Babylon & Beyond

Observations from Iraq, Iran,
Israel, the Arab world and beyond

« Previous Post | Babylon & Beyond Home | Next Post »

ISRAEL: Yallah, food fight!

October 8, 2008 |  7:23 am


More on the previous post on the falafel wars:

Old traditions are going new age everywhere, and nations, regions or just traditional craftsmen are scrambling to copyright their culture and cuisine. Parmigiano Reggiano is a legally patented trademark, champagne must come from Champagne itself and only Greece can market Feta cheese under that name.

The European Union law for protecting regional food names has an elaborate mechanism that classifies products as PDO (protected designation of origin), PGI (protected geographical indication) and TSG (traditional specialty guaranteed). Dozens of producers submit requests for protecting their intellectual property rights every year, from the native Shetland organic wool to Cornish sardines that are currently under review.

Israel has a love-hate relationship with Arab countries. The hate part is self-explanatory. The love part involves the food.

Israelis have embraced much of the region's cuisine such as the hummus, falafel, shwarmah and kubeh that have become local staples and regarded as quintessentially Israeli. Whether through regional osmosis or millions of Israelis of Middle Eastern descent, Arab food is a favorite dish in the melting pot of the Israeli kitchen.

Now the Lebanese Industrialists Assn. is planning to file an international lawsuit against Israel for violating food copyright and claiming falafel as its own.

Israel does have specifically local renditions of falafel, a popular staple in other countries besides Lebanon. Boutique falafel places offer the fried chickpea balls in a variety of nouvelle-cuisine-ish seasoning, side-dishes and even color, the designer end-product often being a far cry from the popular Everyman meal-on-the-go sold in steamy hole-in-the-wall type of places. Some welcome new twists on a traditional dish. Others wouldn't be caught dead there.

Admittedly, Lebanese food is a local favorite. But most people don't dwell on the differences between local Arab food, Palestinian cuisine, the Lebanese kitchen, the difference between various types of falafel or who first introduced shwarma to Israelis and vice versa.

So maybe it's business, maybe it's personal. This wouldn't be the first time regional politics have gotten the better of cultural issues, sometimes ridiculously. Five years ago a group led by an Egyptian law professor prepared a lawsuit against the Jews for stealing 300,000 kgs of the nation's gold during the exodus from Pharaoh's Egypt. Earlier this year, Egypt was enraged by Israeli governmental support of a local annual belly-dancing festival and workshop that also featured Egyptian artists. A weekly magazine denounced this as "normalization without reward", appalled yet further by the "Zionist organizers" plan to hold a symposium about the legendary and wonderful Umm Kulthum in a "plot to take over the musical heritage."

Personally speaking, I'm an equal opportunity cultural and culinary imperialist. My couscous comes from Morocco, organic sesame bars from Egypt, tahina from Nablus and tabouleh from the Arab village of Abu Ghosh -- from the Lebanese restaurant, incidentally. And there're the pistachios from Iran too. For some Israelis, the holy grail remains hummus from Damascus, for many years a local metaphor for peace with Syria.

Maybe Israel could spell falafel with a 'y' instead. Now can we eat??

— Batsheva Sobelman in Jerusalem

Photo: the Lebanese Food Restaurant in Abu-Ghosh. Credit: Batsheva Sobelman / Los Angeles Times

P.S. Get news from the Middle East in your mailbox every day. The Los Angeles Times distributes a free daily newsletter with the latest headlines from the Middle East, as well as the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. You can subscribe by logging in at the website here, clicking on the box for "L.A. Times updates" and then clicking on the "World: Mideast" box.