Memos from North Korean nuclear negotiators are not your average cookbook fodder, but perhaps the world would be a better place if they were, Chris Fair suggests in her genre-defying "culinary castigation" of 10 foreign policy hotspots.
“Cuisines of the Axis of Evil and Other Irritating States” (Evilcuisines.com) stirs a generous dose of satire into its recipes for Pashtun cardamom tea, Israeli carrot salad and other dinner party fare from "Axis of Evil" states North Korea, Iran, and Iraq; hotspots Israel, India, Pakistan, Cuba, China, Burma (Myanmar); and "Great Satan", the United States.
Political analyst and South Asia expert Fair talked to Reuters Life! about why talking foreign affairs is safer over dinner, and the politics of falafel.
Q: This may be the world's first foreign policy critique cookbook. When and why did you cook it up?
A: “It actually had a sad origin in late 2002, when my brothers were deployed to Iraq. I'm a smart arse by nature, and I was full of anger that the Bush administration had cooked up this ridiculous concept “the Axis of Evil” to justify a war that was unconnected to 9/11. The Axis of Evil dinner party was really just a way of kvetching, and bringing together friends ...
After my brothers came back from Iraq it became a fun thing to do — the cookbook came afterwards.”
Q: You suggest talking politics over dinner lessens the chance of fist-fights breaking out. Why?
A: “Dinner parties are actually a relatively safe environment to have these discussions in, because you cut people slack ... Everyone's drinking, which sort of gives people a license to be obnoxious, and speak their minds even if they don't have one ...”
Q: The recipes are from far-flung countries that are not always easy, or possible, for the average person to visit. Is cooking up another nation's food a good way to understand it?
A: “Well, we can't afford to travel now, (laughs), so this might be the cheapest way to get to know the countries — to buy this relatively inexpensive cookbook and cook something from it.
Cuisine is a way that Americans, and others, are much more likely to encounter a foreign culture, in a domesticated safe environment. Vietnamese food is becoming very popular in the States, but very few Americans will actually go to Vietnam.”
Q: Some people don't seem to see politics-food links at all?
A: “There's a lot of politics we're not very perceptive about. I'm sure things go by my snout all the time because I'm not attuned ... But when I travel I'm constantly thinking about who has food, who doesn't have the food, who's making the food, who's eating the food? It's a personal psychosis!”
Q: What political insights might be sparked if the uninitiated millions knew and loved Cuban-spiced frijoles negros (black beans) and North Korean dwaeji bulkogee (spicy pork)?
A: “When we go out for Korean food, the average American thinks about North Korea as this sort of bastion of lunacy with nuclear weapons. We probably don't take all that seriously the tremendous issues of food security. The average North Korea has very poor access to food and is chronically undernourished.
The near nemesis, Cuba, is routinely battling with food insecurity. I think it's an aspect of our foreign policy that the average American probably doesn't think that much about.”
Q: Which dish was the most complicated to learn to cook?
A: “Probably the (Iranian) fesanjan (chicken in walnut and pomegranate stew). That's a dish that you kind of have to know what it tastes like in your head to get it spiced correctly.”
Q: You suggest many "national culinary icons" are not timeless, indisputable realities but the products of contingent geopolitical alignments — as with the chickpea dish falafel?
A: “Many countries have interesting political positions about food, and what they want the world to think about what they eat.
In Israel I was gobsmacked to see postcards declaring falafel the national food ... This is actually a pretty sensitive issue for many Arabs, many of whom ask: “Why, of all the things that you could lay culinary claim to, do you claim our food?" It parallels the appropriation of Palestinian lands.”
Q: Any final advice for defusing arguments and avoiding walk-outs before dessert?
A: “Cut them some slack, especially if people are liquored up.”