Middle East gastro-wars push limits of absurdity

The Lebanese Industrialists Association is accusing Israel of falsely taking credit for traditional Middle Eastern cuisine. The organization’s president Fadi Abboud said his group plans to sue Israel to stop it from marketing hummus and other regional dishes as Israeli. “It is not enough they are stealing our land,” Abboud said. “They are also stealing our civilization and our cuisine.” He said his group would also seek to claim baba ghanouj and tabbouleh as Lebanon’s own. (AP, Oct. 7)

Perhaps the only thing sillier than Fadi Abboud’s claim is the reaction to it in the pro-Israel blogosphere. Right-wing Zio-blogger Debbie Schlussel fumes Oct. 8:

One bone of contention I’ve repeatedly noted on this site is the false claim by Arabs that falafel, hummus, and other Middle-Eastern food is “Arabic” food. That’s despite the fact that, for example, hummus–the dip made from chickpeas, sesame butter (tahini or “techina” in Hebrew), olive oil, lemon, garlic, etc.–originated in what is now Israel and was invented by Jews.

In fact, Jews have been eating these dishes for centuries, longer than there has been an Islam or an Arabian empire, as I’ve pointed out. These foods are an intrinsic part of Sephardic [“Spanish”/Orientalist/Asian] Jewish culture and history. But Arabs–particularly Muslims, since Christians tend to disavow any association with being Arabic–need some invention to claim other than innovations in explosive devices and torture methods.

The accompanying graphic shows a falafel sandwich with an Israeli flag stuck in it. The bracketed interjection is in Schlussel’s original, which shows that not only does she not know the difference between brackets and parenthesis, but that she also doesn’t know the difference between Oriental (itself an embarrassingly old-fashioned word) and “Orientalist” (which describes a school of thought and genre of literature, not ethnicity). Time to brush up on your Edward Said, Debbie!

Schlussel goes on to portray the Wall Street Journal as a pawn of the sinister anti-Israel conspiracy, taking them to task for a review of the book Cuisines of the Axis of Evil by Chris Fair:

Yes, now, those who hate Jews and Israel have resorted even to lying about Mid-Eastern food for their attacks and fraudulent public relations. Ignorant authoress Chris Fair does so in her book “Cuisines of the Axis of Evil,” and Abheek Bhattacharya did so in his review of the book in the Wall Street Journal. (With a name like Abheek Bhattacharya, I’m sure he has no agenda whatsoever.)

“Authoress”? What’s with the anachronism fetish, Debbie? But much more to the point—can you imagine Ms. Schlussel’s outrage if it had been suggested that a writer’s Jewish name necessarily implied a particular “agenda”? Not to mention that Abheek Bhattacharya is an Indian name, not Arab!

Finally, Schlussel reproduces a letter to the WSJ from one Joshua Cappell, who contests Fair’s contention that Israelis inherited falafel and hummus from the Palestinians they occupied, arguing instead that these dishes were brought to Israel by Sephardic refugees expelled from the Arab lands. Plausible enough. But when Schlussel says that Cappell’s letter is “spot on” and enthuses “Mazel Tov [Congrats!]” (incorrect use of brackets again)—she is contradicting her own thesis that Middle Eastern cuisine “originated in what is now Israel”!

The erudite blog Bartholomew’s Notes on Religion (which alerted us to this particular teapot-tempest) notes that this unseemly squabbling misses the point, and “it’s more sensible to think in terms of a shared middle-eastern heritage rather than ‘Sephardic Jewish’ vs ‘Arabic’ (or vs ‘Coptic’ or ‘Syriac’ etc).” Bartholomew also quotes food historian Ken Albala, author of Beans: A History, on the falafel fracas:

The origins of the dish are of course unknown, but one could probably trace an ancestor back to an earlier cuisine, most likely to Egypt where a similar dish is made with fava beans (ta’amiyya). That any one people could own falafel is of course a ridiculous notion, but it nonetheless illustrates a very common tendency—to associate a people with a particular food and then claim it as an integral part of national identity.

Bon appetit.

See our last posts on Lebanon, Israel/Palestine and the gastro-wars.

  1. Lebanon scores victory in Middle East hummus wars
    From the Village Voice food blog Edible News, May 10:

    (Chick)Peas in the Middle East: Lebanon Defeats Israel in Ongoing Hummus War
    Israel and Lebanon have more or less been at each other’s throats for more than 60 years. And during the last few they’ve also been arguing over what goes down each other’s throats: specifically, hummus.

    Both countries claim that they invented the chickpea mash, and both are not above using the Guinness Book of World Records to try to prove it. Or, if not prove it, then prove they can make a shitload of it: this past weekend, Lebanon tasted victory with the world’s largest hummus platter, which weighed in at a whopping 10,452 kg.

    The win was a major upset over Israel, which this past January churned out 4,090 kgs of hummus. As the Voice of America reports, the competition dates back to the attempts of a Lebanese businessman to have the EU register hummus and other foods like falafel and tabouli as national dishes. Israel disputed the claim, and thus yet another rivalry was born.

    Ramzi Choueiry, the Lebanese chef who led the hummus team, is not content with his victory, however: he next plans to create the world’s biggest falafel. Which is fine, but none of the coverage so far answers the most important question: how did the hummus taste?

  2. Victory over Mickey-Dee’s in Middle East falafel wars
    From The Guardian, July 12:

    McDonald’s withdraws McFalafel from Israeli restaurants
    Burger chain says its version of the Middle Eastern vegetarian street food has not worked

    It is the standard fast food across the Middle East: balls of ground chickpeas tossed into vats of sizzling oil and served with pickles and salads inside a pitta bread.

    But the ubiquitous family-owned falafel street stalls and small cafes faced a challenge earlier this year when McDonald’s introduced the “McFalafel”, the global burger chain’s own version of the Middle East staple, in all its Israeli restaurants.

    Now, in a rare admission of defeat, it is withdrawing the McFalafel, saying it was an experiment that did not work.

    “We realised that falafel doesn’t belong in McDonald’s,” Omri Padan, chief executive of McDonald’s Israel told the news website Ynet. “We wanted a vegetarian dish … but it didn’t succeed. The falafel dish is gradually being removed from the restaurants.”

    In a branch in West Jerusalem, the McFalafel was still on the menu on Tuesday, priced at 16.90 shekels (£3). Customers occasionally ordered it, said one server, although most preferred burgers.

    Around the corner all three tables in Falafel Doron, a family-owned cafe open for 20 years, were taken. Dennis Kuchak, visiting Israel from Australia, said the idea of a McDonald’s version of falafel did not appeal. “I wouldn’t dream of eating it. McDonald’s is a burger place,” he said.


    Doron, the cafe’s proprietor, said he had tried a McFalafel and admitted it was good. Better than his own? “I don’t know,” he said. “McDonald’s is McDonald’s.”

    Falafel is thought to have originated in Egypt, although Israel now claims it as a national dish.

    It would be nice to see Arabs and Jews stop their silly squabbling over who “owns” falafel, and unite against its appropriation by the globalist Borg.

  3. Pittsburgh front in Middle East gastro-wars

    From the Jerusalem Post, Oct. 11:

    US Jews outraged over Pittsburgh restaurant's Palestinian menu
    Members of the Jewish community in Pittsburgh are objecting to a local diner’s invitation to customers to sample Palestinian cuisine fearing that it could incite customers against Israel, according to media reports in Pennsylvania.

    The controversy was ignited by an establishment known as "Conflict Kitchen," whose rotating menu features items that are culturally unique to countries "in conflict with the United States."

    The restaurant also hosts cultural and political discussions featuring experts who can provide deeper insight into whichever part of the world the establishment wishes to train its focus.

    Conflict Kitchen has in the past altered its menu to offer delicacies from Afghanistan, North Korea, Cuba, Iran, and Venezuela. Its latest selection—the Palestinians—has ensnared it into a controversy.

    "The idea was to fill what we felt was a void in Pittsburgh," Jon Rubin, one of the founders of Conflict Kitchen, told a local CBS affiliate in Pittsburgh. "So we started thinking about what can we serve and how can we have a conversation that's not already here."

    "We realized there has never been a Persian, or an Afghan or a Venezuelan restaurant in the city and that not only have never been those restaurants but, those communities actually exist here."

    Gregg Roman, who heads the community relations council at the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, told the Pittsburgh Post Gazette, "Conflict Kitchen’s focus on countries in conflict is honorable, but Palestine is not in conflict with the US. The restaurant is stirring up conflict for the sake of trying to be relevant."

    This week, Conflict Kitchen is serving up hummus, baba ghanoush, "salata gazawiya," and musakhan, "the national dish of Palestine." It is also hosting a discussion with a Palestinian author to discuss food and culture in the West Bank and Gaza.

    Roman actually has a point that the Palestinians are not in conflict with the US, and it isn't good to create a false impression—even if he is making the point for cynical reasons (not wanting an overt manfestation of Palestinian culture in Pittsburgh). Anyway, is Pittsburgh such a backwater that you can't get hummus or baba ghanoush there by now? We would, however, be curious to try some salata gazawiya…

  4. Hummus for peace?

    Well, after the interminable, pointless Arab-Israeli bickering over who invented hummus, here is some welcome news. Kobi Tzafrir, owner of Hummus Bar restaurant in the Israeli coastal town of Kfar Vitkin, is offering a 50% discount to Jews and Arabs who dine together. (NBC, Oct. 20; Times of Israel, Oct. 19) Yeah, yeah, a feel-good gesture that is not a substitute for actual "co-resistance" against the occupation and internal Israeli apartheid… But you've got to admit, from the photos online at the restaurant's Facebook page, it looks like damn good hummus.