Friends, food and fellowship
Conflict Café offers diners a unique opportunity to break bread and build bridges
Conflict Café sounds like the sort of place you might go to have a row — something akin to the argument clinic in the memorable Monty Python sketch, in which John Cleese is paid to engage in angry exchanges. Nothing could be further from the truth. Conflict Café is in fact a peacebuilding initiative — a culinary evening that presents food from countries in conflict. It encourages diners to share a table, a meal and a conversation.
The café is a fortnight-long, pop-up dining experience in the vaulted tunnels beneath the sprawling concourse of Waterloo Station in London. The venue is atmospheric, subterranean and slightly musty, with trains thundering overhead from time to time. The annual event highlights the challenges facing conflict-ridden countries by serving up food and facts.
This year, the cafe’s opening coincided with the International Day of Peace (September 21) as part of the Talking Peace Festival. The festival — organised by International Alert, a peacebuilding NGO that works in 25 countries racked by war — finds creative ways of engaging the public to think and talk about peace through art, film and food.
Sri Lanka was aptly chosen as a focus for 2016, as it is the 30th anniversary of both International Alert and its programme in that country. At the event, a message from Archbishop Desmond Tutu, one of International Alert’s patrons, was on display.
A slice of Sri Lankan life
Many of the 60 diners attending Conflict Café on that night were keen to learn about the conflict in Sri Lanka; others declared themselves to be out for a good meal in an unusual venue. Seated at long, communal tables, strangers began to break the ice over cocktails called koko uhana — coconut rum, coconut cream, passion fruit and lime juice. With proceeds of the drinks going to the charity, this was a delicious way to fundraise.
Between courses, International Alert’s Rabia Nusrat presented a potted history of this multicultural country, which comprises about 20 ethnic groups and four major faiths. While the details of decades of war were far from appetising fare, the country’s colonial history (Portuguese, Dutch and British), plus its ethnic mix, has produced a diverse and vibrant cuisine.
Chefs Minha Hameed and her son, Gaz, presented a spicy selection of home-cooked Sri Lankan dishes, crafting the menu so as to give diners a taste of many of the country’s geographic regions.
We began with coconut rotis alongside three sambals and a tiny cup of rasam, a spicy bouillon said to aid digestion. Soon diners were mopping their brows as the spices in the sambals began to take effect. Unlike the flaky, roll-up rotis familiar to Indian cuisine, we were offered disc shaped, biscuit-like flatbreads made with shredded coconut.
Main courses were served in simple tin bowls. These were not the sharing platters ubiquitous in trendy restaurants, rather the essence of communal togetherness.
"The concept is to share and talk. In Sri Lanka we all share together," said Gaz Hameed.
Along with bowls of rice and some of the best poppadoms I can recall, we feasted on four curries and two vegetable sides — bonchi (sautéed green beans) and keera (shredded cabbage, curry leaves and a heap of chilli) — that set our palates on fire.
Guests were soon debating the virtues of each dish. While mutton curry was familiar to most, wattakka kalu pol (pumpkin curry) and dhel maluwa (breadfruit curry) were less so. The waxy, potato-textured breadfruit was the mildest dish of the evening, its mustard colour adding vibrancy to the table. The superb fish curry was my favourite and I quizzed the chefs on how they had given the tuna steaks such an exquisite taste.
Gaz Hameed generously explained that the tuna should be soaked in tamarind water and then grilled.
Breaking the ice
It is the confluence of cuisine, culture and politics that excited the Hameeds about Conflict Café. Said Gaz Hameed: "It is strangers sitting down eating our food, asking about it, getting to know the cuisine, getting to know the country and the people, then getting to know what’s happening and why things are happening. Like in SA you had apartheid. With food it is easier to break the ice."
By the time dessert was served, new friends were sharing stories about their origins.
While tucking into wattalapam — a coconut custard pudding with jaggery, cardamom and cloves — we worked in teams on a quiz about Sri Lankan politics and culture. Who knew that the literacy rate is 92% or, more astonishingly, that volleyball is the national sport? There were whoops of disbelief, as most guests assumed that the correct answer was, surely, cricket.
Conflict Café made for an evening of people talking peace, laughing together and taking the message of International Alert home.
As we made our way out into the London night, Gaz Hameed’s words replayed in my mind: "In Sri Lanka we say that we eat with five fingers. Because five fingers are not the same, but you bring [them] together and [they] work beautifully. It’s the different cultures, the different ethnicities, the different people — you bring it together and you always eat well."