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Culinary Diplomacy Is A Recipe For Breaking Barriers In Politics

Food is art. Food is community. Food is joy and cultural identity. Increasingly, food is also statecraft.

07/21/2017 14:32 EDT | Updated 07/21/2017 14:32 EDT

For many, food means more than sustenance. Social media feeds are flooded with culinary trends and Unicorn Frappuccinos, while cookbooks draw on history.

Food is art. Food is community. Food is joy and cultural identity.

Increasingly, food is also statecraft.

AFP/Getty Images
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau toasts during the State dinner with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang at the Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec, Sept. 22, 2016.

Alongside embassies, trade missions and aid, some countries are turning to food through culinary diplomacy.

Stories of history, conflict, colonization and migration are written in food. "Our daily realities are contained in it," explains Arlene Stein, director of Terroir, an annual symposium for policy makers, business leaders and food producers. "So it only makes sense to use food to bring people together to break down barriers."

When it comes to eating and politics, we immediately think of state dinners. Fewer recognize the grassroots efforts in kitchens of street vendors and local producers.

During a spike in violence between Israelis and Palestinians in 2015, Kobi Tzafrir, owner of Hummus Bar in Tel Aviv, offered a 50 per cent discount to Jews and Arabs who dined together.

Customers get a side of politics with their North Korean doenjang jjigae, a traditional stew, at Conflict Kitchen, the Pittsburgh food stall that serves dishes from countries the United States is in conflict with in order to build understanding.

AFP/Getty Images
Kobi Tzafrir, the owner of Hummus Bar in the central Israeli town of Kfar Vitkin, displays plates of Hummus on Oct. 21, 2015 which he offers 50 per cent off to his customers for any table where Jews and Arabs sit together.

When the U.S. lifted the half-century long embargo on Cuba, New Yorkers got a head start on the cultural exchange as Cuban chefs took part in the Harlem/Havana food festival.

The governments of Taiwan and Thailand launched massive efforts to increase cultural awareness through food. Taiwan's $30-million dim sum diplomacy saw chefs travelling the world to help differentiate Taiwanese culture from China's, while the Global Thai program sponsored Thai restaurant openings worldwide, with each operating as an unofficial cultural embassy.

This is not to say that food is a cure-all for conflict. Greeks and Turks have fought over coffee, Irish Protestants and Catholics over whiskey, and everyone in the Middle East claims ownership over hummus. Still, some experts see great potential in culinary diplomacy as a bridge between divided nations.

Countries tend not to go to war with trading partners, and Stein sees the potential of shared tourism based on rich culinary traditions as a similar step towards conflict resolution.

There's something all Canadians can do: learn our own food history, explains Guelph University Food Laureate Anita Stewart. That means understanding the state of food security and meeting producers.

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Every dish has a story, says Stewart.

Take poutine. Today, it's up there with maple syrup and beavertails as a Canadian staple. But just like the fries, cheese curds and gravy, there are layers to poutine's history.

Invented in the 1950s, the dish first carried a stigma for its supposed lack of sophistication. Some Quebecers felt this stereotype was wielded by English Canadians to undermine the culture itself. Now featured on plates from San Francisco to Tokyo, marketed as Canadian, the dish has sparked a conversation about the relationship between French and English Canadians.

Whatever is on the menu, cultures and recipes come together to tell stories on our plates while they bring us together around the dinner table.

Food is politics.

Craig and Marc Kielburger are the co-founders of the WE movement, which includes WE Charity, ME to WE Social Enterprise and WE Day.

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