"The kitchen does not recognise borders"

Two women are interviewed about the Recipes for Peace project

In May and June this year, International Alert and our Caucasus Business and Development Network (CBDN) partners, the Gyumri Development Foundation in Armenia and the Kars Urban and Culture Research Association in Turkey, presented the results of the ‘Recipes for Peace’ initiative at a series of public events.

The project, which started in August 2014, aims to challenge negative narratives about Turkish–Armenian relations by exploring the emotional and cultural experience of preparing and sharing food together, and by identifying the traditions, practices and stories associated with cuisine, which are common to both cultures.

Recipes for Peace has demonstrated that studying food cultures provides an opportunity to bring together different sides of a conflict and/or communities divided by closed borders. Culturally, homes and families provide a sacred space where everyone wants peace. As such, they provide an entry-point for sensitively raising and discussing conflict issues and facilitating dialogue to promote a change in people’s attitudes towards public support for restoring peaceful relations.

The public events, which took place in Armenia on 31 May and in Turkey on 20 June, provided a great opportunity for the guests and residents of Gyumri and Kars to engage and taste the dishes prepared by chefs and homemakers, and learn the history of the recipes handed down by family members through the years. Those attended also included representatives of the local authorities (including the vice-mayor in Gyumri and MP from Kars), diplomatic missions (the Swiss and US embassies), local and international organisations, academia and media.

"Bread and salt is usually offered to honourable guests. It has a deep symbolic meaning of caring," said one of the project participants from Armenia. "Sharing it means friendship and sincerity. Sharing it with the neighbouring community means peace."

People share food together in Gyumri

Some of the food that was prepared included aveluk/evelik (sorrel soup), herisa/harissa (porridge with chicken) and erishta/erishte (homemade pasta). It was very impressive to see women who do not speak the same language but understand each other in the kitchen working with each other without an interpreter. Although the recipes on both sides of the border were almost the same, the participants were constantly exchanging the slight details in recipes and learning from each other. The whole process of preparing and sharing food was accompanied with songs and jokes, which created a sincere environment to build and restore trust. As one participant said, "Food can demonstrate a common language that brings people together."

During the course of the project, women homemakers highlighted that it was the first time someone had asked their opinion of the closed borders between Turkey and Armenia, even though it greatly affects their livelihoods and limits the possibility to visit the places where their ancestors once lived. They expressed their support for the normalisation of relations between the two countries. There was a lot of energy, activism and positivity coming from these women, whose main aims were to highlight the similarities between the communities divided by the conflict and to let the world know that they support reconciliation. "The kitchen does not recognise borders," said a food expert from Turkey taking part in the scheme. "When we cook and eat, existing borders become irrelevant."

We are producing a documentary film to highlight the peacebuilding message of this cross-conflict culinary initiative to the wider Turkish and Armenian public. The film, which will be launched in late September 2015, aims to open viewers’ eyes to the possibility of peaceful collaboration and positive relations between Armenian and Turkish people, based on shared understandings and common values, contrasting with the atmosphere of tension felt between the societies. You can watch a teaser of the film here.

Find out more about the Recipes for Peace project here.