Israel-Palestine: How food became a target of colonial conquest

Chef Yotam Ottolenghi prepares food in New York City (AFP)

Joseph Massad

Middle East Eye  /  November 17, 2021

 Many Arabs are rightfully outraged at the rebranding of Palestinian dishes as ‘Israeli’ cuisine in western countries.

A few years ago, I was incensed that an upscale, hip restaurant/bar I frequented in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village listed something they called “Israeli couscous” as their plat du jour. Appalled, I demanded that they change the name of the dish immediately. I explained to the manager that what they called “Israeli” couscous was actually Palestinian maftoul, traditionally made by hand.

I recall as a child how our neighbour and family friend, the late Marie Jou’aneh, would sit down for hours to tiftil, rounding semolina into pearl-shaped balls. Although historical references cite Palestinians’ knowledge of North African couscous in the 17th century or earlier due to the North Africans who moved to Palestine with the Muslim armies who fought the Crusades and then settled in Jerusalem, the modern version of the dish was perhaps re-introduced to Palestine and Greater Syria in the second half of the 19th and early 20th century.

This is when Algerian, Moroccan, Tunisian and Libyan exiles fleeing French and Italian colonialism moved there and introduced the much smaller North African couscous, which Palestinians and other Syrians modified to the larger pearl-shaped maftoul.

The smug New York restaurant manager, however, said that he did not know where the dish originated, and that it was known in New York as “Israeli” couscous. I explained that the item was also sold in New York under the more “neutral” term “pearl couscous”, which he could opt for instead, to avoid antagonising customers. 

The manager countered glibly with what he apparently thought was the cleverest riposte he could muster: that the restaurant also referred to fries as “French fries”, even though fries originated in Belgium. I retorted, while walking out of the establishment, that it was not the French who stole Belgian fries, as in France they are referred to simply as pommes frites; rather, it was the Americans who mislabelled them as “French” (the real or apocryphal story being that American soldiers were introduced to fries during World War I in French-speaking regions of Belgium and misidentified them as “French” upon returning home).

In the case of maftoul, Israelis stole the Palestinian dish and marketed it as their own, just as they did with the Palestinian homeland and other Palestinian food. Suffice to say that I never went back to the restaurant. 

Local innovations

Palestinian cuisine is part of the larger and rich Syrian cuisine, which includes two major branches: Damascus cuisine and Aleppo cuisine. Most dishes cooked across the region in modern Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine originate from these two cuisines, with some innovations that include locally grown vegetables, grains and herbs.

As falafel, hummus, tabouleh, maftoul, the zaatar spice mix made of Palestinian hyssop, rural fallahi salad (known in the US as “Israeli” salad), Nabulsi knafeh, and other foods have come to be appropriated – or more accurately stolen – by Israel’s Jewish colonists over the decades, a whole slew of justifications have emerged in the western press. More recently, we also see the “shakshuka” omelette and “Labaneh”- or strained yoghurt (its name being the feminine rendering of the Arabic word “Laban”, meaning yoghurt in Syrian Arabic) added to the roster of Israeli-claimed food.

Some might casually claim that Jewish Israelis are now part of the region and thus have a right to partake in its food, even as the official Israeli line has described the country as living in a “tough neighborhood” – essentially in the Middle East, but not of it. While famed Israeli historian Benny Morris has claimed that Israel is “Rome” and Arabs are the “barbarians” threatening it, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak once described Israel as a “villa in the jungle”.

The former Israeli ambassador to Sweden and Egypt, Zvi Mazel, in turn asserted: “Israel is a western country, that, despite sometimes treacherous behaviour by its western kin societies, still belongs in that slot culturally, conceptually and economically.” 

British Jewish cookbook writer Claudia Roden, nee Douek (whose Egyptian Jewish family is originally Syrian), has asserted that many European Jews who migrated to Palestine “wanted to forget their old food because it reminded them of persecution”. According to an article in the New York Times: “In the food of their Palestinian neighbors, [Israeli Jews] found a connection to the land and their ancestors.”

The problem is that Palestinians are not the neighbours of Israeli Jews, but the people the Israeli colonists conquered, and whose lands and food they stole. 

Ownership of food

Israeli chef and cookbook author Yotam Ottolenghi and his Palestinian coauthor, Sami Tamimi, want to dispense with the bothersome issue of food “ownership” and colonial theft. They unapologetically tell us: “Hummus, for example, a highly explosive subject, is undeniably a staple of the local Palestinian population, but it was also a permanent feature on dinner tables of Allepian Jews who have lived in Syria for millennia and then arrived in Jerusalem in the 1950s and 1960s. Who is more deserving of calling hummus their own? Neither. Nobody ‘owns’ a dish because it is very likely that someone else cooked it before them and another person before that.” 

The problem with this explanation is that Aleppo’s Jews were not the only ones eating hummus; the majority population of Muslims and Christians in Aleppo, along with other Syrians, also ate it as a major staple. The issue is not that Aleppo’s Jews did not eat it, but that it is identified today as “Jewish” or “Israeli” food by this suspect argument.

Ottolenghi and Tamimi argue that attempts at claiming ownership of cuisine and dishes “are futile because it doesn’t really matter”. But to whom does it not matter – to the Israelis who market stolen Palestinian cuisine as their own, or to the Palestinians who are deprived of even claiming their own dishes in a western Israel-friendly context? 

Theft of Palestinian and Syrian cuisine by Israelis has become such a normalized phenomenon, given its proliferation in Middle Eastern cookbooks and “Israeli” restaurants in Europe and North America, that Palestinians are harassed if they open restaurants that refer to their own food as Palestinian. A top Palestinian restaurant in Brooklyn recently complained of online harassment by people who had never been to the restaurant, but were motivated by anti-Palestinian hostility. The owner said in a media interview that even calling his restaurant “Palestinian” opened it up to potential harassment.

Racist presumption

Then there is the claim that Jews who originate in Arab countries constitute half the population of Israel, and consequently have a right to claim the region’s food as much as Palestinians. But this is based on the racist presumption that the entire Arab region, from Morocco to Iraq to Yemen, has one cuisine. Indeed, the largest majority of Arab Jews in Israel come from Morocco, Yemen and Iraq, areas of the Arab world that have their own regional cuisines.

There are only a paltry number of Syrian and Lebanese Jews who live in Israel, constituting “one of the smaller origin-groups” in the country. But even if the majority of Israeli Jews came from Greater Syria, how would that make Syrian or Palestinian food “Jewish”, let alone “Israeli”, except by resorting to colonial theft?

Ottolenghi credits Roden with paving the way for chefs like him. According to a recent article on Roden in the New York Times, she “describes the cuisine of the Syrian Jews as sophisticated, abundant, varied – and purposely intricate and time-consuming”, as if Syrian Jews had a different cuisine from Syrian Christians or Muslims, which was not the case. 

While the Jews of Greater Syria, like Muslims and Christians, have every right to claim Syrian dishes as their own on a Syrian national or regional basis, they do not have the right to claim them as dishes that belong to Jews, and then market them as such, with these thefts then celebrated in the European and US media as “Israeli” national cuisine.

Israel became part of the region through colonial conquest. Most Arabs are rightly outraged that their food and cuisine have become part and parcel of Israel’s overall colonizing efforts.

Joseph Massad is professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University, New York; his books include Colonial Effects: The Making of National Identity in Jordan; Desiring Arabs; The Persistence of the Palestinian Question: Essays on Zionism and the Palestinians, and most recently Islam in Liberalism