The aphorism “you are what you eat” can actually carry a highly relevant meaning, beyond it being the motto of New Year’s healthy eating resolutions. In cases of contested national identities and disputed borders, seemingly innocent food choices become a channel for the assertion of national identity and the preservation of cultural heritage and territorial integrity. Hence, when food is identity struggle, what you eat becomes crucial to who you are.
The relationship between food and identity is not a new one: beyond the dinner table, social scientists have long studied the role of gastronomy in cultural identity. As the anthropologist Arjun Appadurai defined it, food is a ‘highly condensed social fact’. In the words of Lévi-Strauss, food can be compared to language in its power to express social structures and cultural systems. Therefore, basically, the story of a nation’s diet is the story of a nation itself, its episodes of colonialism and migration, trade and exploration. Food is a symbol of cultural exchange, but most importantly, cultural integrity.
We symbolically consume identity through food and drink choices. Any respectable guidebook will feature a gastronomy section overflowing with aesthetic images of palatable dishes in traditional ceramics, advising you to try certain foods in order to complement your exploratory experience. Travel blogs will list you the “10 Must-Try Dishes”, whether you are looking up information about New York City or a remote village in Romania. The word ‘authentic’ will always precede that of ‘cuisine’. The food we eat is considered to be an intrinsic part of culture, inseparable from learning the history of a nation or admiring its landmarks.
National identities are expressed and maintained through dietary choices. However, when national identities and territorial integrity are contested, the food you eat becomes a tool for political and historical assertion. The dinner tables in the Caucasus, a region of ancient historical heritage, but also highly disputed territories and identity clashes, are the epitome of such food wars.
Take the example of Armenia. Flipping through the interminable pages of food menus in most Armenian restaurants, one quickly realizes there is something at work with food and the assertion of national identity. Oblivious tourists, please refrain from ordering Turkish coffee, or arguing that what has been served to you as Armenian coffee is ‘like Turkish coffee’. The soorj you drank and the jezve in which it was made are intrinsically Haykakan (Armenian) or, in any case, Aravelyan (Eastern). It is clearly not about the origin or style of the coffee, since both can probably be traced back to Ethiopia. It is also not a discussion about Ottoman trade routes. It is clearly not about coffee, but about resistance to oppression and assertions of national identity in the context of Turkish-Armenian relations and the Armenian Genocide.
The disputes over the caffeinated drink, nevertheless, go well beyond the Caucasus. Beware, traveller, and make sure that you order a bosanska kafa while in Bosnia, a kypriakos kafes in Cyprus, and an elliniko when in Greece. And do not inquire about the actual differences or similarities in the coffee-making process or engage in any comparisons, unless you would like to engage in a discussion about national identity and cultural heritage.
More recently, Armenian lamadjo or Turkish lahmacun became the battlefield of another food war between Turkey and Armenia. The opening of two Armenian restaurants in Moscow serving the thin flatbread topped with minced meat, tomatoes, and spices, caused uproar in Turkey. Arguing that Armenia was claiming ownership over their national dish, the Turkish media was outraged at the thought that Russians would identify the flatbread as part of Armenian culinary heritage and hence identity.
Such food wars are present all throughout the Caucasus. In 2014, Armenia declared victory over Azerbaijan after UNESCO inscribed lavash, the regionally popular thin bread, on the list of the Intangible Heritage of Humanity. However, due to pressures from the Azeri government, UNESCO included a disclaimer clarifying that lavash is nevertheless shared by communities in the region and beyond. As in the case of coffee, the discussion is not about the actual origins of the staple. Due to the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict, Armenia and Azerbaijan would not accept the possibility of sharing lavash, a cultural symbol, since that would be a sign of shared identity, not desirable in their situation of territorial and ethnic. For the Armenians, understanding lavash as a wider regional dish as opposed to a national symbol would question its origins in the legendary battle of King Aram of Armenia against the Assyrian rules Nebuchadnezzar. Renouncing to their exclusive ownership would undermine the centuries of group work in the baking process, its immanent presence in family reunions, its sacred role in weddings. Renouncing the exclusivity over lavash would mean renouncing features of their national identity and, given the recent independence of the Armenian nation and their struggle throughout the centuries, that would be unimaginable.
Armenia’s northern neighbour, Georgia, was also not immune to food wars, especially in the context of its territorial conflicts. Every person who has had the pleasure of trying Georgian food has marvelled at the spicy yet subtly flavoured taste of adjika. However, adjika is actually claimed to be Abkhazian by the Abkhazs, a claim on which the Georgians, of course, have their own thoughts. Once again, it is hardly believable that the dispute is merely about the red pepper sauce, and completely detached from the controversial Russian occupation of the territory (according to the Georgian Parliament). Such disputes have even reached what are probably the most iconic Georgian dishes, khachapuri and khinkali, which were served during the Sochi winter games. This created confusion for some US media, which referred to them as “Russian delicacies”. This caused an outcry in Georgia, since it was seen as another Russian attempt at stealing their identity- first through territorial occupation, then through food.
Beyond the Caucasus, food wars know no limits. The hummus that every other person dips their carrots in during lunchbreak, brought the Association of Lebanese Industrialists to the European Commission to stop Israelis claiming ownership over it and selling the product in Europe as theirs. Moreover, Cyprus’ attempt to register halloumi as a protected designation or origin (PDO) in the European Union was hampered by the fact that halloumi is the national cheese of a divided island, which would make the case for geographical certification very complicated.
However, we might ask ourselves: why this rise of ‘food nationalism’ today, when populations across history have been incorporating and feeding on each other’s gastronomic traditions for centuries? The answer to this, as to many other contemporary questions, might lie in our post-industrial society. Nowadays, individuals are self-defined by ideology and consumption, in a process defined by sociologist Ulrich Bech as the ‘individualization process of reflexive modernity’. In our contemporary world, self-identity is considered a reflexive project maintained through the routine development and sustainment of a coherent narrative of self-identity. Therefore, in the context of national identity, food comes in as the most convenient tool for bringing the population together. Food, unlike literature or art, is a more egalitarian aspect of culture in which everyone participates to some degree, and therefore it is less intimidating to weigh in with an opinion.
Hence, food wars are relevant far beyond food. Food wars are a reflection of disputed identities, of nation building, of ethnic conflict. From coffee to khachapuri, the disputed dish is merely the surface. As the Soviet Union crumbled down, the Caucasus endured ethno-territorial conflicts and economic crises. The blood spilled and thousands of deaths in South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Nagorno-Karabakh have not been forgotten. Within the USSR’s nationality policy, the concept of authenticity was highly valued, since ethnic groups, in order to qualify as autonomous regions, had to prove their identity, demonstrate that the inhabitants were indigenous of their territory. Thus, food, as an intrinsic part of national identity, has come to be one of the sharpest weapons for defending not only cultural heritage, but the present right of nations to exist.
Wandering around the streets of London, saturated at the sight of chip butties and sausage rolls, I was positively surprised when I stumbled upon churchkhela in a Turkish supermarket. As I was paying, I told the Turkish cashier that I did not know that they ate Georgian churchkhela in Turkey. Dazzled, she answered that what I was buying was definitely Turkish, not Georgian, while pointing at the Turkish name in the package and describing to me how her grandma back in Turkey makes it. Back home, as I sliced my recent purchase, I was outraged at how the woman had questioned my churchkhela-related memories and the role these had in my conception of Georgia. However, after a few bites, the anger of my internal food war was appeased. We still cannot neglect that food, beyond all its complex cultural meaning, is one of the simplest means of self-indulgence. However, while peeking at a menu and gulfing down authentic, local delicacies, we should try and look deeper into the implications of such words- it will with no doubt bring some food for thought.