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The politics of pita

Over at the Atlantic, Lauren Shockey has an engaging account of her two months apprenticing as a chef in Tel Aviv, and she ruminates over what constitutes an Israeli cuisine.

One thing that stood out for me was the perception among Israelis that there is no such thing as a food culture:

Most Israelis looked perplexed when I told them I was there to learn more about their cuisine. "Why would you come to Israel?" my friend Natan asked shortly after I arrived. "Israel has no food culture. Hummus, falafel, we stole those from the Arabs. The only truly Israeli food is chicken schnitzel."

I can attest that this is, indeed, how Israelis regard their food culture, and it’s important to say so — not earth-shatteringly so, but still — because over the decades, Arabs have claimed that Israelis are trying to "steal" Arab food.

I remember the PLO representative to the United Nations making this case of cultural thievery as far back as the early 1980s; a recent manifestation was the Lebanese determination to beat Israel in creating the largest hummus dish, based, in part, on resentment that Israel would even vie for such a title.

This is a nonsense — Israelis know the dishes that they are accused of claiming as their own originate in the Arab world, and no one makes a secret of it. My relatives in Haifa, for instance, gravitate toward Druze restaurants for the "real thing."

In fact, as I’ll explain below, Israelis might be doing themselves (and their ancestors) a disservice by insisting, as did Shockey’s friend, that the foods are "stolen."

But first: It’s impossible not to realize that the "local" foods are Arab in origin. Any native Hebrew speaker would intuit that words like felafel and hummus and tehina are Arabic because, while they share the consonantal structure of native Hebrew words, the vowel formation is Arabic.

The Hebrew cognate for felafel, for isntance, is "pilpel," or pepper; the softening of the "p"  to "f", the aleph that arises in the middle,unmistakenly mark the word as Arabic in origin.

This is a natural process; Englishmen transplanted to Virginia learned how to raise maize (and how to roast a turkey) from the indigenous tribes. Potatoes and tomatoes were incorporated into Spanish and Portuguese — and then European — cuisines after the conquistadors learned of their use from indigenous south Americans.

The weird effort to effectively deny Israelis the natural process of appropriating regional cuisines is a quirky but no less dispiriting manifestation of the tendency among Arab polities to deny Israelis, well, just about anything.

I have a single, but telling, caveat (telling in an exception-proves-the rule way): The joints that dot the globe promising "Israeli" felafel might have been honestly misinterpreted by Arab culinary nationalists as claiming the dish.

But this description refers to the style of the food and not its origin — Israeli falafel balls are blander than their Palestinian, Egyptian and Jordanian counterparts (a nod toward Ashkenazi tastes) and the pita sandwich depends more for flavor on the ancillary salads and sauces. Calling this falafel "Israeli" is the equivalent of the promise of "American" pizza, replete with meats and other additions,  when traveling Italy.

The salads at an Israeli stand speak to the ingathering: the vinegary eggplant and pepper additions, for instance, probably originate among Balkan-area Jews; the eggplant salad is Greco-Turkish; the amba is a watery form of chutney, favored by Iraqi and Indian Jews. You like it bland? Have it plain. You like spices? Pile on. It’s what makes Israel Israeli.

This melding is precisely the natural process of a new nation, or of a recently transplanted one. The Ashkenazi Jewish staples we know today — salted, preserved meats, fish and vegetables — arose not out of ancient traditions (find me herring in the Talmud) but out of the exigencies of a people moving towards winterscapes.

One of the commenters on Shockley’s story makes another salient point, one I (as a Sephardi, I’m ashamed to admit), had not considered; some of the foods Israelis call "Arab" are indigenous to Jews — those Jews who came out of the Middle East.

The Jewish populations of Middle Eastern lands stretch back millenia. Immigrants to Israel brought with them the dishes and recipes with which they had grown up; the resident Jewish population of Israel, equally ancient, retained its own cuisine. The cultures blended, just as they have here. Jews from Poland began eating hummus, and Jews from Hebron started eating schnitzel.

In the case of kube soup or shakshuka, our ancestors presumably contributed to the development of these dishes. In fact, there is evidence that they transported them into local cuisines: Claudia Roden, who knows a thing or two about both Jewish and Middle Eastern cuisines, has made the case that the "burek," the small stuffed pastries now so closely identified with Turkish cuisine that an Israeli frozen variety includes the Turkish crescent moon flag as part of its brand, are in fact empanadas adapted to local terroir (feta cheese, kaseri cheese, eggplant) by the Jews who fled the Inquisition.

Shockey concludes that Israeli cuisine is undergoing an exciting adolescence, and it is; let’s not forget, though, that this teen-ager learned a lot in her parents’ kitchen.

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