Food on the front line: cooking in a war zone

Twisted: Unserious food tastes seriously good.

There can be few jobs in journalism tougher than the role of war correspondent. Sent around the world to remote and hostile environments, sometimes survival, let alone writing, can prove an insurmountable challenge. Writing for the New York Times in 2012, reporter Alissa Rubin described her first winter in Afghanistan as impossibly bleak, bitingly cold and incredibly basic. Sleeping in dank, desolate conditions, she quickly learnt that there was only one thing that could provide any serious relief from the barrage of freezing weather and Taliban bombings. Like so many others in danger zones around the world, she found that cooking is one of the few universal crumbs of comfort.

For most of us, time in the kitchen is either an absolute joy or a tedious necessity. Those lucky enough to live in the freedom afforded by most modern major cities, surrounded by every conceivable cooking amenity, often find themselves spoilt for delicious choice. Whether you opt for a home cooked classic or splurge on a fast food binge ultimately matters very little – the hunt for food is as easy as pie. Given how little thought most of us have to give to dinner on a daily basis, many of us have grown complacent over how vital our food actually is. When you’re in a war zone, however, food is far from frivolous – it’s about nothing less than survival. This demands a completely different approach to cooking and eating.  

While war zones around the world differ greatly, there are several factors that unify each and every one. This means that wherever people cook in conflicts, there are certain challenges that they all must overcome. Aside from the obvious dangers posed by spending time bent over a stove in the midst of combat, a difficulty for cooks both military and civilian is learning to harness the limited resources and rudimentary technology that are often available. As Rubin says in her NYT piece, “war zones are stripped down”. More often than not, basic things like pots and pans are difficult to come by, and ingredients are at even more of a premium. Both original thinking and understanding of how to get the most out of very little are highly prized.

While family fare is as much about bonding and celebration as it is about sustenance, war cookery is focused primarily on fuel. Therefore, factors such as energy content and speed become significantly more valuable than considerations such as taste and presentation. Preparing nutritious meals fast, while using as few ingredients as possible, is the ultimate weapon in a frontline cook’s arsenal.

The nature of cooking produces different individual responses to the same situation. It’s unsurprising that in war zones all around the world, chefs have found a multitude of methods for tackling identical challenges. In her book Peace Meals, Anna Badkhen describes how soldiers in Afghanistan favour sugary sweets and deep fried, homemade “jelebi” doughnuts in order to get a cheap, safe sugar fix. Conversely, many western army rations come complete with tubes of glucose gel, similar to the stuff regularly squeezed into the mouths of lagging athletes. Both of these approaches solve the problem of an energy dip in a different, yet equally effective way.

It’s not just snacks that create opposing schools of food thought. Mealtimes can differ vastly in conflicts across the globe, yet be unified by the need for quick, simple fuel. In many cases, particularly where a professional invading army may be fighting local insurgents, there is also a conflict between precisely prepared military rations and stripped down local produce. During the 2003 Iraq conflict, for example, while British and American forces were dining on a range of Meal, Ready-to-Eat (MRE) packs – featuring dishes as diverse as chicken tikka masala and vegetable pasta – Iraqi troops were fed a diet consisting predominantly of locally sourced and readily available rice.

The specific needs of a war zone, coupled with the limited options afforded by conflict, can push people way out of their comfort zone. Often, the lessons taught by cooking through such hardship can have a dramatic effect on how people view food in peacetime. During the Iran/Iraq war of the 1980s, 20-year-old Moh Narimani was forced into the kitchen in order to provide for the small community who had opted to remain on the front line rather than flee. After months spent perfecting rice cookery and raiding dry store cupboards, Narimani used his experience to train as a professional chef and travel the world. He now operates a Persian restaurant in Bristol. Narimani’s story just goes to show that war cookery can be about more than survival in the here and now.

Despite the obvious essential need for sustenance in conflict, tales from the front line also make it clear that food in war zones has a power beyond fuel. In cultures around the world, food forms the heart of a community, and combat does nothing to change this. Energy may be important, but the bonds formed over a meal between both soldiers and civilians are often just as vital. Veterans of Vietnam still recall fondly days spent barbecuing meat over flaming oil drums with their fellow troops, while the offer of chocolate rations to traumatised children has become an enduring symbol of unity in environments that often seem impossibly fractured. Cooking in a war zone may be stripped back, but its emotional power remains more potent than ever.

Beyond being a basic ingredient in survival, food on the front line serves as a reminder to what makes us human in what can often be the most inhuman of surroundings. Whether it’s as a token of home for an inexperienced journalist, the prompt for a new post-war career or a cause for communal celebration in otherwise bleak surroundings, the ways that food is used in war show us how essential it is for our wellbeing. You can be fighting for anyone and believe in anything, but you are united with your enemy by your need for a good meal.