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Cultural Exchange: Conflict Kitchen debuts Afghan menu

By Grace Kelly / Staff Writer

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Hints of coriander and roasting lamb fill Schenley Plaza with the scent of Conflict Kitchen’s new Afghan menu. But the hordes of Pitt students and others that line up to the kitchen’s window don’t just receive their boxes of Kabuli Palow, they also get a taste of the intricacies of Afghan culture, current events and international issues.

With a complex past, continued U.S. involvement in the nation since 2001 and recent presidential elections, Afghanistan has been a staple of our news over the past 12 years. Often, the perception we are left with is one of a war-torn and poor nation. Since its opening in 2010, Conflict Kitchen has used the cuisines of foreign nations to create conversation about and appreciation for these nations’ unique, and often misunderstood, cultures.

According to Conflict Kitchen co-director Dawn Weleski, Afghanistan’s national struggles often cause us to forget that the culture of the country is still alive and thriving. Since the kitchen originally opened in East Liberty in 2010, it has been using food from countries around the world as an entry to cultural understanding. Weleski said that the purpose of serving food from Afghanistan is not to provide a political commentary, but rather to “create a public dialogue.” And what is a better medium for dialogue than food? 

Just as in many other cultures around the globe, Afghan food is not only sustaining — it’s part of what brings people together. Afghan specialist and professor in the Pitt Graduate School of Public and International Affairs Jennifer Murtazashvili said in an email, “As in most cultures, food plays a very important role in hospitality. If you enter [an Afghan] home, you will be offered tea (chai) and then food.”

In order to try and present an authentic Afghan menu, Conflict Kitchen had a multifaceted and involved approach.  

According to co-director and founder Jon Rubin, Rubin and Weleski “found recipes from cookbooks and tested everything with the local Afghan community.” They then carefully listened to the feedback of the natives and adjusted the recipes accordingly. Although Conflict Kitchen did have a version of Afghan food in its previous East Liberty location, they expanded the menu in this second manifestation.

One of the most popular recipes, according to Weleski and Rubin, is the Kabuli Palow, which is a slow-cooked lamb with candied carrots, rice and raisins — a simultaneously sweet and savory combination. 

Although the food may be a large draw, the information provided on fliers and many of the wrappers and packaging that the food comes in creates inter-cultural dialogue that enhances the experience. 

Brett Yasko, graphic designer for Conflict Kitchen, says this atmosphere has been a large part of the establishment’s sustained success.

“Yes, the food is great and it’s probably still the No. 1 reason people come. But people also read the wrappers, talk with the server at the window, participate in all the different programs and performances. People are engaged and interested,” Yasko said.

On April 18 at noon, Point Park professor and Afghan native Mohammed Sidky will be give a voice to his country by speaking about Afghanistan as not just a news item, but a living place with an entirely singular and fascinating culture.

So as you sip your Sharbat-e Rayhan and pop leek dumplings into your mouth, take the time to read the pamphlets and wrappers and maybe even join some of the stimulating conversation floating through the spring air in Schenley Plaza.  

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Cultural Exchange: Conflict Kitchen debuts Afghan menu