“In international relations, sharing food with people from different cultures to break down barriers is called culinary diplomacy.” -Dana Al Marashi, Head of Cultural Diplomacy at the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC.

Meridian International Center and the Embassy of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) opened a window to the diverse cuisines and the hospitable culture in UAE, especially in Abu Dhabi, through a salon lunch discussion on culinary diplomacy. In the discussion moderated by Natalie Jones, the Senior Vice President of External Affairs at Meridian International Center, panelists shared their understandings and experiences about how food creates a community, promotes communication, and eases conflicts.

The panelists included Hanan Sayed Worell, the author of the book “Table Tales: The Global Nomad Cuisine of Abu Dhabi,” Marjon Ajami, the Founder and Executive Chef of Nolu's Group in Abu Dhabi, Bill Bragin, the Executive Artistic Director of The Arts Center at New York University Abu Dhabi, and Barbara Leaf, former U.S. Ambassador to the UAE (2014 to 2018).

In a short video before the discussion, Hanan Sayed Worell shared her inspiration for writing the book. As a global nomad herself, Hanan Sayed Worell had studied in California before her family moved to Abu Dhabi. She noticed that cooking and its meaning for people remained solid even though the world kept evolving. She said, “when my dad looks at food, he sees more than food. He sees life.” To her, cooking has its magic because it creates a community in which people from different cultures can gather at the table and easily break barriers. Naturally, her book is not only about food and recipes, but also about culture, lifestyle, the spirit of home, hospitality, and friendship.

The panelists talked about the blending cultures in the UAE—over 200 nationialities live in the country—and how food is the easiest way to create communities within such a diverse population. Marjon Ajami shared her experience of the warm culinary landscape in Abu Dhabi, where big restaurants helped small restaurants to find out ingredients that were hard to find.

Ambassador Barbara Leaf related to several dinner parties she had been invited to illustrate the warm community created by food-sharing in the UAE. No matter what format the dinner parties took—native feasts, fancy restaurants, or cookies and teas, the hosts were making sure that guests were comfortable at the party. She also shared a story about one dinner she hosted in Abu Dhabi. It was Thanksgiving, so all the staff in the U.S. embassy did what they usually did at home—prepared food and gathered around the table to celebrate the holiday. But they also invited people who did not have a place to stay on Thanksgiving to celebrate the holiday with them.

Culinary diplomacy can also help resolve conflicts. Ambassador Leaf shared a story when she served as a Middle East specialist in Paris. The U.S. ambassador there called her in urgency and asked for a way to make people who did not usually talk to each other talk, especially with the American negotiators. She then booked the best Middle East restaurant in Paris. “The food completely changed the atmosphere in the room,” she said, “food was a remarkable way to break the ice, especially for people who convene in a room in a foreign country and talk about difficult issues.”

Food is never just about the ingredients. It is embedded in a nation’s history, culture, and people’s lifestyles. In this way, sharing food with people connects them at fundamental levels and promotes deep understanding of a culture’s values and traditions. Sometimes a dinner table can achieve more than what a negotiation table can.

Photo Caption: Moderator Natalie Jones, Senior Vice President of External Affairs at Meridian, with panelists Marjon Ajami, Executive Chef and Founder of Nolu's Downtown (Abu Dhabi), Bill Bragin, Executive Artistic Director of The Arts Center at New York University Abu Dhabi, Ambassador Barbara Leaf, former U.S. Ambassador to the UAE, and Hanan Sayed Worrell, Author of “Table Tales: The Global Nomad Cuisine of Abu Dhabi”. 

Rong Qin
Rong Qin is a Washington, DC based correspondent for Diplomatic Courier.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.