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The Rise of Palestinian Food


TO A NUMBER of Palestinians, there is another threat, one that is subtlerand more abstract but no less potent. Like the controversy invoked by saying “Palestinian,” it centers on the problem of a name: “Israeli cuisine,” which in the West has come to signify the likes of hummus, falafel, labneh, tabbouleh and shawarma, dishes long part of Arab tradition.

In its most basic definition, Israeli cuisine is simplywhat the people of Israel eat, broughtto the newlyfounded country in the midcenturyby Ashkenazi Jews from Central and Eastern Europe and Sephardic and Mizrahi Jews from Southern Europe, North Africa and the Middle East.This might include everything from cheese blintzes and goulash to cakesof almonds and whole oranges, boiled and pulped, from a recipe that’ssix centuries old. But as the British cookbook writer Claudia Roden notes in Trevor Graham’s 2012 documentary “Make Hummus Not War,” many Jewish migrants “wanted to forget their old food because it reminded them of persecution.” In the foodof their Palestinian neighbors,they found a connection to the landand their ancestors.

It’s worth noting that the term “Israeli cuisine” is of fairly recent vintage and appearsto have more currency outside Israel; the American chefAri Miller, of Musi in Philadelphia, spenta decade living in Tel Aviv and said that he never heard it until he returned to the United States in 2013. The Israeli journalist Ronit Vered, who writes for the newspaper Ha’aretz, suggested that because the country is so young, “we don’t knowyet what is Israeli and what is just partof the region’s diet” — but there is a willful refusal by some Israelis, she said, to acknowledge Arab influences.

At issue is not the right of Israelis to eat hummus and falafel. “I have never said, ‘Don’t cook this food,’” said Nof Atamna-Ismaeel, a molecular biologist and the first Arab-Israeli (and Palestinian) towin Israel’s reality TV competition “MasterChef,” in 2014. For her, the problem is a denial of origins, as if these dishes were wholly uniqueto Israel: “I am asking for modesty.” Ahmad goes further, saying that it’s “psychologically dissociative” for Israelis to embrace the daily food of a people whose name is rarely spoken within the country: “It’s taking what you want and rejecting the rest.” In 2015, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs began flying in renownedchefs from around the world to attend the annual Round Tables by American Express culinary festival, as an opportunity for themto explore local cuisine while also sharingtheir own, a campaign that Ahmad calls “culinary whitewashing” — promoting the pleasures of food to distract from the grim consequences of the government’s policies in the West Bank and Gaza.

Food may be the most effective form of propaganda. It humanizes: Whenwe dine with strangers, we learn something of who they are. The fear for Palestinians is thatas dishes labeled Israeli grow increasingly popular in the West, their Palestinian counterparts — and, by extension, Palestinians themselves — sinkout of view. They are rendered invisible.

Consider maftoul, often called Palestinian couscous, although it’s molded not with semolina but bulgur, from hard winter wheat berries that have been boiled until on the verge of bursting, then sun-dried and cracked. The broken pieces are soaked in water and coated in wheat flour, a process done entirely by hand, pinch by pinch, turning them into tiny orbs. Beyond shape, maftoul has little in common with what has been marketed in the West as Israeli couscous but is known in Israel as ptitim (“little crumbles” in Hebrew) or, more colloquially, as Ben-Gurion rice, named after former Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, who in the 1950s, during a time of austerity and rationing, asked Osem, a local company, to come up witha cheap, machine-extruded alternative to rice. It’s perhaps inevitable that a factory product, easyto replicate, would gain ascendance in the world over a handmade one; but for Palestinians,it can feel like erasure just the same.

IN 2015, ATAMNA-ISMAEEL started the A-Sham festival in Haifa, Israel, to highlight Arab food — A-Sham isthe Arabic name for the Levant — and to pair up Arab-Israeli (Muslim and Christian, Palestinian and those with roots in other lands) and Jewish-Israeli chefs to cook traditional dishes. As portrayed in Beth Elise Hawk’s documentary “Breaking Bread,” which premiered in Haifa last fall, the festival is an exuberant success: One chef, the son of a Jew and a Catholic, says cheerily, “Even my godfather is Muslim”; another, a Jaffa, Israel-
born Palestinian, reminisces abouthis multicultural childhood: “Inour neighborhood, we spoke Arabic, we laughed in Hebrew, we cursedin Romanian.”

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