Sunday, October 12, 2008

Food Wars: The Battle of Hummus

One of the impressive attributes of my old LaTrobe University was its ability to harmoniously host a variety of cultures.

Most ethnic groups present on-campus had formed their own cultural group. We had everything from the Hong Kong Student Association, to the Italians, Greeks, Turks, Norwegian, and finally, Lebanese and Israeli.

I had finished from the university before the 2006 war, and helped form a Lebanese student association during my time there.

Throughout the academic year, the various student bodies would hold cultural days, which may have corresponded with a particular national date or anniversary of the foreign country.

So when it came time for the Israelis to showcase their culture on Israel Day in the main plaza, the Agora, I couldn't help but sneak a peak.

After 60 years of an artificial existence, on a land not of their own, that incorporated Jews from every corner of the globe, every skin colour, and essentially every culture, what exactly constituted Israeli culture?

No surprise, it seemed Israel was void of a distinctive culture. They had, instead, reverted to stealing the ingredients of a culture they despised, butchered and expelled from the Holy Land.

Tabouli salad, hummus dip, n'argileh smoke pipe, and the drbakeh drum were on offer on Israel Day. Not only have they stolen Arab land, it seems, but also aspects of Levantine culture.

Well at least they're making themselves feel at home, but the dilemma doesn't end there.

I recall a moment during my supermarket shopping in Paris when I absolutely craved a Lebanese delight. So after desperate searching in this grand store, I finally found a tiny dip section tucked away in the most inconvenient corner. But alas, there it held my favourite dips: hummus, baba ghanouj, and the works. All seemed OK until I turned to the back of the packets, and there it was marked "Made in Israel".

So not only have the Israelis stolen parts of our culture, but are now even marketing it to the world as their own. Could I be more insulted?

Our plan of retaliation against Israel Day at LaTrobe University was to make a Lebanon Day, ten times larger, with ten times more hummus, tabouli, and of course, with the upbeating folkloric dabke dance. It worked. A few weeks later, we hosted an enormous Lebanon Day, a highly successful event that ensured every student at LaTrobe knew what exactly constituted Lebanese (or Levantine for our Syrian, Jordanian and Palestinian friends) culture.

But the plan to retaliate against Israel's false global marketing of Lebanese products as their own requires a lot more effort, which leads me to the following article. Finally, some Lebanese producers have simply had enough of Israel's food grab, particularly in a market worth US$1billion a year.

Just as the French region Champagne has patented the sparkling "Champagne", one Lebanese campaigner aims to do the same for hummus and tabouli. The only problem now is that the move may exclude other rightful owners of the foods such as our brethren in Syria, Jordan and Palestine. As the article reveals, Lebanese culture is simply an attachment of the culture of "Greater Syria" or the "Levant", that is the area of Lebanon, Jordan, Syria and Palestine carved up by the British and French over 80 years ago. The three remaining states have an equal claim to hummus, tabouli, falafel and the drbakeh drum.

The problem is that many Lebanese simply can't swallow the fact that their culture isn't exclusive, but actually transcends its current French-made borders. Despite the impressive move to protect the rightful Lebanese attachment to hummus and tabouli, it demonstrates that the identity crisis in the Middle East stifles even the most sacred element of a human being's existence ... food.

Expect a war of words between Lebanese, Syrian and Arab nationalists before it even reaches a court against Israel. Certainly, everyone will agree that Israel has no right to market our products as their own, but who are we? Is it Lebanese hummus or Greater Syrian hummus?

Lebanon turns up the heat as falafels fly in food fight

Hugh Macleod, Beirut
The Age, Guardian

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

From the deep-fried chick peas 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 1½ tonnes — 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."

Mr Abboud and researchers say they have documentation to prove that 25 traditional dishes hail from Lebanon and deserve the EU's Protected Designated Origin status, meaning they can be marketed under their name only if 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. 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."

Mr Abboud admits that copyrighting falafel would be hard — Egyptians and Syrians also lay claim to it. Tabbouleh is probably Lebanon's best hope at exclusivity, but it is in the hummus market, worth $US1 billion ($A1.5 billion) worldwide, according to the LIA, that Mr 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.

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