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Kuwait has a large population of immigrants from Middle Eastern countries and beyond. This cultural diversity is reflected in the wide variety of local restaurants, whose food has a significant role in shaping everyday life in the country. Aspects differentiating these restaurants from the international market-based cuisines and fast-food chains are correlated with demographic divisions that are worth looking at.
If you manage to defy Kuwait’s weather and its gradually shrinking sidewalks to walk in the crowded streets of Salmiya, Hawalli, Jabriya, or Kuwait City, you will be amazed at this small country’s remarkable capability to consume food. Even if you are content with a less exciting experience, and decide to stroll into one of Kuwait’s biggest malls – The Avenues perhaps, you will be less surprised at the variety of its cuisines (more than 130 restaurants and cafes), since Kuwait is highly caught up with global economy and culture.
You will not fail to notice, that these restaurants, emblematic of the power of economy to accumulate international cuisines under one roof, are in many ways different from the ones you only see in residential areas and neighborhoods. They both offer food, and in many cases, the kind of food that would tempt you to repeat the experience in the following weekend, but I find it hard not to posit Roland Barthes‘ disorienting question, “For what is food?”
More than fifty years ago, Barthes taught us that a mundane aspect of our everyday life such as food is not without its significance. He argues that food ‘is not only a collection of products that can be used for statistical or nutritional studies. It is also, and at the same time, a system of communication, a body of images, a protocol of usages, situations, and behavior’. A falafel sandwich from Juzur Al-Canari restaurant in Tunis Street – a popular street in Hawalli – does not communicate the same image as that of a burger from Shake Shack, New York’s fast food restaurant whose first Kuwait branch opened in The Avenues Mall in 2011.
In the same way, a melting cheese kunafeh from Al-Taibawi, a landmark in Hawalli, is a choice of dessert remarkably different from Pinkberry‘s frozen yogurt that was incredibly popular in Kuwait when it was first introduced in 2009. Canari and Taibawi are both Palestinian restaurants that opened years before the 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, and that plays a significant role in shaping the cultural background of Kuwait, and Hawalli in particular. Yet, it is itself the result of the emergence of a large Palestinian community that relocated to Hawalli after the Israeli Occupation of 1948.
If Palestinian emigrants found in falafel and Kunafeh a reminder of their homes, so was the case with Egyptians, Lebanese, Indians and the thousands of emigrants from other nationalities whose rich origins contributed greatly into Kuwait’s current cultural diversity. In a Middle Eastern country where hospitality and everyday relations are exercised through eating habits, no medium is better than food in communicating the diversity created by Kuwait’s growing immigrant communities from the 1950s onwards.
Indian chapatti, Egyptian feteer meshaltet and Levantine za’atar manakish are three of the most popular pastry types among many of Kuwait’s inhabitants. Their simple ingredients make them affordable, hence, accessible to the majority of people, especially migrant workers. For example, while a falafel sandwich in Kuwait costs less than a dollar, and a chicken shawerma sandwich less than two dollars, a burger at restaurants like Shake Shack is at least six dollars.
This brief comparison between international and local restaurants reveals a number of disparities; the former reflects an image of Kuwait that has embraced a global economy and culture – growing massively after the 1990 Iraqi invasion, while the latter emphasizes Kuwait’s own particular socio-economic history of cultural diversity. Furthermore, food prices in certain restaurants result in the exclusion of an entire group of people.
The differences between international cuisine restaurants and the local ones created by the non-Kuwaiti population reflect wider divisions in the population that are characterized by binaries like Kuwaiti versus. non-Kuwaiti and immigrant versus foreign labor. Restaurants like Canari and Taibawi could not possibly exist in malls, or even outside areas like Hawalli, which is almost exclusively inhabited by non-Kuwaitis. Yet, the local context of their location, which appeals most to only certain types of customers, is what endows Canari and Taibawi with a cultural value and authenticity that another international Palestinian restaurant inside a mall might not be able to achieve.