‘Conflict cuisines’ are basic to D.C.’s restaurant scene

Ethiopian food has become so common in Washington, D.C., diners forget how it got there. / Photo via Wikicommons

Ethiopian food has become so common in Washington, D.C., diners forget how it got there. / Photo via Wikicommons

Once it was common knowledge that you always knew where the latest global conflict was by looking at the new restaurant openings in Washington, D.C.

It’s no coincidence that places like the Eden Center in Falls Church, Va., or Little Ethiopia on 9th Street N.W. and 18th Street N.W. in Adams Morgan were destinations of diaspora who sought a new life in the United States.

El Salvadorans who fled turmoil in their country introduced Americans to pupusas. / Photo via Wikicommons

El Salvadorans who fled turmoil in their country introduced Americans to pupusas. / Photo via Wikicommons

The restaurants these immigrants opened not only provided a livelihood but also helped integrate new foods into the American culinary experience. Today, when we crave pho, doro wat or pupusas, we may forget that the proliferation of Vietnamese, Ethiopian and El Salvadoran restaurants represent the hopes and dreams of people who fled their homelands with little more than the memories of food they ate.

When I first moved to Washington many years ago, the city was a restaurant backwater. So much so that in the mid-1980s, former U.S. Sen. Wyche Fowler (D-Ga.) publicly admitted that he wished the Russians would send tanks down the Champs-Élysées so that Washington would finally get a good French restaurant.

Starting with the large influx of Vietnamese to the Washington area in the mid-’70s, followed by Afghans who took refuge here after the Soviets invaded their country in 1979, the Ethiopians who came here as things fell apart in the mid-’80s followed by the large number of immigrants from El Salvador and Guatemala, Washington has been the home to what I call conflict cuisines.

Thai basil is no longer a foreign ingredient to cooks who try Vietnamese dishes. / Photo via Wikicommons

Thai basil is no longer a foreign ingredient to cooks who try Vietnamese dishes. / Photo via Wikicommons

These polyglot cuisines arose from the recipes of immigrants who used their cooking skills to make a living in a new country with new ingredients. While many could not yet speak English, their culinary traditions communicated much about their cultures. Food is a powerful tool to communicate with others, to share memories about a place where one cannot return and to keep traditional foods alive in the face of great pressure to succumb to the fast-food culture.

Conflict cuisine is an integral part of Washington’s culinary scene, even if many food writers and hungry Washingtonians don’t realize they’re practicing gastrodiplomacy while dining at the restaurants of immigrants fleeing war zones.

I teach a course on conflict cuisines at American University because war and peace are intimately connected to food and eating. While I focus on those ethnic groups that have come here in search of freedom from the effects of war, I also realize that food can build peace by bringing people together around the table. It can, however, also provoke a war if governments restrict food supplies or bomb bakeries where innocent civilians are targeted as they wait in line for their daily loaf. The bakery bombing in Syria shows how the war has boiled down to access to food. Last year a Facebook page was set up on how to cook insects and vermin in the city of Homs to help those being starved the by Syrian regime.

Each new war brings restaurants to Washington, D.C. During the Balkans conflict, Bosnians brought their traditional dishes to Alexandria, Va.. Iraqis featured their kebabs in storefronts in Springfield, Va. Sierra Leone, a tiny African country, now more famous as the center of Ebola, was also a war-torn society. Some of their refugees opened a café in Washington.

In a city where politics and diplomacy are life’s blood, it’s worth considering that the arrival of new ethnic restaurants often mirrors world conflict. Food is borderless and a tangible sign of just how globalized we are.

–Johanna Mendelson Forman

5mendelsonforman_0 Johanna Mendelson Forman is a scholar-in-residence at the American University School of International Service and teaches a course on conflict cuisines. This piece is adapted from one that first appeared in DCist.

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