/ 19 October 2008

Falafel kerfuffle

After decades of war, invasion and occupation, Lebanon and Israel have plenty of tension simmering between them, but the latest source of strife is literally cooking.

From the deep-fried chickpeas that make falafel to the parsley and burghul wheat of tabbouleh, the salad that’s almost a national obsession — green-fingered enthusiasts once held the world record for making a dish weighing one-and-a-half tons — Lebanon’s foodies are pushing back against what they see as Israel’s appropriation of their cuisine.

“At ethnic food exhibitions our producers go to the Israeli stand and find most of the specialities they are marketing as Israeli foods are Lebanese,” said Fadi Abboud, president of the Lebanese Industrialists’ Association (LIA). “Our culture goes back a few thousand years. It’s time to set the record straight.”

Abboud and researchers say they have documentation to prove that 25 traditional dishes hail from Lebanon and deserve the European Union (EU)’s Protected Designated Origin status, meaning they can be marketed under their name only if they were made in the country. Under an EU deal, Lebanon is entitled to seek European arbitration for its claim to protected status, but will require a World Trade Organisation ruling for the move to affect sales in non-EU markets.

Thick files on each food are being drafted to make a case based on the 2002 ruling that only Greek-made cheese could be called feta, which dealt a blow to Danish and Dutch producers. But, in a region where food is as strong a source of national identity and pride as national borders, the move has caused friction.

“He’s plain wrong. Falafel is originally Turkish,” said Rabea Abdullah, chief falafel fryer at the famous King of Potatoes eatery in Hamra, Beirut’s bustling commercial heart. “Maybe tabbouleh can be said to be Lebanese because everyone knows we invented it.”

Abboud admits that copyrighting falafel will be hard — Egyptians and Syrians also lay claim to it. Tabbouleh is probably Lebanon’s best hope at exclusivity, but it’s in the lucrative hummus market, worth $1-billion worldwide, according to the LIA, with 500 000 tubs eaten a day in the United Kingdom alone, that Abboud really believes he is on to a winner.

“We believe we can prove Lebanon commercialised hummus in the late 1950s,” he said. “We own the name and if [supermarkets in other countries] want to produce hummus, they will have to produce it in Lebanon. Or they’ll just have to call it ‘chick-pea dip’.”

The LIA move drew no official reaction in Israel, though some diners in Jerusalem cited shared Arab and Jewish heritage derived from Abraham to claim hummus belongs to all in the region.

The move has also angered some Lebanese food experts, saying such dishes should be seen as originating in the Levant, the area of Syria, Lebanon, Palestine and Jordan before western intervention led to national borders and the creation of Israel in 1948.

“Foods like falafel are not Lebanese, but they’re certainly not Israeli either. How can they be when Israel is only 60 years old?” asked Rami Zurayk, professor of agriculture and ecosystems at the American University of Beirut, and author of a book on “slow food” in Lebanon.

“But Lebanon’s borders are only 60 years old as well. There is an instinctive response in the region against what is seen as Israel’s theft of land and appropriation of culture, but to register falafel as Lebanese is almost as absurd and chauvinistic as Israel trying to register it as Israeli.”

Abboud remains adamant that the case is worth pursuing, not least to address what he sees as misconceptions about Arab culture.

“There is a fashion that everything good coming out of the Middle East comes from Israel and everything bad from the Arabs,” he said. “When I lived in London people were always surprised to learn we drank Lebanese wine. But why? Do you think Jesus drank Bordeaux?” —