A Palestinian lawyer has accused Israel of stealing their culture, by eating foods such as hummus, tehinni and falafel and also by selling these abroad.
When Israel was established in 1948, there were 806,000 Jews living here. They were subsequently joined with others from all over the diaspora, including a million forcibly exiled from their homes in North Africa and the Middle East. In a large number of these areas, the populations ate similar foods, under the influence of various occupiers, particularly the Turkish, who are probably responsible for Turkish Coffee, skewered meat and schwarma, burrekas and other foods. But Jews throughout Arab lands ate hummus. Sesame seeds were considered valuable in Talmudic times and were probably used to make tehinni paste even back then. Iraqi Jews make pastes out of various other legumes such as beans, but chick-peas were also eaten in Poland, at least at the Friday night
get-togethers following the birth of a boy.
There is a strange, newish type of Intellectual Property Right called Traditional Knowledge. A close relative of this is Appellation of Origin, where a geographic region associated with a specific food type may be awarded a monopoly on the name. Thus Feta cheese has to come from Greece, and salted Feta-like cheese that is made locally in Israel is sold as Fetini. (Cheddar lost the monopoly and the name is not restricted to cheese made in Cheddar Gorge, as it has long been made in different places and cheddaring is part of the process). Of course, long before people knew what an ecological footprint was, they were importing food and making it their own. English Breakfast Tea does not grow in the UK, but is a traditional blend of teas originating from Assam, Ceylon, and Kenya.
I don’t often make Cholent – the great European Jewish slow-cooked stew that is often served on Shabbat. However, for cold winter weekends, I sometimes indulge. When I went to the supermarket for a key ingredient, butter beans, the Arab seller of spices and dried grains, legumes, etc directed me to a bag labelled buberlach. This seems to indicate an awareness of Ashkenazic culture among the Arab populace as well.
We have every reason to believe that the great Second Temple Sage Hillel made his Seder using an uleavened bread that more resembles a lafa than a modern Matzo, which was wrapped around his skewered lamb, and a brown paste reminiscent of building material (probably hummus which is like plaster) and some bitter herb which may have been a Yemenite tszchug made from hot pepper, or an Ashkenazaic Chrein made from horse-radish was added. Although each village across the Levant had their recipes, there are great similarities with minor regional variations between Lebanese Israeli, Syrian and Yemenite foods.
Meanwhile, after 25 years here, I’ve become used to seeing Arabs stocking up on Matzot before Pesach. They apparently enjoy the ‘bread of affliction’.
Cultural influences in food go both ways of course. I never ate hummus or egg-plant salads in London, but do so now that I live in Israel. On the other hand, there is a fast food outlet in an Arab suburb of Jerusalem that is called Schnitzel Way, whose sign is clearly inspired from that of the American Subway chain. (The photo below was taken at night as I don’t feel comfortable roaming around Bet Chanina by myself).
The name of the restaurant comes from the breaded and deep-fried chicken breast which they serve. Schnitzel is an East European foodstuff that was introduced into Israel by Jews. The baguette they serve originated in France. In addition to schnitzel the restaurant serves pastrami, picked cucumber and other examples of Jewish delicatessen. The ketchup is American influenced, of course. The mayonnaise is probably Belgian originally. The baguette, ketchup and mayonnaise all made it to Israel with Jewish immigration.
Perhaps the fusion of schnitzel and hummus, garnished with pickled cucumber and served in a pita, is something that could only occur in Israel. Is it a Jewish take on an Arab sandwich, or a Jewish delicatessen staple, served in a traditional Middle East bread?
Israel has moved away from the savory burrekas (originating in Turkey) and the sweet ruggelach (originating in Poland. Recently every trendy event such as entrepreneur and investor meetings seem to serve raw fish with avocado and sweet potato, wrapped in sea weed, or tortilla wraps with cheese and vegetables. This Japanese inspired Sushi craze, with maki, makizushi and uramaki, etc. is not quite the traditional stuff that was historically served in Japan. In fact, Avocado is a common ingredient in American supermarket sushi that is believed to have been introduced by a Japanese chef in Los Angeles about 40 years ago. Fresh Norwegian farmed salmon is a welcome addition to the Israeli diet, but is not a traditional sushi ingredient either, as it is a North Atlantic and North Sea fish and is not found in the South China Sea. Even blue finned tuna is a relatively recent, but popular import into Japan. As for the tortilla, it is a South American import, but the fillings popular in Israel, including tehinni, white cheeses, olives, etc., are probably very different from those eaten in Mexico.
Americans took the Italian pizza and the Jewish bagel and made them their own.
Mrs Beaton, the author of the Classic Victorian cookbook refers to fish fried in batter as fish in the Portuguese Jewish tradition. whether a batter, bread crumb or matzo meal is used, the food developed as it could be heated on Shabbat without drying out. Zangwill, the great Anglo-Jewish author, wrote about frying the fish for Shabbat in his Ghetto Tragedies. It seems that the great staple of British cookery, Fish & Chips was the result of Sir Walter Raleigh bringing the potato back to the UK from the new world, and Oliver Cromwell allowing the Jews back into England after Edward the Confessor exiled them long before the expansion of Spain.
There is still an Anglo Jewish custom to eat fried fish at Seder night – See Cecil Roth’s Haggadah. (If you don’t like it, well, when the door opens for Elijah. Cast out thy Roth).
Every conquering culture brings something with it when it arrives and leaves something behind when it leaves. As someone English-born and bred, I was rather surprised to learn that in Israel, there is something called English Cake. I’d never heard of it in England. It seems to be the local generic name for a pound cake made in a standard loaf baking tin, and may be plain, marbled or flavoured withg chocolate chips, raisins and other dried fruits.
I see all this as fusion rather than cultural approbation, and think that being a melting point of different cultures, Israeli cuisine is exciting.