When you think of the tools of diplomacy, food isn't always high on the list. But breaking bread together can be one of the most basic ways of finding common ground. Which is why, a couple of years ago, the State Department launched the Diplomatic Culinary Partnership.
The program created an American Chefs Corps, who represent the U.S. abroad, and invited foreign chefs and culinary professionals here to taste and talk food.
A delegation of chefs and culinary professionals from North Africa and the Middle East recently visited through the program. and met with restaurateurs, chefs, bakers and grocers in cities all over the country, from New York to Portland, Ore.
The trip was designed to show off the American culinary landscape. But that started as something of an uphill battle — participants admitted that they didn't come with the most favorable impression of American cuisine.
Samira Hariri, who heads Slow Food Morocco, a nonprofit that supports small producers, says she expected to find fast-food restaurants every few blocks. Ashraf Abdou, who runs the Egyptian Chefs Association, concurred. After all, he says, "all of the world gets fast food through America."
But once they arrived, the visitors saw another side of American food. Farm-fresh produce. New vegetables like rhubarb and cactus leaves. And more types of hummus than they'd ever imagined.
And the exchange worked in the other direction as well. When the visitors sat down at Elephant's Delicatessen in Portland to chat with manager Nick Doughty, he wanted to know which of their country's products and food trends he should be looking into. Top recommendations included argan oil, deglet noor dates, the spice blend ras el hanout and a coffee made of roasted date pits. And, after years of hearing from customers who only want beef and chicken, Doughty says he was thrilled to find a group who shared his love of lamb dishes.
The notion that food can help build bridges isn't all that surprising, says Hamdy Metwally Elkawass, director of sales for Egypt's AM Foods. In Egyptian Arabic, "bread means life," he says. Both are called aish, "the first motto of the [Egyptian] revolution."
Beyond ideas for store layout and grab-and-go cases, the visitors say they're coming away with a different picture of America.
"When we are traveling around, visiting other countries, the first thing you're looking for is food," says Algerian pastry chef Djaouhar Nawel Moussi Ouyahiasay. Food helps shape our impressions of a country, because it's so basic to who we are — even from the very beginning, she says.
And, says Egyptian Ashraf Abdou, when you find American food, in all its diversity, you find America.
"Through food you can understand the cultures. And with the culture, you can understand the people," says Abdou. "In our countries, it's a negative idea about the Americans. Because they saw that only the media. They didn't know the people themselves."
And the hope is that getting to know people, and their culture, sets the table for a very basic level of diplomacy — getting a taste of who we are.
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. You don't have to be a diplomat to know that good food can bring people together. The U.S. State Department is doing that, with their new diplomatic culinary partnership that sends American chefs abroad and brings international chefs here. Now recently, one of these visiting delegations spent the day in Portland, Ore., where they learned about America and all its diversity through its food. This was before Portland suffered its drinking water problems. Deena Prichep was with the chefs, and filed this report.
DEENA PRICHEP, BYLINE: Most of us will happily sing the praises of a favorite regional dish, whether it's a New York bagel or Minnesota sweetcorn. But in the rest of the world, American cuisine doesn't always have the best reputation.
SAMIRA HARIRI: (Through Translator) I'm really surprised because I thought Americans only eat fast food.
PRICHEP: Samira Hariri is the head of Slow Food Morocco. She's riding around with chefs and food professionals from Algeria, Egypt and Oman as part of the State Department's culinary exchange program. They're meeting their American counterparts in cities from New York to Portland to New Orleans. And they're definitely seeing more than fast food.
UNIDENTIFIED TRANSLATOR: She's asking why do you sell the cactus leaves. Decoration, I guess.
UNIDENTIFIED STORE CLERK: No, you eat them.
UNIDENTIFIED TRANSLATOR: Oh, you eat them?
PRICHEP: At New Seasons, a local Portland natural market, the group walks through aisles of organic produce. And they marvel at a shelf of hummus flavored with everything from chipotle peppers to roasted garlic. Not what you'd find in the Middle East.
HAMDY METWALLY ELKAWASS: It's usually plain and you season it by yourself. Olive oil that's main.
PRICHEP: Hamdy Metwally Elkawass is the head of sales for a few Egyptian grocery stores, and he's especially excited to find the bread aisle. He notes that these staple foods are actually interwoven with politics.
ELKAWASS: Actually, in Israel, bread - that was the first motto of the revolution because bread means life - the same word. Aish.
PRICHEP: But beyond this bigger picture, he's also using the trip to reflect on some of the more day-to-day logistics.
ELKAWASS: The layout here is really interesting, like cheese and bread, like, together in the same place. Maybe this will affect our next store, you know.
PRICHEP: When the group tours Elephants Delicatessen, manager Nick Doughty walks them through the central kitchen, comparing ingredient costs and profit margins.
NICK DOUGHTY: We try and sit around - right around 30 percent cost of goods, roughly.
ELKAWASS: That's all over, yeah. Everybody...
DOUGHTY: It's about the same.
ELKAWASS: Yeah, yeah.
PRICHEP: But they also just want to talk food.
DOUGHTY: One of my favorite things from Algeria - merguez sausage.
DOUGHTY: It's the greatest thing ever.
PRICHEP: Back on the bus, visitors scroll through their tablet computers, looking over photos and taking down notes. But, more than ideas for store layout or amazement at our portion sizes, these visitors are coming away with a different picture of America. Algerian pastry chef Djaouhar Nawel says that food helps shape this picture because it's so basic to who we are, even from the very beginning.
DJAOUHAR NAWEL: (Through translator) Like a woman delivers a baby, the very first thing he'll be looking for is food. And when we are traveling around visiting other countries, first thing we are looking for is food.
PRICHEP: And when you find American food in all its diversity, you find America.
ASHRAT ABDOU: Through food you can understand the cultures.
PRICHEP: Ashraf Abdou runs the Egyptian Chefs Association.
ABDOU: And with a culture, you can understand the people. In our countries it's a negative idea about the Americans because they saw only that is in the media. They didn't know the people themselves.
PRICHEP: And the hope is that getting to know people and their culture sets the table for a very basic level of diplomacy - getting a taste of who we are. For NPR News, I'm Deena Prichep, in Portland Ore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.