Can xenophobia melt away with every bite of warming, hearty Iranian food? The founder of Peace Meal Kitchen hopes so. The Detroit-based pop-up was created out of a hope to educate Americans about Iran in the most delicious way possible — with a feast of Iranian food, of course.
Peace Meal Kitchen founder Mana Heshmati has lived in two countries, six U.S. states and nine U.S. cities and she's noticed "most people did not know what Iranian culture or food entailed," she said in an email. "Iran tends to get grouped together with the Middle Eastern food and culture of the countries surrounding it in the Levant region, but it is actually very distinct and unique."
Heshmati took inspiration for her project from Conflict Kitchen, a takeout restaurant in Pittsburgh that serves ethnic food from countries with which the United States is in conflict. She launched last year and organized nine events like pop-up dinners, fundraisers and catered events, all while working full time as an engineer for Ford.
Heshmati said food can "serve as a window into a new or different culture." "People from all walks of life and political stances can easily gather over a delicious meal and put their differences aside," she said. She added that she to make trying new foods less intimidating, and "raise awareness to the cultural diversity we are surrounded by in Detroit and in his country."
On Saturday, Peace Meal Kitchen hosted a pop-up dinner to fundraise for the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan, in support of those affected by President Donald Trump's immigration ban, which impacted travelers coming from seven countries including Iran.
Heshmati collaborated with many businesses and individuals in the Detroit area to pull off the event and previous ones. "Everything we do is a grassroots team effort," Heshmati said.
Here's a sampling of the feast guests enjoyed
Ghormeh sabzi: Flavored with herbs and limes, this is a Persian stew with kidney beans and spinach.
Sabzi khordan: A fresh herb platter featuring radish, feta cheese and sometimes walnuts.
Naan barbari: This is an Iranian flatbread. Peace Meal Kitchen served naan barbari baked by Warda Patisserie, a bakery in Detroit.
My friend Mana @peacemealkitchen is hosting an Iranian dinner, Saturday, Feb 4 @detroitcitydistillery and we're making this Naan Barbari to accompany her fabulous menu. No tickets needed. Let us break bread, bond together and build longer tables instead of higher walls. Hope you can join us for an evening of community, good food and good people.
Seer torshi: A side dish of aged pickled garlic, but seer torshi is also frequently used in stews. It's sweet and tart.
Shirini keshmeshi: Persian raisin cookies that are "light and subtly sweet" Heshmati said.
Influencing hearts through stomachs
"The response was overwhelmingly positive and really beautiful," Heshmati said. "We met other Iranians, immigration attorneys, people personally affected by the travel ban and people outside the Iranian community who were incredibly passionate about Iranian food and culture."
After hitting max capacity in just two hours, Peace Meal Kitchen "had to start turning people away, but even then everyone was asking when our next event would be and if they could still make direct donations to ACLU of Michigan," Heshmati said.
The a la carte options sounded awfully tempting, and sold out in just two hours, Heshmati said. The event raised over $700 for the ACLU of Michigan.
What's next? Heshmati said Peace Meal Kitchen will collaborate with several other Detroit organizations for a fundraiser on March 5 to celebrate International Women's Day. "Each business is cooking a course as part of a ticketed benefit dinner fundraising for Freedom House Detroit," she said, explaining that the home for asylum seekers just lost their funding from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Maybe Heshmati and Peace Meal Kitchen should take a trip to the White House. If Trump tried sweet shirini keshmeshi, perhaps he'd find them even better than the fast food he loves so much.
February 9, 2016, 5:45 p.m.: This article has been updated.