Conflict Cuisine: Teaching War Through Washington’s Ethnic Restaurant Scene


By Johanna Mendelson Forman, with Sam Chapple Sokol

It is a Washington cliché: you can always tell where in the world there is a conflict by the new ethnic restaurants that open. From Vietnam to the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, to the Central American wars, to the civil war in Ethiopia, diasporas have come to this city in search of freedom. With them, they bring a sense of keeping the culinary culture of their country alive in the numerous eateries that landscape Washington’s suburbs.

diasporaTeaching about war and conflict requires an ability to analyze current global upheaval.  Yet if there is one thing I have observed from my experience as a policy expert on conflicts and transitions, and my academic research and years of teaching about weak and fragile states, it is that students today lack a basic knowledge of 20th century conflicts. It seems to me that, too often, events before September 11, 2001, are considered too far removed and thus forgotten. Wars like Vietnam or the Russian invasion of Afghanistan are considered ancient history. And even the post-Cold War conflicts in the Balkans or in West Africa are not easily recalled. These gaps in understanding about past events make it harder to see the connections between what is happening in Syria or Iraq and what happened in Vietnam or Ethiopia. Wars today are not waged by regular armies, but more often by irregular forces that change the dynamics of fighting. Cities are the new battlefields. Civilians, not soldiers, are the victims of today’s conflicts.

Through this course, Conflict Cuisines: An Introduction to War and Peace through Washington’s Ethnic Restaurant Scene, a seminar at the School of International Service (SIS) at the American University in Washington, D.C., I hope to explore those events that have shaped modern conflict, while also demonstrating how the nature of warfare has shifted in the last sixty years.[1] This is a first–combining a serious course about conflicts with an exploration of the culinary legacy of these wars as manifested by the Washington restaurants. By using readings about those wars, and utilizing other media, I hope to bring together the classroom and the communities who still use their cooking to retain a link with their former homelands.

To integrate the study of conflict with food, I asked food researcher Sam Chappele-Sokol, to help identify four local ethnic restaurants where the owners would be willing to share their cuisine, but also to share with us a background on particular dishes that were representative of their national heritage. When I first discussed this idea with other colleagues who teach courses on war and peace they encouraged me to create this seminar. American University has always had a mandate to integrate its global education mission with the local community. This course is considered one of the most tangible ways that we can connect with our neighbors to advance our understanding about the local impact of conflict.

In the next few pages, we describe our approach to teaching war and conflict. Such a course serves as a powerful tool for interdisciplinary understanding of the nexus of international events and the community. Conflict cuisines are also a wonderful example of what has been described by political scientist Abraham Lowenthal as the “intermestic, referring to issues that have both international and domestic facets.”[2] The purveyors of cuisines from countries in conflict can use their food as a means of communicating to U.S. domestic audiences about their culture, particularly how war has affected the civilian populations who are now in exile. This type of connection may be an unintended consequence of any given conflict, but it does have a didactic element that can help build support and understanding about other people and other countries.

While focused on the Washington, D.C. area, we also hope that the course format can serve as a template for others who want to connect different diasporas with the university. This new take on the town and gown divide may actually help bridge a gap that often exists in the United States: distrust of newcomers, or more significantly, misunderstandings about different cultural norms, and may help overcome xenophobia. Conflict cuisines can also promote a greater understanding about how and why people assimilate into a community, and how their international roots contribute to the strength and diversity of American culture.

This course has also been inspired by the growing field of “gastro” or culinary diplomacy which has become a part of the U.S. diplomatic toolkit, a soft power mechanism to bring the diversity of our culture together around a global table.[3] During the first Obama administration, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton embraced the use of a variant of soft power, or “smart power,” to promote U.S. interests globally[4]. U.S. chefs were made culinary ambassadors and traveled around the globe to promote the diversity of U.S. food culture. This modern version of commensality has its origins in ancient times. It was originally a technique used by Greeks and Romans to bring adversaries together over food to negotiate, to settle disputes, and even to divulge state secrets after long meals with ample wine to loosen tongues.[5] Food is a means of communication. It is a conveyor of culture, precisely because it is used to communicate through rituals that involve its preparation and serving. The absence of food is a symbol of problems within a culture, a breakdown of rituals, and thus a potential problem within a given environment that gives rise to other societal breakdowns. A recent book by Lizzie Collingham, The Taste of War, illustrates how during World War II nations went to considerable lengths to secure adequate food supplies in a prolonged armed conflict.[6]

Finally, this course also reflects the observation that the expansion of ethnic cuisines in Washington is not only a manifestation of global conflicts taking place in other parts of the world, but also a symbol of loss and connectivity. As scholar Defne Karaosmanoglu writes, “Food cultures of a particular community help us to understand how that community connects to the past, lives in the present, and imagines its future.”[7] As I looked around my own city it was clear that certain war-affected populations had also become the center of enduring culinary trends–Vietnamese, Afghan, Ethiopian, Salvadoran–these communities were represented not only in numbers of their respective diasporas, but also through their cuisines. Yet how many people who enjoyed the wonders of pho, or the chewiness of injera, not to mention the ever-present pupusas–could actually tell you anything about how these dishes had entered into the Washingtonian diet? This knowledge gap about the provenance of these foods also presented an opportunity. Why not connect the study of recent conflicts with the cuisines that are emblematic of their national origins.

The conflicts of the Cold War were far more influential in terms of creating a new culinary diaspora than those that took place after the fall of the Berlin Wall. This is understandable since the United States, a nation of mainly European immigrants until the Second World War, already had a European culinary culture. However, in the second half of the 20th century a much more diverse melting pot emerged, bringing in the foods of Southeast Asia, the Middle East, the Caribbean, and the varied Central American diet that differed from the standard Tex-Mex foods that had been part of our border culture. After September 11, 2001, when the United States literally closed the door on millions of people from conflict zones, it became possible to observe a contraction of new ethnic cuisines in Washington, in most cases attributable to the restrictive immigration policies imposed as part of the United States counter-terrorism policies.

One of the most tangible ways to link past and present conflicts is through the culinary connection that refugees bring to their new homes. Anthropologists Sidney Mintz and Christine Du Bois note that “the role of war and the roles of many kinds of social changes has been relatively neglected in food studies.”[8] They suggest that this is an area ripe for research, beyond the current studies about food security, which are logical areas of inquiry for understanding the impact of conflict on culture. More telling is a point that Mintz noted in a series of review essays, Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom, where he observes that there had been a gender bias in early anthropological studies that did not delve deeply into the role of women in the kitchen, beyond the documentation of their presence. Indeed, today we know from conflicts around the globe that it is women who not only prepare the meals, but also replace their spouses or their brothers when wars divide families.[9]

Creating a course in which some of the world’s most brutal recent conflicts are explored through a diaspora’s kitchen may seem to trivialize these horrific events. But using the classroom and the local restaurant as a means of explaining the nexus of food and war can become a tool to illustrate not only the way such events affect history, but also how cuisines create a means of cultural communication that brings greater understanding to those sharing the experience of eating ethnic foods.

Moreover, the reality of global wars and their impact on affected communities can help students connect to international events in a very intimate way. Sitting at the table, talking with the chef, and learning about how a particular food or dish came into the diet of many Washington residents is a way to teach about a dimension of conflict that is often forgotten: the human dimension. This act of “commensality,” or coming together around the table, is an ancient way to connect people through the act of sharing a meal together.

The plethora of cuisines from places that were once only known to most Washingtonians through newspaper headlines can also be viewed at as a form of citizen diplomacy by those who have chosen to resettle in the Washington area. Just as the United States State Department has recently started to value the use of chefs as culinary diplomats, so the chefs from conflict countries can also become a bridge to a greater understanding of the history and heritage of any given country or region. Since 2012, when the State Department launched its Diplomatic Culinary Partnership, it has created a Chefs Corps, a network of chefs from across the United States who have agreed to collaborate with the Office of the Chief of Protocol, to serve as culinary ambassadors around the globe.[10] A recent example occurred in October when chefs from Colombia, a country that still has an ongoing conflict, were recently invited to Washington to share their skills with some of Washington’s local chefs. This type of exchange demonstrates what some have dubbed food diplomacy as another part of our soft power tool kit.

Theories of Food and Culture

The study of food as a manifestation of a specific culture has its roots in anthropology and history. Hunger, like sex, is one of the basic drives of human nature. Throughout history, the availability of food has not always been a given. Droughts, famines, and other natural phenomena greatly affect the food supplies of civilizations around the globe. In our American society of plenty, of super-sized meals and a groaning board of choices, it is often easy to forget that the United States still has a hunger problem. Food stamps are widely used, especially by women and children and the elderly. Globally, hunger remains an ongoing problem where more than one billion people still live on less than a dollar a day. Hunger can also be a driving force of conflict, especially when agricultural land or water is not available, or warfare disrupts the normal growing season. Add the presence of land mines in many countries that have undergone civil wars, where both armies and insurgents plant hidden killers without mapping or regard for human lives, and you have a formula for disaster in terms of food supply. Finally, famines occur even in the world of plenty. They are often a symptom of bad governance or authoritarian rule. As Indian economist Amartya Sen observed, democracies do not starve their citizens.[11] When leaders deliberately cut off food supplies, as happened in Burma after the Cyclone Nargis, or by Al-Shabaab in Somalia, the result is disastrous.

What citizens eat and what a society grows for its own use and for trade are important parts of the social fabric. The study of material culture, which includes the study of food and cooking, provides a window on more than just the diet of any given group, but also reflects the economic and social underpinnings of how food production and cultivation support and sustain people over the ages.

The anthropology of food has too often overlooked the role that women play in the production and preparation of food. This omission can now be remedied in part by a greater understanding of the role women play during wartime. Not only do women often end up alone in refugee camps, but when their partners are fighting they are also left to continue agriculture and provisioning of the home, in addition to taking care of children and elders. Thus, conflict cuisines, those foods arising from war zones, are often imported to new countries by women, who in many societies are the bearers of food traditions.

Is There a Conflict Cuisine?

To answer this question, it is important to understand what we mean by the term “cuisine.” The word is derived from French, where it means “kitchen.” But, as anthropologist Sidney Mintz notes, how the term is used is very imprecise. For example, in the United States Mintz notes that “the term ‘cuisine’ takes on ethnic or national character,” so we have “Thai cuisine” and “Chinese cuisine” to differentiate these international foods from local ones. Moreover, Mintz suggests that “what makes a cuisine is not a set of recipes aggregated in a book, or a series of particular foods associated with a particular setting, but something more. I think a cuisine requires a population that eats that cuisine with sufficient frequency to consider themselves experts on it. They all believe that they know what it consists of, how it is made, and how it should taste. In short, a genuine cuisine has common social roots; it is a food of a community–albeit often a large community.”[12]

If we think about diasporas of recent conflicts as a set of different communities, then it is possible, by extension, to consider the food that these groups eat as a form of conflict cuisine. The different foods arise from a common set of circumstances, refugees from war-torn societies that use their cooking as a means of retaining certain traditions, or as a small distraction from the tremendous uncertainties that being uprooted can produce in any society. Indeed, it is often remarked that while language is the first thing to go after a generation among immigrant populations, food is the last.[13] And in the case of cuisines from Vietnam, where almost 40 years has passed since the fighting stopped, the presence of numerous Vietnamese restaurants serve as a constant reminder of the role of food in national identity, and also of its use as a tool of cross-cultural communication. The same can be said for many of the other ethnic foods that have remained a mainstay of the diet of those who escaped from war.

If we are now beginning to understand the role that food (or the lack of it) played during World War II, the post-Cold War period of conflict and violence that resulted from the dissolution of the Soviet Union raises similar questions about the role of food in internal conflicts.[14] The civil wars in Africa, from Somalia to Ethiopia, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo all demonstrated the challenges of giving foreign assistance in the form of food when the state was not able to control its distribution, or protect its supply lines. Food security, one of the central concerns of countries torn apart by internal fighting, is also a function of bigger economic development concerns. These include the lack of infrastructure that inhibits the delivery of supplies, the presence of non-state actors who control and occupy parts of recognized nation-states, and the role that providing aid has in exacerbating conflict, since food aid can be monetized and used for buying arms.

A Conflict Cuisine Curriculum

The challenge of integrating formal studies about the theory of conflict, prevention of wars, and ethnic cuisines as a manifestation of global international events is demonstrated by the eclectic nature of the readings and media used to help students understand that there is a nexus between food and conflict. From the Carnegie Commission study on prevention of deadly conflict, to Abraham Varghese’s novel about his childhood in Ethiopia, to the most recent CNN series of Anthony Bourdain that connects transition countries like Libya or Burma, students will gain a deeper sense of what constitutes a conflict cuisine.[15]

Over the course of a semester students in this seminar will be treated to a varied set of readings about modern conflict. While this course starts with the Viet Nam War and goes to our current day wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, we place heavy emphasis on history–why some types of mistakes in managing conflict repeat themselves. For example, one of the first readings, Barbara Tuchman’s the March of Folly[16], has an excellent overview of how mistakes made in addressing the colonial situation in Indo-China led the U.S. into a full-blown Asian war that continued to ignore lessons of the past. We then visit with restaurateurs who were deeply affected by this war–the diaspora who now lives in Washington. Many are second generation Americans, but their traditions and deeply rooted culinary culture are evident in the restaurants and food stores in the surrounding suburbs. Students will also be encouraged to explore on their own the recommended areas to learn more about cuisine and culture.

A methodology that combines serious readings about the conflict and class discussion, followed by a field experience with a member of the diaspora, can link the facts, figures, and theories of why such wars happen with those who actually lived through such times. Sitting around the table with the chef and often someone who can explain the history of a cuisine or a specific regional dish is an invaluable way to understand the course of a nation’s history. When it comes to Afghanistan a recent article by Helen Saberi on Afghan food and culture can literally convey any reader into the depths of that war-torn society’s kitchen in a way that traditional political studies often miss.[17] Having the chef who is the cousin of a presidential candidate discuss the Afghan kitchen can create the living history of a nation and its kitchen that will surely make for a memorable as well as educational experience.

Combining these bi-weekly dinners with classroom discussions about the reading can make for a semester that will help bring the realities of conflict and its impact on communities to a new level of understanding. As a learning goal it is my hope that no student leaves this course without a clearer understanding of how the human experience of sharing a meal can also tell a more profound story about global events.

And how does one grade students in this type of seminar? There will be written assignments about the readings, summaries responding to specific questions, and there will be a final project. Student teams will be required to find a conflict cuisine in the Washington area that we did not study over the course of the semester and provide a presentation about that country’s history, its local purveyors, and possibly even a sampling of the national fare. Whether these new diaspora restaurants are actually a form of reverse “gastrodiplomacy” is something scholars of public diplomacy can debate as this field continues to grow.

But judging from this first effort to integrate a course on food and conflict into a curriculum that prepares students for careers in international relations it seems highly likely that this type of program can deepen understanding of the complexities of an ever-connected global culture.

Can You Teach Conflict Through a Kitchen? A Test Case

 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.


Notes and References

[1]  SIS seemed an appropriate place to introduce such a course.  It is the largest school of international affairs in the United States with more than 3,000 students from 150 countries.  Louis W. Goodman, Dean Emeritus of SIS, notes that our founders had a vision of peace that would educate citizens planning to be of service. That is the essence of what we do.”  And this course hopes to embody that sense of service and education.

[2] Abraham Lowenthal, “From Regional Hegemony to Complex Bilateral Relations: U.S. Latin America in the Early 21st Century,” in Nueva Sociedad, 206, 2007, p.10

[3] Paul Rockower, “Setting the Table for Diplomacy” in The Huffington Post, 9/21/12. 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. While the two are not mutually exclusive, I do think it is important to create such dichotomies as the discourse and practice of culinary diplomacy/gastrodiplomacy is expanding (like my waist line). There is an ongoing debate over whether the terms “gastrodiplomacy” and “food diplomacy” are interchangeable. Rockower argues they are distinct.

[4] See Center for Strategic and International Studies,  Joseph Nye and Richard Armitage, co-Chairs, Commission on Smart Power, Washington, D.C. 2007,

[5] Sam Chapple-Sokol, “Culinary Diplomacy: Breaking Bread to Win Hearts and Minds,” The Hague Journal of Diplomacy, Volume 8, Issue 2 (2013) 161-183.

[6] Lizzie Collingham, The Taste of War, Penguin Books, NY. 2012

[7] Defne Karaosmanoglu, “Remembering past(s): The construction of cosmopolitan Istanbul through nostalgic flavors,” in Janet Cramer, Calita P. Greene, and Lynn M. Walters, Food as Communication Communication as Food, (Peter Lange, New York, Washington, D.C./Baltimore 2011) p.40

[8] “The Anthropology of Food and Eating,” in Annual Review of Anthropology, 2002, 31, 99-119.

[9] Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom, (Beacon Press, Boston 1997) p. 3 “Most anthropologists were men, and didn’t find such matters especially interesting. Hence it would probably be accurate to say that food and eating got much less attention in their own right as anthropological subjects than they really deserved.”

[10] U.S Department of State,  U.S. Department of State to Launch Diplomatic Culinary Partnership, September 5, 2012.

[11] Democracy and Freedom, (Anchor Books, New York 1999) “’No famine has ever taken place in the history of the world in a functioning democracy.” This, he explained, is because democratic governments ”have to win elections and face public criticism, and have strong incentive to undertake measures to avert famines and other catastrophes.”

[12] Sidney W. Mintz, Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom: Excursions into Eating, Culture and the Past, (Beacon Press, Boston 1996) pp94-96.

[13] David Greene, “Dumplings Taste Better when Filled with Memories”, The Salt, What’s on your plate?  National Public Radio, August 30, 2013, Broadcast Transcript.

[14] Masha Gessen, “Russia: You Are What You Eat,” The New York Review of Books, November 21, 2013, p.10.  A review of Anya von Bremzen’s book, Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing,  describes the transition from the Soviet Union to Russia, and the impact this transition had on food supplies and cuisine.

[15] Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Conflict, Preventing Deadly Conflict: Final Report, (Carnegie Commission of New York, 1997);  Cutting for Stone, Vintage (New York  2010);

[16] Alfred Knopf, (New York 1985)

[17] See Chapter 12, in Afghanistan Revealed, edited by Ahmed Rashid and Jules Stewart, Crux Publications, London, 2012

[18] See Paul Collier and Nicolas Sambanis, “Understanding Civil War: A New Agenda” in Journal of Conflict Resolution, February 2002, v. 46, 1, pp. 13-32.

Johanna Mendelson Forman is a Senior Advisor with the Managing across Boundaries Program at the Stimson Center, where she works on security and development issues, including regional multilateral engagement, civil-military relations, and stabilization and reconstruction.  She is also a Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies Program on Crisis, Conflict, and Cooperation. She teaches at the American University’s School of International Service, where she holds the title of Scholar-in-Residence. An expert on the post-conflict, transition and democratization issues, she has a regional expertise in the Americas, with a special focus on the Caribbean, Central America and Brazil. She also has had extensive field experience in transition development in Haiti, Iraq, and Sub-Saharan Africa. A former co-director of the Post-Conflict Reconstruction Project, at the Center for Strategic and International Studies she has written extensively on security-sector reform in conflict states, economic development in postwar societies, gender and conflict, and the role of the United Nations in peace operations.

Mendelson Forman also brings experience in the world of philanthropy, having served as the director of peace, security, and human rights at the UN Foundation. She has held senior positions in the U.S. government, helping create the Office of Transition Initiatives, and serving as a Senior Adviser for Humanitarian Response at the U.S. Agency for International Development, as well as at the World Bank’s Post Conflict Unit.  She served as a Senior Advisor to the UN Mission in Haiti.

Mendelson Forman is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and serves on the advisory boards of the Latin American Security Network, and RESDAL and she co-chairs the Latin American and Caribbean Council on Renewable Energy, LACCORE. She holds a J.D. from Washington College of Law at American University, a Ph.D. in Latin American history from Washington University, St. Louis, and a Master’s of International Affairs, with a certificate of Latin America studies from Columbia University in New York.


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