral component of culture, from what ingredients are used to what order dishes are served to how diners are seated at the table (if there’s even a table at all). Food traditions create insiders and outsiders – us and them – and can become a precursor for conflict. As I have attempted to show in this blog and elsewhere, food can also be a powerful cross-cultural connector, a tool for diplomacy, for building peace, for resolving conflict. This work originated with you, Dr. Galtung, and for that I am forever grateful.


French Culinary Nationalism

I promised, and I’m delivering: enough waiting. Culinary Diplomacy and its first cousin / alter-ego Gastrodiplomacy are moving forward daily, and progress is inexorable. In my last post I alluded to many recent goings-on: my colleague Johanna Mendelson Forman is once again teaching at American University about Conflict Cuisines, and published an article introducing DC to its own conflict cuisine. Air Canada’s in-flight magazine “En Route” wrote a piece about Gastrodiplomacy, and concluded that “gastro-diplomacy has shifted the emphasis of traditional talks held over rubber-chicken dinners to a time when the food on the plate does the talking.”  And there is more academic work being done: I’ve received emails from students around the world researching the field, and Communications Professor Dr. Juyan Zhang at UT San Antonio recently published a fascinating piece in the International Journal of Communication on Gastrodiplomacy campaigns, analyzing slogans, messages, and strategies to explain the current “global frenzy for gastrodiplomacy.”

The world as a lime.

Pisco Diplomacy. (photo borrowed from Air Canada’s En Route)

Most notably, though, are recent statements from French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius and other French officials on the occasion of the bequeathing of 2015’s Michelin stars. For the first time in history, the Michelin Guide was announced from the Quay d’Orsay, the home of France’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which, according to the New York Times‘ Florence Fabricant aimed to “underline the importance that the French government places on gastronomy’s role in tourism.” This is great news for those of us writing and thinking about the subject of culinary diplomacy, who have been working to prove that there is an indelible connection between food and diplomacy. It’s been difficult at times to convince non-believers that this isn’t frivolous (see the recent slap from  Representative Trey Gowdy [R-SC] to State Department spokesman Joel Rubin during a Benghazi hearing: “If you have time for … culinary diplomacy, you have time to comply with us.” He was, of course, referring to State’s Diplomatic Culinary Partnership, launched in 2012). To have a high profile official like Fabius welcome France’s highest profile chefs into the Quay d’Orsay is undeniable proof that Culinary Diplomacy exists.

(Courtesy of Twitter)

Chronic tweeter Fabius says that gastronomy is just as important to France’s patrimony as its landscapes and monuments (Courtesy of Twitter)

The problem is, though, that the scourge of unchecked patriotism (of which many countries, certainly including France, are guilty) led to the unfortunate conclusion from Fabius and others that France invented Gastrodiplomacy. France invented it!  In October of last year, Le Figaro reported that M. Fabius stated that «Nous allons créer une nouvelle spécialité: la gastrono-diplomatie» (“We will create a new specialty: Gastrodiplomacy (or Culinary Diplomacy).” On February 2 of this year, the Michelin awards ceremony occurred at the Quai d’Orsay, with Fabius presenting alongside such culinary luminaries as Alain Ducasse, Guy Savoy, and Guy Martin. Fabius stated that gastronomy is an extraordinary ambassador for developing tourism and foreign trade.” French diplomat Philippe Faure announced France’s gastrodiplomacy battle plan, «de diffuser la qualité française jusqu’à la dernière baraque à frites» — to disseminate French quality all the way to the last French fry food stall. (Are they now claiming frites over the Belgians?)  And French magazine L’Obs announced that «le locataire du Quai-d’Orsay a inventé un nouveau concept : la ‘gastrodiplomatie’» — Fabius had invented a new concept, gastrodiplomacy.

Laurent Fabius and Guy Savoy (photo courtesy of L'Obs)

Laurent Fabius and Guy Savoy (photo courtesy of L’Obs)

Invented! If you’ve been following this blog, or the field, for the past couple of years, you’ll no doubt be aware of culinary diplomacy campaigns in Thailand, South Korea, Peru, Taiwan, and the United States. And you may be aware of the historical significance of sacrifice, feasting, and commensality, which I’ve written about elsewhere. Even Hillary Clinton acknowledges that “Food is the oldest diplomatic tool.”  So no, M. Fabius, the French did not invent culinary diplomacy.

I won’t deny that the French have connected food and diplomacy for centuries, though. My own entrée into this field was sparked by learning of the chef Marie-Antoine Carême, the “King of Cooks and the Cook of Kings,” who helped maintain the world order with his gastronomic feats at the 1814 Congress of Vienna (I’ve written at more length about Carême and the Congress of Vienna in my 2013 article “Breaking Bread to Win Hearts and Minds.”) France’s cuisine is recognized by UNESCO as “intangible cultural heritage.” And France’s history as a destination for culinary tourism has meant that food has taken a central place in the country’s nation-branding campaigns.

What I do take issue with, though, is the gastronationalism, or perhaps gastrojingoism, at play here. It’s wonderful that the French government at the highest level is starting to capitalize on France’s status as an international culinary destination, the birthplace of haute cuisine and the training grounds for many of the world’s best chefs. The culinary hubris of Laurent Fabius, though, is beyond.

Maybe the French are on the defensive and trying to front a bit. In the New York Times Magazine in March of 2014, Michael Steinberger wrote an article entitled “Can Anyone Save French Food?” in which he states that “France’s culinary tradition has been withering for decades” and that “Paris has come to be regarded as a dull, predictable food city.” Mark Bittman followed up with a scathing op-ed in July of that year, entitled “French Food Goes Down.” He reports a 33% success rate with eating out in Paris: “Today, when I write about Parisian restaurants I have to eat in three to recommend one, and that’s with expert guidance.” I guess this raised M. Fabius’s hackles, and he must have concluded: If anyone can save French food, c’est moi. As he stated at the Michelin ceremony, “You will always find me at your side in defending and promoting what you all represent so well: French gastronomy.”

So, Monsieur Fabius: defend and promote French gastronomy. Put it on a pedestal and celebrate it. Follow America’s lead by naming Ducasse, Savoy, and Martin French ‘Culinary Ambassadors’ and start a chef corps to promote French cuisine worldwide. Follow Thailand’s lead by putting a stamp of approval on “worthy” French restaurants worldwide. Follow Spain’s lead and open university programs studying French gastronomy, or Peru’s lead and promote the use of native ingredients in global fusions. Just don’t claim that you invented all of this.

I will leave you with two quotes: the first from from my globe- and gastro-trotting colleague Paul Rockower:

“I am going to have to take France to The Hague for Crimes against Gastrodiplomacy.  ICJ, here I come.”

And now, Winston Churchull, during the Second World War:

“Remember, gentlemen, it’s not just France we are fighting for, it’s champagne!”

Far Too Long.

Hi Culinary Diplomacy enthusiasts!

I’m sorry it’s been so long since I’ve written here; don’t worry though, I’m always thinking of how food, diplomacy, conflict resolution, and community-building are related. And increasingly more of you are too! Great to see the chatter over Twitter, students contacting me from around the world, and news being published regularly about this fascinating and hot topic. Oh, and it even came under fire on Capitol Hill! How far we’ve come.

I may have some new readers and newly-interested folks based on a recent re-broadcast of my interview with Rebecca Sheir on The Splendid Table. Thanks for your interest, and thanks to the lovely Splendid Table folks for the re-broadcast.

So, to readers old and new, welcome to the world of Culinary Diplomacy. I’ll be posting again soon. Stay tuned.


A Different Kind of Cultural Diplomacy

This is almost too easy, I can’t believe I haven’t thought of it before.

Cultural Diplomacy is defined by the Institute for Cultural Diplomacy as an “exchange of ideas, values, traditions and other aspects of culture or identity, whether to strengthen relationships, enhance socio-cultural cooperation or promote national interests.” It can include the use of music, dance, sports, or other manifestations of “culture” for diplomatic ends: creating or strengthening bonds, increasing cooperation, nation-branding, and more. It can also include, of course, food. Culinary diplomacy and its sibling gastrodiplomacy are forms of cultural diplomacy; a nation or people’s cuisine is an important aspect of its culture.

Do you know what’s also an important aspect of a culture? Its cultures. Bacteria and yeasts, I mean.

Case in point. (Picture courtesy of

Case in point. (Picture courtesy of

The word “culture” in the societal sense and in the biological sense come from the same word, colere, which in Latin means ‘to tend or cultivate.‘ In the former sense, groups of individuals are cultivated into a group with a shared value system, customs, and institutions; in the latter sense groups of bacteria are cultivated into a colony with a shared goal of survival and mutual benefit [n.b. I’m certainly not a microbiologist and the last time I studied biology was almost 15 years ago, so please excuse or help me correct any factual inadequacies here.]

Mmm, brewer's yeast. (Photo courtesy of Kimball's Biology Pages)

Mmm, brewer’s yeast. (Photo courtesy of Kimball’s Biology Pages)

Cultured foods — those that have been fermented in some way — are becoming increasing popular in the United States and around the world. Probiotics and healthy bacteria are all the rage now to promote a healthy biome and to feed our ailing gastrointestinal systems, roughed up by years of antibacterial regimens. Yogurt is cool again, as are kefir, skyr, doogh, lassi, labneh. Bacterial friends are being introduced to our gut everyday by these products, including Lactobacillus rhamnosus, Lactobacillus casei, Streptococcus thermophilus, and all sorts of unpronounceable little guys. We’re also being introduced to new cultures — kefir was originally from the Caucusus, skyr from Iceland, doogh from Iran, lassi from the Indian subcontinent, labneh from the Levant. And it’s not just dairy products — there’s kombucha, the fermented tea that likely has its roots in Manchuria, fizzy tibicos from Mexico, and Russian Kvass. The list of fermented foods and drinks — and where they originate — is endless.

A glass of Doogh for you? (photo courtesy of

A glass of Doogh for you? (photo courtesy of

The Kvass Truck (photo courtesy of Wikimedia)

The Kvass Truck (photo courtesy of Wikimedia)

Beautiful jars of Kombucha (photo courtesy of

Beautiful jars of Kombucha (photo courtesy of

[I’m not going to get into the more violent aspects of bacterial cultures here. We could certainly explore the culture clashes that occur in nature — how various strains take over at different pH levels, how stronger ones overpower weaker ones — but I don’t want to tread on Samuel Huntington’s territory. If I really wanted to beat this already questionable topic to death, I could talk about cultural hegemonies (why is saccharomyces cerevisae the dominant species in the breadmaking world? ), cultural imperialism (ask any wine-maker or brewer about the yeast strain Brettanomyces, whose name comes from “British fungus” — talk about cultural imperialism!), or even cultural genocide. But I’ll leave that to the Huntingtons and the Fukuyamas of the world.]

So how about come real cultural diplomacy to strengthen national relationships, drive tourism, and promote cooperation? Russian Kvass is starting to become popular in the US, why can’t Obama and Putin sit down for a frothy glass and have a talk? The Iranian Ministry of Tourism should launch a “Got Doogh?” campaign to bring visitors curious about the minty, refreshing yogurt drink. Kim Jong-Un could even get on board and reach out to South Korean president Park Geun-Hye with an offer of fermented Kimchi. According to research (which I’ve discussed before) by psychologists at University College Cork and others, a healthy gut is actually very important for regulating mood. Levels of serotonin, the so-called “happy hormone,” are related inherently to gut bacteria, so indulging in cultured foods, rich in probiotics, really can make us happier and perhaps more willing to get along.

So, if our world leaders and others can come together and just enjoy each other’s cultures — a swig of kefir here, a nosh of sauerkraut there — perhaps we’ll begin to find our way out of this terrible, terrible mess we’ve gotten ourselves into.

The Culinary Diplomacy Gaffe Of The Year?

It’s been an exciting few months in the world of culinary diplomacy. And I’ve been too lax in keeping you all abreast of the issues — the following took place in late March, 2014. So without further ado…


Minister Slams Elysée’s Cooking as ‘Disgusting.'”

That’s right, folks. After a State Dinner hosted by Présidente François Hollande for his Chinese counterpart President Xi Jinping, French Minister for Foreign Commerce Nicole Bricq called the meal “dégueulasse,” or disgusting (and it was, of course, caught on tape). The menu, which included gourmandise de foie gras truffé accompanied by a Chateau d’Yquem 1997, volaille landaise rôtie et une viennoise de champignons accompanied by Château Lafite 1999, and more was prepared by the new chef de cuisine at l’Elysée, Guillaume Gomez, who took over in November 2013 after 40-year veteran Bernard Vaussion retired.

An Elysée chef preparing dessert for the meal

An Elysée chef preparing dessert for the meal.

“How can you say such a thing? The menu was perfect” said Gilles Bragard, the general secretary of Le Club des Chefs des Chefs and author of the book on Culinary Diplomacy, Chefs des Chefs. And how could the foreign commerce minister of all people, the one person tasked with promoting the products of France, be so callous as to say it in full view and earshot of the press? Perhaps her foie gras was underdone, the d’Yquem served too cold, the chicken rubbery, and the Lafite was corked. Maybe that’s the case. But if it was? Keep it to yourself, woman! Or confide in someone who was also there, and could corroborate, far far away from cameras and journalists. Don’t walk out of a beautiful, exclusive, well-planned and executed state meal and complain about the food. It reminds me of the time Craig Claiborne won a meal anywhere in the world, chose Café Denis in Paris, was treated to a 33-course, 4 1/2 hour, $4,000 meal, and called the presentation “mundane” and the over-all display “undistinguished” (and yes, People magazine existed in 1975). It’s okay to not blindly gush over displays of generosity and wealth, and some level-headed objectivity is necessary to prevent unabated critical inflation, but when there are relationship questions at hand, especially questions of diplomacy and bilateral relations, it’s okay to tone down the negativity and gush a little.

Does this look dégueulasse???

Does this look dégueulasse?

Bricq, you won’t be surprised to hear, was fired from her position soon thereafter. Was it her comments about the meal at l’Élysee, or the fact that Hollande’s party suffered in recent elections and he was forced to replace her? You be the judge. But just remember, France takes its food pretty seriously; ten years ago Chef Bernard Loiseau committed suicide after rumors arose that his restaurant would lose its third Michelin star, and in 1995 former French President François Mitterrand broke the law to enjoy the last course of his final meal, the delicate ortolan bird eaten whole, wings, beak, and all, underneath a white cloth to shield the act from God. Mitterrand died ten days later. In a nation in which three-star chefs commit suicide for negative reviews or former presidents end their lives with a dish offensive to God and the law, could a minister be sacked for criticizing the food at l’Élysee? Maybe.

Post-Script. I wonder if “se bricquerwill end up entering the French language to mean “putting one’s foot in one’s mouth soon after consuming foie gras and Chateau d’Yquem and losing one’s job over it,” similar to the 20-year old Japanese expression bushuru” or “bushu-suru, or to vomit on one’s host, as George H.W. Bush famously did during a state dinner in Japan in 1992. Just speculating.

Q & A with AddisEats

I recently had the the pleasure of speaking with two culinary entrepreneurs, Eliza Richman and Xavier Curtis of AddisEats, a company giving food tours of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. I asked them a few questions about their background and what inspired them to pursue this idea, which I think is brilliant. And hunger-inducing — after speaking with them I had a craving for Kitfo, Mesir Wat, and of course Injera…!

Culinary Diplomacy: Could you give us a brief introduction to the idea of AddisEats?

AddisEats: The concept behind AddisEats is to enable visitors to eat like locals and to experience Addis like few tourists ever do.

Our walking tours cover a range of eating establishments – from upper-class restaurants to hole-in-the wall joints. At each restaurant we sample their best dish or two, so that overall, the guests are sampling a wide range of local, traditional foods, just as Ethiopians eat them. By focusing on non-tourist oriented establishments, the recipes and flavors are just as the locals eat them.

Our clientele is mostly non-Ethiopians who want to experience Addis as if they had been living there for years. We take people off the beaten path to local spots they wouldn’t find on their own: to restaurants hidden down alleys where old ladies cook up authentic traditional food; to places that seat as few as ten people; and to well known local restaurants where you have to fight for a table. These spots are the hidden jewels of the city, jam-packed with locals, and the places you have to visit when in Addis Ababa.

CD: How did Addis Eats begin? What was the inspiration?

AE: Both of us are food obsessed. Xavier has been working in restaurants since he was 15 and on small-farms since he was at University of Wisconsin. He was also very involved in university’s Slow Food movement during his time there, and embodied that mantra by buying whole cows and pigs!

Eliza spent a lot of time traveling with her family, always following the dictum “travel on your stomach”. She ate in her first Michelin star restaurants before she was 14; with an introduction to the world of food like that it’s hard not to become infatuated. She has been eating Ethiopian food since infancy. Lemmy, her beloved Ethiopian nanny and her second mom, lived with Eliza’s family in Washington, DC from when Eliza was 2 months old until she went to college. Lemmy would regularly cook up awesome Ethiopian dishes.

Between the two of us we have over 15 years combined restaurant experience; we love to travel, each of us have visited over 30 countries and lived on three continents; and we both have experience working in the tourism industry in Ethiopia prior to AddisEats.

We’ve spent most of our free time in Addis searching out local restaurants. We’d come back raving about the new spots we find, and eventually our friends started coming with us on impromptu mini food tours.

This led us to realize that there was no easy way for visitors to eat authentic Ethiopian cuisine with a guarantee of finding the best (and safe) places. The tourist-oriented restaurants where the food is cooked for outsider’s tastes, is neither authentic nor as delicious. We wanted to create a way for visitors to eat authentic food and interact with Ethiopians.

Happy Food Tour Guests (photo courtesy of AddisEats)

Happy Food Tour Guests (photo courtesy of AddisEats)

Our inspiration, plain and simple, is the food. From delicious cloud-like injera smothered with tantalizing, butter-rich stews to tender roasted lamb cooked in traditional clay pots, the food is superb. It’s true that Ethiopians take a ton of pride in their food, and we promise you, it shows. The amount of time, knowledge and the diverse range of ingredients that go into Ethiopian cuisine is enough to pique any food lover’s interest.

CD: Here’s a definition for culinary diplomacy: “using food and cuisine as instruments to create cross-cultural understanding in the hopes of improving interactions and cooperation.” How do you see the mission of AddisEats fitting into the concept?

AE: Our tours not only inform outsiders about Ethiopian culture, they also show locals that even though their food is different from what our guests are used to eating, people are still interested in getting a first-hand view of their food, as well as their lives. So much so that they are willing to pay to experience it!

We come to these restaurants time and time again with different people peering over our shoulders, as we file down muddy side streets, through small shops and tight hallways eager to eat what smells so great from the kitchen.

In a country with such an isolating tourism industry (people whizzing by in white Land Rovers with the windows rolled up, going from fancy hotels to fancy restaurants), locals are thrilled to see tourists off the beaten path experiencing the real Ethiopia just like they do. For Ethiopians, it validates the pride in their food and their culture that they are so passionate about.

Food (and coffee) is perhaps the most important cultural aspect in Ethiopia. Ethiopians are extremely proud of their cuisine and beyond delighted to share it!

More personally, eating locally is what has facilitated our acceptance into Ethiopian culture. Sitting down to a shiro with construction workers, taxi drivers or office workers has given us an incredible view into the culture of Ethiopia. We have made friends over meals, honed our language skills and been more accepted as one of their own. It’s amazing that when sharing a communal plate of injera, cultural barriers fall by the wayside, more broadly, allowing us and the locals to get to know each other in far more meaningful ways.

CD: Do you see yourselves as diplomats for Ethiopian food? 

AE: Absolutely. We are so passionate and food-obsessed that we can’t help but speak enthusiastically whenever we talk about Ethiopian food. Our excitement and love for the cuisine is infectious; it’s one of the main reasons why people enjoy coming on the tours.

Our Ethiopian-born friends and colleagues openly admit that we are the experts when it comes to Ethiopian food. Our friends laugh at the fact that we, especially Xavier, craves injera at least once a day. We’ve eaten in just about every type of Ethiopian kitchen and restaurant there is in Ethiopia and we’ve gone into many of those kitchens to meet the chefs or the owners so that we can learn a bit of their magic. We continue to devote a lot of time to learning as much as we can, and tasting everything we can find, to broaden our knowledge about Ethiopian cuisine.

CD: How have the restaurateurs and market vendors responded to the tours?

AE: The response has been super positive at every place we’ve chosen. It’s a great two-way relationship that benefits both parties.

One of the best parts of our job is getting to know the owners, waiters and staff of the different restaurants we frequent. The relationship with them is what keeps AddisEats in business, as they are the ones who deliver the show! Seeing the waiters, the girls in the kitchen and the owners beaming with pride as we walk out of another great meal is a wonderful feeling.

Sorting Lentils (Photo courtesy of AddisEats)

Sorting Lentils (Photo courtesy of Munira Hashim via AddisEats)

CD: Who are your clientele in general? How have they reacted to the food you’ve helped them discover?

AE: Most people who come on tours are people transiting through Addis or here for a conference. They’re holed up in hotels all-day and eager to get out to explore.

So far our responses have been uniformly positive! For example, we have 30 reviews on TripAdvisor and they are all 5-stars. The tourism industry in Ethiopia is very young and under-developed and we offer a service that no one else does.

People are thrilled to get off the beaten path and get some local insight. Our customers always remark that they would never have had the guts or the know-how to try the places and the foods that we expose them to. They express a huge sense of satisfaction and gratitude for helping them experience real Ethiopian food.

We get a lot of Americans and Canadians but we’ve also had people from every continent: India, Australia, Chile, Argentina, Dubai, UK, Gabon, China, Germany, Qatar, Brazil, Burkina Faso and the Netherlands!

CD: And finally, what are your favorite Ethiopian dishes?

AE: Eliza’s absolute favorite dish is kitfo: raw meat chopped so thinly it almost becomes a paste (similar to beef tartar). It is warmed in Ethiopian butter (which is first clarified and then heavily spiced with coriander, cumin, beso bela (Ethiopian basil), garlic, fenugreek, turmeric and more). The meat is served with several variations of the local cheese: plain, mixed with mitmita (a local chili spice), and mixed with chopped collard greens. The cheese perfectly cuts the spice of the butter. I have to admit that I didn’t eat this for the first 2 years I was here, but am currently making up for lost time!

Xavier’s favorites are: gomen be siga (collard greens slow cooked with beef ribs and Ethiopian butter); mesir wat (lentil-stew spiced with berbere); and shiro be kibe (ground chickpea stew cooked with Ethiopian butter). Kitfo is also a favorite of his (and he’s been eating it for way longer!)

Beyaynet - a vegetarian dish usually eaten for Lent (photo courtesy of AddisEats)

Beyaynet – a vegetarian dish usually eaten for Lent (photo courtesy of AddisEats)

CD: Thank you both for taking the time to chat. I can’t wait to make it to Addis for my first AddisEats tour!


By Any Other Name: A Taxonomy of the Field

There has been some debate about the name of the field that I have been working on in this blog and elsewhere. Three common terms are “culinary diplomacy,” “gastrodiplomacy,” and “food diplomacy.” Others have championed “gastronomic diplomacy,” “diplomatic gastronomy,” and “diplogastronomy” (okay, that one hasn’t been taken yet).

I’ve defined culinary diplomacy as “the use of food and cuisine as instruments to create cross-cultural understanding in the hopes of improving interactions and cooperation.” My colleague Paul Rockower defines it as “the use of cuisine as a medium to enhance formal diplomacy in official diplomatic functions such as visits by heads-of-state, ambassadors and other dignitaries.” He distinguishes it from gastrodiplomacy, in regards to which he says “Gastrodiplomacy seeks to communicate culture through food to the broader foreign public. Moreover, gastrodiplomacy seeks to engage people-to-people connections through the act of breaking bread.” He doubles down, too: “It is important to create such dichotomies as the discourse and practice of culinary diplomacy/gastrodiplomacy is expanding.”

On food diplomacy, Paul says that “Gastrodiplomacy is different than food diplomacy, which entails the use of food aid and food relief in the period of crisis or catastrophe.” I agree, writing that “food diplomacy as using food aid as a tool of public outreach to reduce global hunger.”

After I appeared on The Splendid Table and made some remarks about the terminology, there was a great Twitter exchange between myself, scholars Rachel Laudan and Rachel Herrmann, and Paul Rockower. Highlights were:

First part of conversation

second part of conversation

See here for the rest of the exchange.

Cypriot scholar Costas Constantinou, who wrote the fascinating book On the Way to Diplomacy in 1996, included a chapter introducing another term, entitled “Gastronomic Diplomacy: Commensality, Communion, Communication.” He wrote this fifteen years before the rest of us caught up, and we’re all still figuring out the import of what he said. His early contribution included the following:

Gastronomy is not irrelevant or peripheral to political representation but, rather, … commensality and dietary practices are ways of inscribing community and feature forms of communication between parties in communion.

Linda Morgan, another scholar who published a paper called “Diplomatic Gastronomy: Style and Power at the Table,” had this to say:

While diplomatic gastronomy has many aspects to consider, including the actual food served, this article focuses on diplomatic dining in which individuals representing sovereign political interests share a meal under the auspices of certain protocol, cognizant of all communication, especially that emitted by the semiotics of the event.

So where does that leave us? It all gets a bit, well, semantic. Do these discussions lead us anywhere? The field remains young, and as more voices enter, there will be both more clarity and more opinions about what terminology we should be using. I look forward to continuing the debate, though in the meantime I’m happy to use whatever word makes sense to whomever I’m speaking with. It’s not the term but the idea that’s important, and as I work to encourage others to explore this field, I’ll work to put more energy into advocating the ideas of the field instead of its name.

But what about in other languages? Does it still smell as sweet? Well, we’ve gotten the chance to find out, as a recent article in NPR about a course I’ve been developing with Dr. Johanna Mendelson Forman at American University echoed around the world.

French newspaper Le Figaro and newsite and Belgian newspaper Le Soir covered the piece with the terms la diplomatie culinaire and gastrodiplomatie.

Romanian newspaper The Epoch Times wrote about it, using the terms diplomaţiei culinare and gastrodiplomaţia.

Finally, a few pieces in the Chinese press came out as well, with 美食外交 being the translation. If my two years of Chinese and Google Translate crutch get me anywhere, that translates as “food diplomacy,” pronounced “měishí wàijiāo.”

Whether in English, Chinese, Romanian, or French, and whatever terminology you use, we’re on to something here. And while a single term might never sum up what that thing is, I’ll paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart and say “I know it when I see it.”

Conflict & Cuisine

Thanks to everyone who’s come to this blog after the recent feature on NPR’s food blog The Salt. It did a great job summing up my most recent project, working with Dr. Johanna Mendelson Forman to create a new course concept at American University’s School of International Service. It’s exciting that the public can learn more about the course, considering it’s currently only accessible to seniors currently enrolled at American University (and even then we had a significant wait list).

Dr. Mendelson Forman wrote a piece about the course in the most recent edition of Public Diplomacy Magazine (an edition devoted entirely to themes surrounding culinary diplomacy and gastrodiplomacy). It opens with an old cliché about DC’s food scene:

“You can always tell where in the world there is a conflict by the new ethnic restaurants that open.”

[Whether that’s still the case since the US largely closed its borders to new immigrants since 9/11 is debatable, and we will be having that conversation in our last class.]

Looking at food, diplomacy, culture, and conflict, we built a course to explore the relatively undiscovered nexus of these fields. Here are the final two paragraphs of Dr. Mendelson Forman’s paper:

“What we hope to achieve in this course is first, to create awareness that behind the foods that are now commonplace in D.C., is a story of war and hardship, conflict and reconciliation that merits study. These are the conflict cuisines that arrived at our doorstep. Second, through a country’s kitchen one can garner a better sense of how food serves as a tool of soft power, of communication, when language alone is not enough. This can occur when immigrants try their hand as restaurateurs, bringing their cuisines to a new community and gaining acceptance through the kitchen. Third, this course, if successful, can be replicated in other cities in the U.S. and abroad as a framework for those who want their students to understand the integrated nature of culture and conflict.

Food is always present. It is easy to taste and feel, but less understood as a means of bringing citizens around the table. The diversity of the United States is one reason why the country is less prone to violent conflicts. The more heterogeneous a society, the less likely different groups will fight one another.[18] Food is a unique component of this diversity that can help bring different communities together, reach out to others, and carry something of one’s homeland to a new country. Indeed, this makes American conflict cuisine a part of the country’s expanding national food emporium, and also a learning tool for students interested in the study of war and peace.”

If this piques your interest, read the rest of the paper here.

I also contributed a piece to the volume, continuing the idea of combining food, culture, and conflict. War and Peas: Culinary Conflict Resolution as Citizen Diplomacy (sorry, Tolstoy) looks at attempts to resolve international conflict both through commensality and through collaborative projects involving food. Here’s a snippet:

“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.”

More here if you’d like to keep reading.

Want to contribute your thoughts on food and conflict? Can the idea of resolving conflict through food be dismissed as “hummus kumbaya,” as Gaza Kitchen author Laila el Haddad tweeted? Or can we hope that the words of Chef José Andrés ring true, as quoted in my first piece on the topic?

“I don’t think the war strategy has ever worked for humanity, but after thousands and thousands and thousands of years of earth controlled by humans, war still seems to be the answer? I hope one day, food will be the answer.”