In Israel, falafel is as close as you can get to a national dish, and one of those things you know you’ll find in any Israeli city. This year, the car service app Uber even delivered it to hungry Tel Avivians on Israel’s Independence Day. Since today is International Falafel Day, it seems a fitting time to ask: Can falafel and other foods common to the region, like hummus, really be considered Israeli? And what does it mean to claim a food as your own?
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Describing falafel as a prominent part of Israeli culinary culture may simply be an acknowledgement that Israelis eat and enjoy a lot of falafel, but it is also a way of appropriating the traditional foods of another people. Falafel is an Arab food. Lebanese and Palestinians lay claims to it, and some argue that its roots are actually in ancient Egypt.
To some extent, then, Israeli cuisine reflects the violence of the Israeli state and the appropriation of Arab and Palestinian foods. Regional foods are not so much integrated as taken over. Seemingly traditional Arab foods like falafel and hummus are written into the Israeli culinary narrative at the expense of erasing their status as Arab or Palestinian.
There is nothing trivial about being deprived of the ability to claim a food as your own. Food has important cultural meanings, and the ways in which we identify different foods both shape and reflect our understandings of each other. To appropriate another people’s food is to undermine their culture and is an act of violence. For Israel to claim regional dishes as its own serves a political process, and raises the question of whether or not any cuisine can legitimately be called Israeli.
So does this make falafel Arab, then, and not Israeli? Not quite.
Ultimately, Israelis have made falafel their own. Tourists can buy postcards in the shape of pita bread stuffed with falafel, with an Israeli flag attached for good measure. In 1988, representing the native foods of Israel, Israeli chef Uri Guttman served a small starter of falafel at the annual dinner of Germany’s International Academy of Gastronomy.
Falafel became a national food over time, with its popularity owing in part to how it provided a cheap source of protein during the austerity period following independence. Its popularity was further spread with the help of Jews from Yemen, who probably learned it from Arabs.
Indeed, Israel is an incredibly diverse country and the food reflects this diversity, bringing together a mixture of not just Jewish and Arab cultures but Diaspora Jewish cultures from around the world, including Ashkenazim from Europe as well as Mizrahim from across the Middle East and North Africa. The cuisines of Israel, as a country of immigrants, are necessarily a polyglot product characterized by different ingredients, styles, techniques and tastes. Israeli cuisine should be the ultimate fusion food.
And while it’s true that falafel is not a strictly Israeli invention, co-opting food items from abroad is hardly an Israel-specific phenomenon. The cultural foods of any people will always involve regional variations and themes, and may not even be indigenous. And dishes that started out in one place can be integrated into a different culture somewhere else in ways that respect multiple origins and variations but accommodate local tastes.
Tomatoes are important for Italian cooking but they are not indigenous to Italy, and the regional variations of pizza, from Neapolitan to Sicilian, demonstrate the complexity of trying to identify any food as having national consistency – and that’s before getting into the international variations, from New York’s thin-crust pizza to Chicago’s deep dish to Japan’s seaweed pizza.
National cuisine is an accumulation of multiple different regional foods that share little else other than that they can be geographically linked within the borders of the state. The ability to claim national ownership of a food comes down to politics more than gastronomy. Consequently, what ultimately matters is how as a society we respond to the diversity of foods that comprise a national culinary repertoire.
Israeli cuisine offers hope for a future where diversity and plurality are not only respected, but serve as a foundation for creative endeavors that can bring people together. Cookbooks as Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi’s “Jerusalem: A Cookbook” and Itamar Srulovich and Sarit Packer’s “Honey & Co: Food from the Middle East,” which demonstrate a wealth of ingredients, cooking styles, tastes and culinary creativity, demonstrate just how much can be gained by bringing different cultures together.
Perhaps if we look at Israeli cuisine not as appropriations but as an opportunity to explore the diversity and contributions of all of Israel’s inhabitants, we can help create a better future. If that’s what Falafel Day is all about, we should all be celebrating.
Ilan Zvi Baron is co-director of the Centre for the Study of Jewish Culture, Society and Politics at Durham University in England and the author of “Obligation in Exile: The Jewish Diaspora, Israel and Critique.”