Everybody wants a piece of baladi. In Tel Aviv restaurants, you’ll find menus that include dishes like baladi spinach with steamed egg yolk and arugula; anthias tartare on burned baladi cabbage; and baladi apricot mistkawi with poached jibneh (Arabic for cheese).
A chain of delicatessens specializing in the import of cheeses and pastas from Europe markets its “baladi free-range eggs” from the chicken coop it owns. Jaffa Foodie, a Jaffa-based online retail site, offers a “select baladi box” with “unique baladi flavors.” And that’s just for starters.
At the Azrieli Sarona Tower, Erez Komarovsky – one of the chefs most closely associated with the “local cuisine” movement – has opened a restaurant called Baladi Chic. The menu includes salads with baladi fakus and ba’jir (also known as Armenian cucumbers and Carosello – baladi cultivars considered an ancient heirloom variety), and there’s also a “baladi hamburger” in a brioche roll with aioli za’atar.
Justifying his blending of baladi with what he terms local and contemporary cooking, Komarovsky declares: “We’re proud Israelis, and that’s a good thing!”
Some 60 kilometers (37 miles) from Tel Aviv, in the West Bank village of Battir, baladi is a Palestinian national symbol. The eggplant known as batiri is at the heart of a UNESCO World Heritage Site that preserves traditional terrace agriculture. The village has hoisted the baladi banner as its brand of identity and opposition.
Verses from the poet Mahmoud Darwish extolling the lands of Palestine and its produce, feature alongside wall frescoes of ornate eggplants, while baladi recipe books are sold at a stand in the village. Baladi is every bit as much an economic player as it is a gastro-political player.
Battir is not alone: In nearby Beit Sahur, baladi agriculture is based primarily on the fakus. A local lettuce festival is held in the village of Artas, which lies west of Bethlehem. The South Hebron Hills are identified with laban yogurt (laban jameed), produced from the milk of baladi goats. The village of Kafr Rai in the Jenin district is known for its baladi green plums – and the list goes on. Like the notion of terroir in France, every Palestinian village and region takes pride in the local baladi flavor expressed in its unique and distinct produce.
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Is baladi in Hebrew identical to baladi in Arabic? How did the term evolve from signifying rural domestic produce into a sexy trend in Tel Aviv – and what does that say about Israeli identity?
The political biography of the term “baladi” takes us on a journey that stretches between the culinary and the political; between the identity-based and the economic; from the agricultural expanse in Ottoman Palestine toward the end of the 19th century to the upscale Tel Aviv culinary scene of today – and from there back to the rural Palestinian expanse and even to an unlawful outpost founded by extremist Israeli settlers.
My home, my land
The political biography of the term 'baladi' takes us on a journey that stretches between the culinary and the political.
The term baladi is derived from the Arabic word “balad” (بلد), which means village, city or geographical area.
Balad, explain Orphee Senouf Pilpoul, Jad Kaadan, Vered Shimshi and Ido Fuchs in an article recently published in “Mafte’akh: A Lexical Review of Political Thought,” symbolizes multiple meanings that denote “place,” but also the dim and at times ambivalent attitude toward place. Balad is the village (الكفر), the city (المدينة), the land (الأرض), but never the state (الدولة).
At its heart, the term stands for the intimate connection with the land and the community. Whereas in Arabic balad comprises a complex conceptual array that relies on textual strata that go all the way back to the Koran, in today’s spoken Hebrew, balad has become “baladi” – which, as they see it, represents a “fabricated authenticity.”
Baladi, as it is used in Hebrew, has been severed from “balad” and instead became a stand-alone adjective detached from any specific spatial significance. Like “organic” or “terroir,” baladi is also a term with multiple meanings. But baladi seems to be particularly difficult to translate, and has therefore been preserved in its Arabic form in other languages as well.
Baladi is neither an Israeli nor a Palestinian invention. As will become clear below, baladi is a word that refuses to be translated or even defined.
It seems that the only way to define it is by negation: baladi is nonindustrialized, non-global, not grown in hothouses, not preserved in frozen form, not bereft of flavor, not from the Other (from the other village, from the other city, from the other region in the country, from the other regime).
It is, therefore, little wonder that baladi is also becoming an expression of political resistance: against colonialism; against the state’s invasion of the rural space; and, in the Israeli-Palestinian case, against occupation, the taking over of land and erasure of national identity.
The first cookbook in Hebrew to bear the word “baladi” in its title is a thick volume published in 2016, “Baladi: Four Seasons in Nazareth,” co-authored by Dukhul Safadi and Michal Waxman. Among all the recipes and stories found within the book, the word “baladi” does not appear even once – only in the book’s title. That is not a coincidence. One assumes that the authors or publishers must have felt that the term would be obvious to Hebrew speakers – along with an understandable hope to rid a cookbook aimed at the wider Israeli public of any political disputes.
Conversely, in the cookbook “Baladi: Palestine – A Celebration of Food from Land to Sea,” published in English in 2018 by Joudie Kalla (a British chef and author of Palestinian descent), which is primarily aimed at an international audience, the term is immediately explained in the introduction.
“I love the word ‘baladi,’” Kalla writes. “As with most Arabic words, it has many meanings, but above all it means, ‘my home, my land, my country.’ To me, Palestine is all of these things, and not just in a geographical sense, but in the sense of my life and my family, too. It has been home for my family for hundreds of years, and embodies everything that I am and everything that I have been raised to be.”
Beiruti cow, baladi cow
The term “baladi” arose from the need to differentiate between local and foreign. The scholar Limor Yungman found that the term, in its culinary context, already appeared in texts from the Middle Ages published in the Middle East. For example, “Kitab al-Tabikh” (a Baghdad cookbook from the 13th century) features a recipe for a faux fish paste called “Baladiya” (in the sense of local or rural). An Egyptian cookbook from the 14th century, meanwhile, features items such as baladi rosewater and a recipe for local granola called ka’ut baladi.
In the 19th century, a distinction was made in Ottoman Palestine between two types of oranges: fransawi (French) and baladi; it seems that the Jaffa orange, of the famous Jaffa Shamouti variety, developed from the baladi variety.
One illegal Israeli outpost has adopted the term 'baladi.' It calls itself the 'ma’ahaz ha’baladim,' as a boast of being 'the most authentic' land-grabbers.
Similarly, a distinction was also made between the Beiruti cow and the baladi cow (whose meat was less expensive). And an article in the Hazvi newspaper in 1898 explained the difference between the baladi apricot and the Damascus apricot. Baladi usually signified local and low-priced, as opposed to the prestigious and imported variety.
Now, too, conversations with foodies in the Arab world will lead one to think that baladi not only symbolizes simple, low-priced and provincial – as opposed to urban gastronomy – but local pride as well.
For instance, in Egypt there is “aish baladi”: a rural pita baked with wholewheat flour, as opposed to “aish shami” or “ifrangi” – an urban pita made with white flour. And in Cairo, a baladi coffeehouse indicates a simple place to go out to. The term baladi is even used for people who have arrived from the villages and are known for their different form of attire.
One Syrian refugee from Aleppo told us: “Everything that’s possible to plant and grow that does not come from the outside is baladi.” The way he put it, baladi tomatoes will always be cheaper than the tomatoes that “come in the plastic box from the supermarket.” In Jordan, the markets have goods such as samneh (ghee) and jibneh baladiya; in Beirut, arak baladi; in Tunis, bunduk (hazelnut) baladi. In Egypt, free-range eggs are offered for sale as “fresh baladi eggs, from the hen’s rear to the consumer.”
References to the word baladi can be found in the Hebrew press from the late 1800s on. Like other words, the Jewish minority embraced terms from the Arabic language, which was the spoken language in Ottoman Palestine. Thus, one can find references in the Hebrew newspapers to a local flour (tahin baladi) or to local baladi dates (as opposed to the “hiani” variety, which was considered better). The Jews of Yemen even have a prayerbook called “baladi version.”
The researcher Yoni Mendel notes that the word baladi was even appropriated into popular expressions in Yiddish, like ‘Ihr het a baladi?’ (“Is he baladi?” Or, in other words, “Is he a member of the Ashkenazi community who was born in one of the four holy cities?”).
In conversations with Palestinians on either side of the Green Line, we were told there was a time when there was no need at all to use the term, because the vegetables were baladi even if they weren’t called that. Only when non-baladi food appeared was there the need to give the nameless an actual name.
According to Mazin Qumsiyeh, director of the Palestinian Institute for Biodiversity and Sustainability (which is active at Bethlehem University), the connection between baladi and the Palestinian national narrative was crystallized following the Arab Revolt of 1936-39 and the boycott of Jewish produce controlled by Tnuva.
The higher ranking accorded to baladi produce is part of the national discourse on food sovereignty, which endures under the slogan “Ishtri min baladak” (which can be translated as “buy local,” “buy from your land” or “buy from your village”) that circulated during the violent events of May 2021.
In the decades that followed the formation of Israel in 1948, traditional local agriculture experienced a double hit. From the Palestinian side, the loss of lands and a transition to salaried employment in the Israeli market led to a drastic decline in local agriculture; for the Israelis, there was the development of intensive agriculture based on monoculture, international varieties, and industrialization and uniformization, with productivity being preferred over taste. Industrially grown tomatoes were derisively referred to by Arabs as “bandorat al-yahud” (Jewish tomatoes) or “bandorat al-hukuma” (government tomatoes).
In the 1970s, the term “baladi” received political reinforcement against the backdrop of the crystallization of the Palestinian struggle on both sides of the Green Line – for instance, following the establishment of the Abna al-Balad (Sons of the Village) movement, which gained recognition following Land Day protests by the Arab community in 1976.
In a 1982 article entitled “We’re the natives,” Mohammed Kiwan, founder of “Sons of the Village” (Abna al-Balad), explained that the organization’s name did not accurately portray the specific meaning. “We’re natives, under the control of colonialists,” he said. “Our official name in Arabic is Abna al-Balad, which is at times misleading. Balad means village, land and also homeland. We’re not only sons of the village; we’re also children of this land, sons of the homeland.”
During the first intifada in the late ’80s, Palestinians took measures to boycott Israeli products in order to support their local goods. As in Britain and the United States during World War II, “victory gardens” were set up throughout the West Bank. The gardens were operated in the framework of what was called “neighborhood agriculture committees,” in which “baladi” symbolized the struggle for agricultural independence.
Subsequently, following its reemergence during the intifada – but also in response to the beginning of the “peace era” and to issues related to identity in a global world – it was possible to see an unprecedented increase in the use of the term in Israel’s Arabic press: from isolated mentions throughout most of the 20th century, to over 1,000 such references in the ’90s.
Saying baladi in Hebrew
In 1992, chef Zachi Bukshester targeted Israeli gourmands with an exciting pitch: “The new baladi.” In an article of that headline in the daily Hadashot, he explained that “baladi” in Hebrew meant “my land, something that is rooted, something from here. You can say it about a tomato or a cucumber, and also about a person. When baladi refers to a man, you imagine a tanned fellow with a deeply lined face, preferably with a mustache. One who was born here; at times an out-and-out dove; at others, the sort of person who declares he isn’t crazy about Arabs.”
It would seem that for the Israeli and international public seeking authenticity, baladi’s charm is the fact that it is ‘the food of the Other.’ The Other that, deep in our heart, we yearn to resemble: local, authentic, confident of one’s place in the world.
The baladi narrative that has taken root in the Israeli space comes from an orientalist fantasy of a New Middle East combined with the global trend of authenticity fervor in a world that prizes speed, efficiency and uniformity.
Baladi is loaded with meanings of a unique and distinct flavor, and is connected to a new generation of Israeli chefs, both men and women, who espouse localism and indigeneity as a culinary challenge. Baladi became the raw ingredient for experiments with flavors and local identity.
It was during these years that baladi also penetrated the food industry: baladi spice mixtures; baladi olive oils; mass-produced sandwich spreads like baladi pickled lemon; pickles out of a can that were described as “baladi pickles with spicy pepper and garlic.” Baladi eggplant sandwich spreads began to appear in restaurants and coffee shops, while wholesale suppliers would call themselves “shuk [market] baladi.”
In most cases, none of this had anything to do with baladi agriculture in the real sense. Baladi became a marketing ploy.
The institutionalizing of baladi in the 21st century led to two contradictory developments.
First, baladi is no longer the product that can be found solely in out-of-the-way markets; it is not necessarily “ugly delicious” (vegetables that don’t look good, may be bent or overripe, but are tasty and authentic). Instead, it is a brand available in your local supermarket. Second, baladi has become a dominant component of both upscale Israeli culinary culture and highly rated restaurants.
In both cases, baladi is becoming a label in which the connection between it and place has been lost. Baladi has become chic.
‘Colonizing the taste buds’
While baladi has become a commercial brand in the Jewish sphere, in the Palestinian one the term continues to signify indigenous localness and authentic flavor – but at the same time a bumpkin ruralism and provinciality; ruralness that is stuck in the past and is not progressive. Concern over baladi being appropriated as an Israeli trend has seen young Palestinians show a renewed interest in the vegetables grown by their grandparents and in traditional recipes.
Here, as well, the culinary, commercial and political are closely integrated, with a conscious act of reclamation and an obstinate position of untranslatable “baladi” being able to be spoken in Arabic and Arabic alone.
At present, baladi serves various Palestinian actions as the local response to economic dependence on Israel, and to what chef Izzeldin Bukhari from Jerusalem’s Old City calls “colonizing the taste buds.”
Palestinian baladi “activists” work in three parallel dimensions: culinary, agricultural and scientific. So, it’s in the culinary sphere that the Beit Jala restaurant Hosh Jasmin (aka Jala Jungle) describes itself as an “organic farm that operates a baladi market.” Meanwhile, the Ein Rafa restaurant Rashta translates/inscribes the global culinary movement of “farm-to-table” into local baladi parlance.
In terms of marketing and commerce, the Canaan cooperative, which supports local farming communities in the Jenin area, markets Palestinian organic produce around the world, oftentimes using the “baladi” brand. The Bas Baladi (“Only Baladi” in Arabic) shop in El Bireh endeavors to sell only “100 percent Palestinian products.”
In the scientific sphere, Palestinian baladi agriculture is promoted by scholars like Mazin Qumsiyeh, who connect preservation of local seeds to environmentalism and biodiversity, as well as through agricultural preservation activists such as Vivien Sansour – founder of the Palestine Heirloom Seed Library – and independent farmers active in preserving baladi heritage varieties.
Baladi is a link between the Palestinian boycott of Israeli products and food sovereignty. Organizations such as the Union of Agricultural Work Committees, projects like Baladi-Rooted Resistance in Palestine and artists such as Mirna Bamieh – all promote baladi culture as a tool of opposition to the Israeli occupation.
The organization Sharaka – which is part of the global slow food movement and works under the banner “My Food is Baladi” (“Akli Baladi”) – promotes conscious ethical consumerism and organizes “subversive food events that offer seasonal baladi food.” “They will not occupy our digestive system or our dinner plate,” says one of the Palestinian farmers who presented his wares at one of the Sharaka events held in Ramallah.
In the meantime, what we can term “agricultural Sumud” (steadfastness) has evolved into a national project under the patronage of the Palestinian Authority (with funding from the European Union). It is promoting a Khalik Baladi (“Stay Baladi”) program.
Nasser Abufarha is the director of Canaan Fair Trade, a company that distributes organic Palestinian produce in Europe and the United States. “Like Germany has the BMW, we have great olive oil,” he says. “For us, baladi, organic and fair trade have become a lifeline. We’re not looking at maximal profit, but at value. Free trade and organic is a global trend. Palestinian farmers, including those who produce baladi, are integrated into a large global community.”
Indigenizing the Zionist project
Baladi tells the story of a place and, much like that divided place, baladi is a point of encounter between people, vegetables and soil as well.
The story of baladi also unravels the roots work of the Zionist project. Jews who arrived in Ottoman Palestine from the end of the 19th century onward sought to reinvent themselves as the authentic natives. In doing so, they sought to resemble the natives, but also to differentiate themselves in order to preserve their identity. The flirtation with the Arabic language and Palestinian food is part of a process of acquired indigeneity that blends imitation with separation and invented traditions.
“We drove ourselves crazy trying to be like them,” the Palmach fighter Netiva Ben-Yehuda wrote. “That was the only thing that preoccupied us: to speak like them, to walk like them, to behave like them in the sun, in the wind, in the field, at night, to dress like them … the kaffiyehs, the mustaches, the finjan [coffee cup], the tall tales. We took everything from them. In our eyes, they were the model of people who lived in this land.”
Over the years, it became clear that every attempt at imitation was fraught with failure, since what is an Israeli in his own eyes if all of his ambition is to speak and eat like the other?
According to Orphee Senouf Pilpoul and her colleagues, “More than any other word that was adopted at that time, ‘Baladi’ underscores the double consciousness and split identity that Hebrew speakers felt back then: The tension between the desire to be ‘baladi’ and their Diaspora roots; between the wish to resemble Arabs, natives of the land; and to remain separate from them and to recoil from them.”
Ultimately, as paradoxical as it sounds, the goal of the new arrival is to be more native than the native. In other words, the way to remain separate on the one hand, and to preserve nativism on the other, is to be baladi but with a twist. Baladi on steroids.
Baladi in Hebrew is more than the cultural appropriation of a local product like falafel and hummus – because what is being appropriated is not only the product but also the place itself.
As a flexible adjective that denotes ideological and actual aspiration to the place, baladi opens up a wide variety of interpretations and modi vivendi. If in the past baladi was conceived as a natural connection that was somewhat naive, between an individual and his soil, then in the postmodern era it connects with new worlds of economy and imagery.
Marketing techniques and the modern-day identity politics, both of which stress localism and authenticity, enable baladi to be a sought-after product and a political tool at one and the same time. In a world that is becoming increasingly more post-roots, the roots themselves are becoming an adjective that is bereft of content, into which one may cast nearly any meaning.
Over the past 150 years, baladi has been transformed from an apolitical term into one with numerous meanings that take on and then shed different forms. Baladi is authentic, local, communal, rural and simple – but also healthy, organic, delicious, unique and sought-after. Not only has baladi become Tel Aviv chic; at times, it is even marketed back to the Arab consumers. Thus, in an ad placed in an Arabic newspaper by the Israeli Strauss company to mark Ramadan, readers were offered a recipe for “baked baladi eggplant in Danone yogurt sauce.”
In contradistinction to Marx’s famous remark, sometimes farce comes before tragedy: one illegal Israeli outpost – among the most extreme and violent that spawned the so-called hilltop youth – has itself adopted the term “baladi.” It calls itself the “ma’ahaz ha’baladim,” as a boast of being “the most authentic” land-grabbers.
Their choice to adopt “baladi” suggests that, even today, there is no word in Hebrew for local authenticity – and if there is one, then it is adopted from Arabic, reinvented, reinterpreted and ultimately generates its own social life.
This article is part of a comprehensive research study of alternative agriculture, food, culture and politics on both sides of the Green Line, funded in part by the Gerda Henkel Foundation.