Middle Eastern culture wars: The battle of the palates
Credit: The Kitchen Sisters
By James M. Dorsey
Nothing in a swath of land stretching from the Atlantic coast of Africa to China is undisputed.
Food is often emblematic of disputes over identity, history and political claims that underlie an arc of crisis wracked by ethnic and religious conflict; clamour for political, economic, social, national and minority rights; efforts by states and ethnic groups to garner soft power or assert hegemony, international branding; diplomatic leverage; and great power rivalry.
Israel and Lebanon fight humus wars and join Palestine in battles over the origins of multiple dishes.
Turks, Arabs, Jews, Greeks, Armenians, and Iranians claim as their national dish baklava, a sweet whose variations over time reflect the region’s history. They fight over the sweet’s origins and even that of the word baklava.
The battles over the origin of foods have forced countries to rewrite aspects of their histories and major companies to review the way they market products. Food also serves as a barometer of the influence of regional powers.
Iranian dates flooding Iraqi markets suggest that Iran is winning its proxy war with Saudi Arabia, another major grower, in Iraq, the world’s biggest producer of the fruit prior to the country’s multiple wars dating back to the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.
Iranian domination of the market symbolizes the Islamic republic’s massive inroads into Iraq ranging from the fact that it is the country’s foremost trading partner to its political influence in Baghdad and military sway exemplified by Iraq’s powerful Shiite militias.
Saudi Arabia, which only recently switched from effectively boycotting Iraq to forging political, economic, and cultural links is playing catch-up. The kingdom garnered a degree of soft power on the soccer pitch and has plans to invest in Iraqi sectors like petrochemicals, energy and agriculture.
The more than a decade-long Israel-Lebanon hummus wars are both a struggle to claim whose food it is, counter perceived Israeli attempts to colonize Palestinian and Levantine culture, and an effort to make an international mark though securing a place in the Guinness Book of Records by competing for the title of having made the largest pile of the chickpea dip. Hummus symbolizes “all the tension in the Middle East," says Israeli food journalist Ronit Vered.
The war kicked into high gear with Lebanon, home to Middle Eastern haute cuisine, producing a 4,532-pound plate in 2009 prepared by 250 Lebanese sous-chefs and their 50 instructors that was intended to deprive Israel of its earlier record engineered by Sabra, an Israeli hummus producer.
That same year, Lebanon also made its mark with a 223-kilogram kibbeh, a cylindrical cone-shaped dish made of cracked wheat, minced onions, finely ground lean beef, lamb, goat, or camel and spiced with cinnamon, nutmeg, clove, and allspice.
"We were not trying to prove something, but to remind people that we should take the international market more seriously. (In the U.S.), if you question that hummus is Israeli, you're an outcast, but hummus existed long before Israel," said then Lebanese tourism minister Fadi Aboud.
In a reflection of the complexity of Middle Eastern disputes and a hint towards hummus’ Arab origins, it was an Israeli Palestinian, Jawdat Ibrahim, rather than an Israeli Jew who took up the Lebanese challenge.
The owner of a popular restaurant in Abu Ghosh, Mr. Ibrahim months later cooked up a 4,090- kilogram hummus that was served in a satellite dish. "It was (a) big issue that hummus was Lebanese. I said, 'No, hummus is for everybody.' I hold a meeting in the village and I say, 'We are going to break Guinness Book of World Record.' Not the Israeli government, the people of Abu Gosh,” Mr. Ibrahim said.
More recently, Mr. Ibrahim has come under fire for charging a Chinese party of eight $4,400 for a meal that included hummus.
Food battles do not stop at the borders of Africa and Asia. They extend into Europe and impact projections of national heritage and commerce.
In March, Virgin Atlantic felt obliged to drop classification of a salad on its in-flight menu as Palestinian even though it was based on a Palestinian recipe after pro-Israel passengers protested and threatened to boycott the airline. The airline opted for the more generic name, Couscous Salad.
“Our salad is made using a mix of maftoul (traditional Palestinian couscous) and couscous, which is complemented by tomatoes and cucumber which really helps lift the salad from a visual perspective and is seasoned with a parsley, mint and lemon vinaigrette. However, we always want to do the right thing for our customers and as a result of feedback, we have renamed this menu item from our food offering at the end of last year and we’re extremely sorry for any offense caused,” said a spokesperson for Virgin Atlantic.
Quipped Palestinian cookbook writer Christiane Dabdoub Nasser: “Maftoul is Palestinian, just like pasties are Cornish and pâté de foie gras is French. No one can deny that and yet the airline, to add insult to injury, apologizes for the offense that the mention of Palestinian maftoul might have caused.”
American cookbook writer and television personality Rachel Ray two months earlier sparked an uproar on social media when she showcased hummus alongside stuffed grape leaves, and various dips made from beet, eggplant, sun dried tomatoes, walnut and red pepper as well as tabbouleh, a salad, as Israeli dishes, disregarding their Levantine origins.
“This is cultural genocide. It’s not Israeli food. It’s Arab (Lebanese, Palestinian, Syrian, Jordanian). First the Israelis take the land and ethnically cleanse it of Arabs. Now they take their food and culture and claim it’s theirs too! Shame,” tweeted prominent Arab American James Zogby.
British supermarket chain Waitrose took a hit in 2015 when it distributed a magazine entitled Taste of Israel that featured tahini, zaatar and other dishes that like Ms. Ray’s foods originate in pre-Israel Arab lands across the Levant.
Similarly, Sweden recently conceded that meatballs, long celebrated as one the internationally best known icons of traditional Swedish cuisine, were in fact an Ottoman import.
Sweden’s official Twitter account, featuring Swedish multi-national Ikea’s rendering of the dish, admitted that Swedish King Charles XII had brought the recipe from Turkey in the early 18th century when returned from five years in exile. “Let's stick to the facts!” Sweden said.
Swedish food historians and gourmets had already accepted that Kaldolmens Day or Cabbage Roll Day that commemorates the death of King Charles celebrates another dish that he discovered while dwelling among the Ottomans.
Refuting Sweden’s claim was easy compared to battles over baklava whose history dating to the 8th century BC Assyria tells the story of shifting regional power, changing tastes and the communality of food that can prove to be equally divisive.
Turks, Arabs, Jews, Greeks, Armenians, and Iranians all contributed to baklava as we know it, yet they are reticent to acknowledge the sweet as a regional rather than a national dish.
Greek seamen and merchants brought it to Athens where cooks introduced a malleable, thin leaf dough to replace the Assyrian rough, bread-like mixture of mixture of flour and liquid. Armenians added cinnamon and cloves while Arabs introduced rose and orange blossom water. Iranians invented baklava’s diamond-shape and perfected it with a nut stuffing perfumed with jasmine.
Ebtisam Masto is a refugee who fled war-torn Syria with her six children to Beirut where she joined a cooking programme in an effort to rebuild her life. Summing up the region’s battle of the palates, she says”
“Food is a way to preserve history and culture, to pass traditions on to the next generation so that they can understand their origins and identity. If we don’t preserve (food) and teach it to them, it will disappear. It is our duty to keep it going.”
Dr. James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, co-director of the University of Würzburg’s Institute for Fan Culture, and co-host of the New Books in Middle Eastern Studies podcast. James is the author of The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer blog, a book with the same title as well as Comparative Political Transitions between Southeast Asia and the Middle East and North Africa, co-authored with Dr. Teresita Cruz-Del Rosario, Shifting Sands, Essays on Sports and Politics in the Middle East and North Africa, and the forthcoming China and the Middle East: Venturing into the Maelstrom