I recently spent a week in Warsaw at a culinary forum that brought together international chefs, journalists and experts in culinary tourism. Terroir, the organization behind the event, which is held in a different city each year, is dedicated to promoting the growth of international culinary communities through discussions, lectures, workshops and shared meals.
As Israelis, citizens of a young nation of immigrants without a single clear culinary tradition, we often go to great lengths in trying to define the national cuisine. And we’re not alone. In recent years, thanks to the increasingly rapid pace of globalization, it seems like practically every country is striving to define its national cuisine.
At the Warsaw forum, JP McMahon, a chef from Galway who founded Food on the Edge, a symposium for chefs and food enthusiasts, pondered just what Irish food is: “The first people who came to Ireland must have been fleeing from someone. There’s no other reason to have settled on this arid island.” Maksut Askar, a son of Syrian parents who grew up in Turkey’s Hatay Province, and owner of one of the most famous restaurants in Istanbul, asked himself and the audience where home really is. Estonians, Poles and Germans debated whether there is such a thing as Baltic cuisine. Polish chefs ruefully noted the successful branding of Nordic cuisine (“Are we southern Nordic cuisine?”). It’s a big world, food products are dynamic and easily pass from one place to the other, and, ultimately, most humans on this planet – whether from Australia, Israel or Turkey – are descendants of migrants.
“Nevertheless, the nation is a very powerful concept, and the more it is threatened, as it is now through globalization, the more members of a nation feel the need to defend it. How do we defend the nation?” says Dr. Ronald Ranta, a senior lecturer in politics and international relations at London’s Kingston University, when asked why we feel the need to define our national food. Ranta’s research concerns the connection between food and nationalism, and he has published two books on the subject in the recent years.
“The important thing to understand with regard to national food is the impact of globalization,” Ranta says. “In a globalized world, countries, regions and cities compete to be distinct and different. They all want to attract investment and project themselves as attractive and special. Part of the need to define and assert national food is a reaction to the challenges and problems globalization creates. For example, until the early 2000s the biggest producers of Feta cheese in Europe were Denmark and Germany. They were taken to court by Greece, which asserted its ‘national’ right to be the only Feta producing country.
“If we accept the national claim that food originates in a particular place, is produced in a particular manner, and is imbued with particular characteristics because of the local environment (what many refer to as terroir – and which I often think they take it too far ... something I refer to as terroirrism ...then because of globalization we are driven to want and to consume the original, the authentic product, the real thing, and not a distant version.
This is at the heart of the current drive to assert national rights to food and to claim or reclaim food as authentic. This type of activity, of asserting national rights to food is often referred to as gastronationalism,” Ranta explains.
The need to associate cultural products with specific groups is a normal human need. “The famous saying by Brillat-Savarin ‘tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are’ is very good example,” Ranta points out. “If we think of what we eat, it mostly corresponds to our gender, class, political, ethnic, religious, and national identity. The fact that people perceive food as belonging to nations is not a problem in and of itself. So what if pasta is seen as Italian and Sushi as Indian.
“If we think about it further, do we really care who claims ownership of what food item? Does it matter whether baklava is Greek or Turkish or belongs to someone else? Does it really matter who claims ownership of falafel or hummus?” he asks.
“Well, it does when a national cause or agenda is behind the claim. The Greek claim to ownership of Feta was not simply about the need to draw consumers’ attention to its claim. There are also important political and economic factors behind this. Greece is now the only country in Europe that is allowed to produce Feta,” says Ranta, adding, “If we think of the recent ‘hummus wars’, a large part of the ‘war’ was about access to the American market. Israel’s assertion, through Israeli companies, of hummus as an Israeli dish is part of a strategy to conquer the U.S. hummus market, which is worth billions!”
Citizen of the world
Ranta was born in South Africa in 1975; both his parents are Israeli. “My mom comes from a very Zionist family that came from Romania and Hungary in the early 20th century. And my dad came to Israel as a teenager, also from Romania, in the 1960s.
“The fact that my origins point to eastern Europe (mostly Romania) and Israel, though I was born in South Africa and lived most of my life in the U.K. explains well my fascination with nationalism and national identity. I have never thought of myself as belonging to a particular nation. What is interesting is I ended up marrying someone who is very similar to me in that regard. She is half British, half Venezuelan, and grew up in France and Nigeria. I am dreading the moment that my son, who is now five, asks me ‘Daddy what am I?’”
Ranta moved to London to study filmmaking. “I started working in an Israeli restaurant to fund myself through university and then reached the realization that maybe I should pursue a career as a chef. So I did chef studies for a number of years and worked in a number of high-end restaurants in London... My partner was unhappy with my long working hours, so we both thought of what else I could do. I have always been interested in politics and international relations, so I made a decision to change careers and here I am.
“If we think of what Israeli food is and how this concept has evolved over time we uncover a fascinating story,” he says. “A story of how an Ashkenazi, European, mostly non-religious, socialist hegemony, tried to create an Israeli food culture based on European ideas, local ingredients, self-sufficiency, and scientific ideas of nutrition. With the exception of integrating local ingredients, it failed miserably! With the exception of schnitzel, there is very little of European and Ashkenazi food culture we associate with being Israeli.
“In this regard, the story of how sabich or shakshuka became national dishes is very illuminating. Instead, what we think of as Israeli food is food that is of the region, is in line with kashrut laws – there are no non-kosher Israeli national foods and most of what is considered Israeli national food is mostly pareve, which demonstrates the power of kashrut even on those who don’t keep it!” Ranta goes on, “What is considered Israeli national food is Mediterranean and Middle Eastern. The Israeli food that is now claiming prizes across the world and is supported by the Israeli government as a way of promoting a different vision of Israel, is an amalgamation of various influences, but mostly Mizrahi Jewish, North African, Balkan, Arab, Turkish and Palestinian food.
“Another interesting thing we discover when looking at Israeli food is how little Jewish-Israelis have been willing to admit that they have been influenced by Arab food, and even less so by Palestinian food. Now, I am not saying that Israeli national food has only been influenced by Arab and Palestinian food, of course not, there are many influences. And I, as you can imagine, am not going to claim there is an essentialist thing such as Palestinian food. Palestinian food has to be seen as part of the regional Shami food culture [of Greater Syria]. But it is interesting to think of why Jewish Israelis have been so reluctant to admit that they share a lot in common with Arab and Palestinian food (though it is clear that in recent years there has been a slow but gradual shift toward accepting this). In this regard, instead of using Israeli food to bridge differences between communities and nations, because of the similarities, it is used to assert difference and claim national ownership.”