Tuesday, February 25, 2020

The Spectator explains what Israeli cuisine means

Last week the Washington Post published an article that claimed that the very term "Israeli food" erased Palestinian culture.

The Spectator actually addresses the arguments Kassis brings, perhaps unintentionally.

To the Jewish state’s many critics, the rise of Israeli cooking doubtless embodies the colonialism that lies at the heart of the ‘Zionist project’. Trust the Jews to descend on a piece of neglected gastronomic real estate, strip its cuisine for parts and then use their savvy and connections to make a fortune flogging it to Americans. It’s true that hummus and the politics of cultural appropriation are serious issues in the Middle East. The Israel-Lebanon ‘hummus wars’ saw regiments of chefs patriotically competing to prepare ever-larger vats of the stuff in an attempt to capture the Guinness world record.

But there’s another story to tell, too, about a cuisine that draws strength from the diversity that is this 72-year-old country’s tragedy and its triumph. About a quarter of Israel’s population is Arab, including Bedouin and Druze. More than half of Israel’s Jews are Mizrachi, descendants of ‘eastern’ Jews from Iran, the Middle East and North Africa, who migrated, fled or were expelled from their homes after Israeli independence was declared in 1948.

This swirl of humanity has made Israeli food into the ultimate mezze platter: tagine and couscous from the Maghreb, shawarma from Ottoman Turkey and sabich (eggplant, eggs and salad in a pita) from Iraq. Jachnun (pastry) and the unpronounceable but addictive zhoug (an ultra-hot sauce) come from Yemen. Challah rolls down from the old country of Poland and Russia. Falafel is Egyptian or Israeli but, as usual, it depends on whom you ask. The yoghurt obsession is down to the Druze. Shakshuka is Tunisian. Hummus is the cement of the Levant and claimed, like the land, by both Israelis and Palestinians, among others. Fuse all this together, and you have the modern Israeli kitchen. Lots of places do these foods well, but Israeli restaurants do them all at once.
It isn't that Israel tries to erase Arab culture. It is that it adds its own spin on Middle Eastern food, creating dishes that are brand new.

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