The Wandering Chickpea
Imagine a world where sushi can only be sold by Japanese, frozen tortillas can be obtained exclusively from producers based in Mexico and only chefs with Hungarian parentage could put goulash on the menu. This was my first reaction to the accusation from Fadi Abboud, the president of the Lebanese Industrialist’s Association, that Israelis have taken credit for their national dishes, like hummus and falafel.
Nor was I impressed by the precedent of the feta cheese, on which Mr. Abboud based his claim. In, 2002, Greece won a ruling that only its cheese can be called feta. But feta is not hummus, it belongs to the paradigm of Roquefort cheese or Parma Ham — regional products, which should be protected against imitations and preserved in their authentic form. Hummus and falafel are dishes based on recipes that change from village to village, sometimes from household to household. The beauty of the culinary world is in the way these dishes evolve, influencing the kitchens they arrive in or being themselves transformed. But when the cuisines in question are those of Lebanon and Israel, dwelling on charms of culinary cross-fertilization seems somehow beside the point. The common rhetoric is “first they steal our land, then they steal our hummus.”
Several months ago, a journalist friend of mine had dinner in a private home in Tarshicha, a beautiful village in the Western Galilee, not far from the Lebanese border. One of the dishes was based on raw, ground, heavily spiced goat meat, a kind of Middle Eastern version of steak tartare. “It’s Lebanese kubbe naye!” offered my friend, proud of her culinary erudition. “No it’s not,” responded the host rather angrily, “It’s Palestinian. There is no such thing as Lebanese cuisine.” I wonder what would happen if a Syrian was present during the incident. He or she might claim that the dish is neither Lebanese, nor Palestinian but Syrian, since much of the region, including present day Lebanon, was under Syrian rule until the beginning of the Twentieth Century.
But why stop there? Turkey, or the Ottoman Empire to be precise, dominated the region for centuries and shaped not only cultures, borders and fates of the local peoples, but also their cuisines. We can move back in time to the Roman era, and even before, and the pattern would repeat itself. The land of Israel, a tiny but lucrative patch of land perched between the Mediterranean and the Syrian-African Rift, was always a hub of culture, commerce and political ambition. In a place like this how can one know with certainty which dish originated where?
The most massive wave of culinary styles flooded the region in the twentieth century. The Zionist enterprise brought to Israel Jews from all over the world, each carrying memories of food they grew up on. At first, the ethos was rejection of everything that reeked of Diaspora and an eager, almost childish, embrace of the Levant. The infatuation with falafel and hummus, staples of Arabic cuisine, started there. Later, as Israelis felt surer of their new identity, it became legitimate, even desirable, to go back to the cooking of their respective ethnic communities.
Eastern European, Ashkenazi cooking, poorly suited to the hot climate and oblivious of the cornucopia of fresh fruit and vegetables, gave way to Balkan, Yemenite and North African dishes that quickly became the mainstay of the nation’s menu. Falafel, the most popular street food of the 50s, lost its supremacy first to shawarma (hailing from Turkey) and then to Sabich. The latter may be considered the first street snack that sprang from a Jewish culinary tradition, a sandwich combo of hardboiled eggs and fried eggplants based on the traditional Shabbat breakfast of Iraqi Jews.
Hummus is a different story. While not a single Israeli will claim that this chickpea and tahini concoction is anything but Arabic, the status it has reached in Israel is unprecedented anywhere in the Middle East. In Lebanon or in Jordan hummus is a simple morning fare or a part of a meze table. In Israel it is a religion. The best hummus restaurants, invariably owned by Arabs, are considered national treasures. Guides are dedicated to the best places to “mop up” hummus, books and essays discuss comparative virtues of fluffy Jerusalem hummus as opposed to chunky Galilean one. This love affair, that has been going on for decades, shows no signs of dying. The latest addition to the hummus scene is a wave of upscale restaurants, serving hummus with toppings like foie gras.
The popularity of hummus didn’t go unnoticed by the food industry, and supermarket shelves burst with a variety of hummus products, sporting catchy names (most of them Arabic). The success of certain brands of Israeli hummus abroad was obviously what brought about the anger of Mr. Abboud. But why buy industrial hummus anyway? Fresh hummus spoils quickly, so to make it suitable for marketing in a supermarket, it is loaded with additives and stabilizers. My advice is: forget about industrial hummus, regardless of its provenance. Nothing beats fresh homemade hummus, and it is so easy to prepare. Besides being delicious, it is a cheap source of quality vegetable protein. –Janna Gur