SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. You don't have to be a diplomat to know that good food can bring people together. The U.S. State Department is doing that, with their new diplomatic culinary partnership that sends American chefs abroad and brings international chefs here. Now recently, one of these visiting delegations spent the day in Portland, Ore., where they learned about America and all its diversity through its food. This was before Portland suffered its drinking water problems. Deena Prichep was with the chefs, and filed this report.
DEENA PRICHEP, BYLINE: Most of us will happily sing the praises of a favorite regional dish, whether it's a New York bagel or Minnesota sweetcorn. But in the rest of the world, American cuisine doesn't always have the best reputation.
SAMIRA HARIRI: (Through Translator) I'm really surprised because I thought Americans only eat fast food.
PRICHEP: Samira Hariri is the head of Slow Food Morocco. She's riding around with chefs and food professionals from Algeria, Egypt and Oman as part of the State Department's culinary exchange program. They're meeting their American counterparts in cities from New York to Portland to New Orleans. And they're definitely seeing more than fast food.
UNIDENTIFIED TRANSLATOR: She's asking why do you sell the cactus leaves. Decoration, I guess.
UNIDENTIFIED STORE CLERK: No, you eat them.
UNIDENTIFIED TRANSLATOR: Oh, you eat them?
PRICHEP: At New Seasons, a local Portland natural market, the group walks through aisles of organic produce. And they marvel at a shelf of hummus flavored with everything from chipotle peppers to roasted garlic. Not what you'd find in the Middle East.
HAMDY METWALLY ELKAWASS: It's usually plain and you season it by yourself. Olive oil that's main.
PRICHEP: Hamdy Metwally Elkawass is the head of sales for a few Egyptian grocery stores, and he's especially excited to find the bread aisle. He notes that these staple foods are actually interwoven with politics.
ELKAWASS: Actually, in Israel, bread - that was the first motto of the revolution because bread means life - the same word. Aish.
PRICHEP: But beyond this bigger picture, he's also using the trip to reflect on some of the more day-to-day logistics.
ELKAWASS: The layout here is really interesting, like cheese and bread, like, together in the same place. Maybe this will affect our next store, you know.
PRICHEP: When the group tours Elephants Delicatessen, manager Nick Doughty walks them through the central kitchen, comparing ingredient costs and profit margins.
NICK DOUGHTY: We try and sit around - right around 30 percent cost of goods, roughly.
ELKAWASS: That's all over, yeah. Everybody...
DOUGHTY: It's about the same.
ELKAWASS: Yeah, yeah.
PRICHEP: But they also just want to talk food.
DOUGHTY: One of my favorite things from Algeria - merguez sausage.
DOUGHTY: It's the greatest thing ever.
PRICHEP: Back on the bus, visitors scroll through their tablet computers, looking over photos and taking down notes. But, more than ideas for store layout or amazement at our portion sizes, these visitors are coming away with a different picture of America. Algerian pastry chef Djaouhar Nawel says that food helps shape this picture because it's so basic to who we are, even from the very beginning.
DJAOUHAR NAWEL: (Through translator) Like a woman delivers a baby, the very first thing he'll be looking for is food. And when we are traveling around visiting other countries, first thing we are looking for is food.
PRICHEP: And when you find American food in all its diversity, you find America.
ASHRAT ABDOU: Through food you can understand the cultures.
PRICHEP: Ashraf Abdou runs the Egyptian Chefs Association.
ABDOU: And with a culture, you can understand the people. In our countries it's a negative idea about the Americans because they saw only that is in the media. They didn't know the people themselves.
PRICHEP: And the hope is that getting to know people and their culture sets the table for a very basic level of diplomacy - getting a taste of who we are. For NPR News, I'm Deena Prichep, in Portland Ore.
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