124 S. Highland Ave., East Liberty
Like its music and literature, a culture's food harbors a strand of its DNA. Take kubideh, a street-vendor staple in Iran, as served at East Liberty's new Conflict Kitchen.
It's basically a hamburger: ground meat wrapped in leavened flatbread. But look --and taste -- closer. The spongily satisfying homemade barbari, for instance, announces the importance of fresh bread in Persian culture: Nuun Juun-eh, they say in Farsi. "Bread is life."
Meanwhile, though the beef is seasoned with turmeric and cinnamon, it's easy to distinguish kubideh not only from Fourth of July patties, but also from Middle Eastern ground-meat dishes like kafta. Another clue is the green leaves of fresh basil and mint -- which speak of gardening culture in Iran, where even city-dwellers cultivate herbs.
Conflict Kitchen launched its sidewalk take-out window in May. It's an offshoot of The Waffle Shop, the Carnegie Mellon University art-school project that itself became a community fixture. The two-year-old Waffle Shop blends neighborhood diner with streaming-video talk show. Conflict Kitchen (funded by the Sprout Fund) brings to Pittsburgh unfamiliar cuisine from countries with which the U.S. is at odds, in hopes of inspiring conversations.
CMU associate professor Jon Rubin conceived Conflict Kitchen with Waffle Shop assistant director Dawn Weleski and artist John Peña. They recruited help from student researchers and local Iranian-Americans. The temporary blue-and-gold façade incorporates Farsi lettering; it's open 11 a.m.-2 p.m. daily, and 11 p.m.-3 a.m. on weekend nights.
The savory kubideh ($5) is served in a handsome wrapper that unfolds into a poster sporting brief, first-person takes on life in Iran, like how Iranians flout the country's Islamic-fundamentalist dress codes. Otherwise, says Rubin, "We don't push anything on [customers]. We just start with the food."
The Waffle Shop is hosting a series of Conflict Kitchen events like the recent Live Skype Meal. The Internet phone service facilitated conversation between 40 Pittsburghers who ate a meal like the one shared by 30 folks in Tehran -- mostly friends of Rubin's from that city's semi-underground art community.
Conflict Kitchen will change countries every four months. September brings Afghanistan.
Meantime, as this region's lone Iranian-food outlet, Kubideh Kitchen seems to do a brisk business, with customers lined up even on a rainy Saturday. Rubin says the project's generated online buzz on both politics and food blogs. It was recently featured on Salon.com.
Adds Weleski, "A lot of people are asking for the recipe."