Friday, November 7, 2008

Food fight

Although this is old news already, it deserves a mention here as part of the ongoing theater of the absurd that we seem to be living now. Can it get any worse? Of course it can.

After decades of war, invasion and occupation, Lebanon and Israel have plenty of tension simmering between them; but the latest source of strife is literally cooking.

From the deep-fried chick peas that make falafel to the parsley and burghul wheat of tabbouleh, the salad that's almost a national obsession - green-fingered enthusiasts once held the world record for making a dish weighing one and a half tonnes - Lebanon's foodies are pushing back against what they see as Israel's appropriation of their cuisine.

"At ethnic food exhibitions our producers go to the Israeli stand and find most of the specialities they are marketing as Israeli foods are Lebanese," said Fadi Abboud, president of the Lebanese Industrialists' Association (LIA). "Our culture goes back a few thousand years. It's time to set the record straight."

Time to set the record straight? Well, ok, but be careful what you wish for. First, the "justification" being bandied about for this move is, well, just plain ridiculous.

"Foods like falafel are not Lebanese but they're certainly not Israeli either. How can they be when Israel is only 60 years old?" asked Rami Zurayk, professor of agriculture and ecosystems at the American University of Beirut, and author of a book on "slow food" in Lebanon.

"But Lebanon's borders are only 60 years old as well. There is an instinctive response in the region against what is seen as Israel's theft of land and appropriation of culture, but to register falafel as Lebanese is almost as absurd and chauvinistic as Israel trying to register it as Israeli."

But the thing is that Israel has never tried to "register" any of these foods as Israeli, as far as I know. What the LIA is upset about is that Israel appears to be doing a better job of marketing them overseas than Lebanon is. Whose fault is that? (Sorry. Silly question.)

According to Ynet (via Wikipedia), the origins of falafel are murky but may date back to the Egyptian Copts, India or even ancient Egypt.

Likewise, hummus, although that dish may (or may not) have originated in or around eighteenth century Damascus (i.e., back when it was a part of the Ottoman Empire known as "Greater Syria"). The same would appear to be more or less true of tabbouleh.

According to this Beirut based website, the palestinian arabs also claim ownership of falafel although, again, the argument is anachronistic.

But Lebanon may be opening up a can of worms by claiming falafel, tabbouleh and hummus as Lebanese because the Israelis are not the only ones in the game.

Siham Baghdadi Zurub, a Palestinian chef in Ramallah and author of The Palestinian Cuisine, staked her own claim in an interview with the Daily Telegraph.

Zurub argues that the Palestinians were in fact the first to make hummus from chickpeas given that they were plentiful in ancient Palestine, unlike in Egypt or Syria where the fava bean was more common.

Sounds reasonable ... except that there were no "Palestinians" (i.e., arabs) in ancient Palestine. On the following point, however, we're in complete agreement.

But, said Zurub, "No one has the right to call hummus and falafel as his national dish. Putting copyright on certain dishes is a selfish trend that reflects insecurity and a lack of common sense."
Thank you. It's also an effort that's unlikely to get very far beyond an official nod by the Lebanese government. And, no, the "Greek precedent" isn't going to help them much. Greece has been around for a little longer than Lebanon and has a pretty airtight claim to feta cheese. And, nevertheless, the enforcement thing just doesn't seem to be happening, even there.

By the way, I'd like to take this opportunity to recommend this blog, which I keep forgetting to add to the blog roll over there. Hummus is one of my very favorite foods, even though it's (still) really hard to find much worthy of the name around these parts and I still haven't figured out a way to make it well. Anyway, here's heaven.

Shabbat Shalom.