The way to cultural understanding may be through our stomachs. Indeed, Washington’s melting pot of foreign embassies stirs up gastronomic opportunities to travel and taste the world without leaving the city’s 100-square-mile radius.
“Food is different in that it appeals to all of the senses, including taste and smell, and is a participatory as well as personal experience,” said Alejandra de la Paz, director of the Mexican Cultural Institute. “This inclusive, engaging aspect of food works to create bridges of understanding.”
It used to be that embassies showed off their culinary prowess only at national day receptions, with a staple dish here and there. Now, however, they’re serving up new options for tasting authentic cuisine, whether it’s through partnerships or solitary endeavors, and turning up the heat with some savvy self-promotion.
Washington is home to a critically acclaimed array of international restaurants, specializing in everything from Afghan kabobs to British gastropubs to Mediterranean mezes, and many embassies take advantage of local restaurant weeks to showcase their edibles. For example, the second annual Belgian Restaurant Week in D.C. was held July 15 to 21 with 11 restaurants participating, up from three last year. The signature event was a dinner at the Belgian ambassador’s residence.
“For us, it’s good because it enhances the perception about Belgian cuisine,” Ambassador Jan Matthysen said. “More and more, food is very present in the perception about countries and also in the way people in fact enjoy their lives.”
Matthysen described Belgian fare as a mix of modern and traditional. Typical ingredients include mussels, chocolate and beer.
“With Belgium becoming more popular and the beer culture becoming more popular in Washington, D.C.,” starting a Belgian Restaurant Week seemed an obvious move, said chef Bart Vandaele, owner of Belga Café and founder of the event.
On June 20, the House of Sweden hosted the kickoff to Nordic Food Days — a weeklong culinary showcase that brought top Nordic chefs to D.C. — with a tasting dinner for 200 at the Swedish Embassy that highlighted “new Nordic cuisine,” which is described as back-to-basics cooking that celebrates purity and freshness.
Chefs from Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden prepared mostly fish-centric dishes, a hint at what they would make at their host restaurants around town: Masa 14, DC Coast, Birch & Barley, Vidalia, and Marcel’s. Their special menus included black lobster, sea snails, Icelandic cod and char, halibut, Norwegian diver scallops, and lamb saddle.
The five Nordic nations will join culinary forces again this fall on Oct. 26 for a Nordic Food Day showcase in all 130 D.C. public schools. A food competition among culinary students in the Nordic countries is currently under way to pick the top five winners to come to D.C. and participate in the event. Their recipes will be used to prepare a total 50,000 portions of food to feed 30,000 Washington students.
Another citywide culinary event, Songkran Thai Restaurant Week, celebrates Thailand’s new year and has been part of this area’s food scene since 2008. Dozens of restaurants in the metro area participated April 11 to 17 this year, but to spice things up, the Royal Thai Embassy kicked off the celebrations by hosting for the first time a luncheon on April 11. During the event, Ambassador Kittiphong na Ranong and Agriculture Minister Rapibhat Chandarasrivongs spoke before Michael Ginor, an award-winning chef in New York, gave a cooking demonstration of giant shrimp green curry and papaya salad. All the dishes served were traditional Thai foods, such as kaeng phed ped yang, a roasted duck with red curry; goong kratiem, pan-fried giant shrimp with garlic; and Thai jasmine hom mali rice, said Nilobol Pimdee, first secretary at the embassy, who organized the event.
Other events included “A Taste of Iceland,” a three-day event in February in which the Icelandic Embassy partnered with DC Coast, Sushi Rock, Yellowfin and the Wind Up Space to showcase not only Iceland’s food, but its music and tourism industry as well. More recently, Colombia Week, part of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in May, included a dinner at Café Atlántico with Colombian Ambassador Gabriel Silva that included a seven-course tasting menu and Colombian coffee from Juan Valdez.
While some embassies promote their native foods with the help of local restaurants, others have avoided having too many cooks in the kitchen and handled the effort themselves.
The Mexican Cultural Institute’s fourth annual “Mexican Table” series of cooking demonstrations and tasting dinners is one example. Several times a year, chef Patricia Jinich, star of “Pati’s Mexican Table” on WETA, and guest chefs such as Joe Raffa from Oyamel and Alejandro Ruiz from Oaxaca show attendees how to make traditional dishes, from appetizers to desserts. After the demo, the 100 guests eat a dinner of the foods they prepared and take home a goody bag of recipes and ingredients so they can replicate the dishes at home.
“What is special about Mexican Table beyond the instructive element is the way in which Pati elaborates on the history of the food, dish or ingredient, as well as its meaning and function in Mexican culture,” de la Paz said. “The importance of food in Mexico has recently been acknowledged by UNESCO, which added traditional Mexican cuisine to its List of Intangible Cultural Heritage in recognition of its historical importance, its role in community-centered culture and its symbolic, ceremonial and ritual value in everyday life.”
The events, which often sell out, have different themes. Some have featured foods from different states while others have focused on holiday themes — such as the upcoming Mexican fiestas in December — or ingredients, such as the “cacao route” this October.
Indeed, culinary-centered seminars offer embassies the chance to educate audiences about a product that can be essential to a country’s culture, economy and identity — much like Juan Valdez coffee is to Colombia.
To that end, on June 22, the Embassy of Indonesia hosted for the first time a “Chocolate Fest” dinner and dessert reception in conjunction with the World Cocoa Foundation to shed light on a critical but little-known aspect of the Indonesian economy. “Indonesia is very important to the cocoa and chocolate industry,” said Bill Guyton, president of the World Cocoa Foundation. “Many people don’t know that. It’s the third largest producer of cacao in the world.”
Recipes for Recognition
Cultural Tourism DC has provided embassies with a venue to cook for Washingtonians and compete amongst themselves, in part by playing off the popular Bravo TV show “Top Chef.” Since 2009, the annual Embassy Chef Challenge has offered an inventive forum to promote the diplomatic “neighborhood” here, said Linda Donavan Harper, executive director of Cultural Tourism DC, which strives to spotlight D.C.’s culture and heritage beyond its monuments.
The Embassy Chef Challenge occurs in two parts. At one, the chefs must prepare something from a basket of food they receive at the event. The other, which is open to the public and regularly attracts hundreds of guests, is a culinary competition where the chefs serve a dish representative of their countries and the guests and a jury vote on the cream of the crop. Lars Beese, chef at the Royal Danish Embassy, won top honors at this year’s challenge, held at the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center, for his asparagus soup and roast duck breast with apple and plum chutney. Jose Luis Fernandez of the Peruvian Embassy of Peru won the “Peoples’ Choice” nod for his Peruvian ceviche.
Erlan Idrissov, ambassador at the Embassy of Kazakhstan, which served up a lamb shashlik dish at the challenge, wrote in a blog after the event: “Some say that the best diplomacy is conducted over the table full of delicious food, in a relaxed environment. The competition was about joy and celebration of friendships among the participating embassies and American public.”
The Embassy of the Bahamas participated to increase awareness of its cuisine, said Ambassador Cornelius A. Smith.
“Our cuisine is one of the untapped treasures of the Commonwealth of the Bahamas, and the Embassy Chef Challenge was a golden opportunity to make a statement about the viability of Bahamian cuisine as a driver of gastronomic tourism,” he said. “Eating with Bahamians is a mark of a certain favor with a family, and so it is that in observing the rituals surrounding Bahamian eating, a person can come to know what is important to our culture: family, community, decency and obligation to God.”
The Embassy of Iraq joined the challenge this year for the first time and was the only Middle Eastern nation represented. Christa Waegemann, social secretary at the embassy, noted that it participated as a means of outreach. “I think it’s a common ground for everyone,” she said of food. “Everyone likes to eat and therefore it’s the easiest way to bring people together.”
The chef from the Belgian Embassy won last year’s challenge, and Ambassador Matthysen said that was a boon. “It brought us a lot of visibility later on and goodwill, so we love it,” he said.
The U.S. State Department also organizes events to expose Washingtonians to new foods. In June, it held “A Taste of New Zealand” for area students to cook lamb chops, fish and chips, and a Kiwi-style vegetarian mini pie at Blair House, hosted by U.S. Chief of Protocol Capricia Marshall and New Zealand Ambassador Michael Moore. Other events with children at President Barack Obama’s guesthouse have included tastes of China, Mexico and India.
“Serving food that combines the best of American cuisine and celebrates the visiting culture is a priority for us,” said Kamyl Bazbaz, an Office of Protocol spokesman. “Food can really help set the stage for diplomacy.”
No Flash in the Pan
One of the more far-reaching and high-profile features of embassy foods has been a show on the Travel Channel in which Andrew Zimmern, host of “Bizarre Foods,” makes the rounds along Embassy Row. Earlier this year, he sat down with ambassadors and ventured to the French Residence for organ butter, the House of Sweden for sour herring and blood pudding, the Peruvian Residence for fried guinea pig, and the Embassy of Kazakhstan for some beshbarmak horsemeat. It was a journey that proved Washingtonians don’t have to travel far from home to find the exotic right next door.
More locally, Ambassador Jaliya Wickramasuriya of the Embassy of Sri Lanka and his wife were featured in a segment of “Diplomatic Plates” on an NBC 4 news broadcast in April. In the clip, the ambassador says the most exotic thing about Sri Lanka is its food as he took viewers through his residence to see pictures of his country and hear some of its history, in addition to watching cashew curry get made.
“We’ve become so curious about food, particularly here in D.C., where we have such a broad range of multiculturalism that we can find the ingredients here,” Cultural Tourism DC’s Harper said. “We can go home and try our hand at using a new spice or fixing a new meal. We might not be able to travel to that country, we might not be able to hear their concert pianist every night, but we can take a cooking class and learn how to enrich our lives through cooking.”
About the Author
Stephanie Kanowitz is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.