Wednesday, October 08, 2008

A Dish Worth Fighting For

A battle of epic proportions has erupted in Europe and across the globe as “Dietary Zionism” has sought to lay claim to an age old dish claimed by the Lebanese as their own:

"When one speaks about hummus, they must think of Lebanon and when they speak of Lebanon they must think of hummus."

"What appalls me with Israel is that they are (marketing) hummus as a traditional Israeli product when it is clearly a Lebanese product," said Ramez Abi Nader, a member of the Lebanese Industrialists Association.
Wacky as this may sound to some readers, the case for geographically determined proprietary rights over culinary products certainly isn’t without precedent:

They [Abi Nader and Abboud, President of the Lebanese Industrialists Association] said their case was similar to the one over feta cheese in which a European Union court ruled in 2002 that feta is exclusively Greek.

They also argue that just as France and Scotland have succeeded in protecting their geographical appellation rights for sparkling wine from Champagne and Scotchwhisky, so should Lebanon for some of its dishes.
But what of the historical factual basis behind our claim to exclusivity over the dish? Writing in the Guardian’s Comment is Free blog, Rachel Sahi attempts to trace the roots of the dish:

It's true that Lebanese hummus is the pedigree of dips, but in reality nobody knows exactly who first started making the stuff – although obviously the cuisine predates Israel. It's been eaten in the Middle East for centuries and some hold that there are references to a hummus-like substance in the Bible.

Others say it appeared in the Arab world – including Palestine – during Ottoman times. Indeed, the blogosphere is busy with the question of who can rightfully claim to have created hummus (God being mycurrent favourite).
Also commenting on this battle [of Biblical proportions?] is blogger Elder of Ziyon, who questions the real motives behind this affront to the Kosher menu:

For the record, falafel is supposed to have been invented in Egypt, the earliest verifiable use of hummus was in Syria, and tabbouleh and fattoush are both from the Levant as well.

So, will Lebanese food manufacturers be suing any other Arab or Levantine countries who market these foods as well?

Apparently not. The articles about this refer to this lawsuit as a new type of “resistance” - meaning it is just like terrorism against Israel, but meant to take place in various legal venues for the purpose of hurting Israelis economically rather than physically.

(We’ve seen Arabs upset over Israelis making falafel in the past, and it is always good for a laugh.)
Despite the laughs all around (terrorism? Really?), however, there are others who also see parallels between this fight and that being waged on more pivotal matters:

And it's not just the Lebanese who are riled; it's the subject of low-level complaints among Palestinians too, along the lines of: "First they take our land, now our food ..." In a similar vein, Palestinians within Israel sometimes grumble about the Jewish state seizing language, since Modern Hebrew has borrowed from the Arabic dictionary – of curses, in particular.

Infuriating as this must be, it's unlikely that the hummus takeover was an orchestrated plan of colonial appropriation; more probably, the dish was around in the area and people got hooked on it (in the best tradition of Middle East conspiracy theories, there are a few about the addictive properties of hummus).

In any case, deep down Israelis doubtless know that hummus isn't really their national dish, that international law wouldn't recognise it as such, and that sooner or later they're just going to have to give it back.

Who knows, maybe the application of international law to such mundane matters such as falafel and tabbouleh could start a snowball effect which could finally break through those barriers of thought that have prevented its application to water, land, and [even] human rights in the land of God.

Or maybe we’d all be a little better off if we just took a line from the (official?) Hummus Blog and “gave chicpeas a chance”.


  1. Anonymous8:00 PM

    Welcome back, BJ.

    The idea of food products being able to claim names of their own has to do with whether they have properties specific to a particular region or not. For example, in the U.S. "Vidalia" onions are sweeter than ordinary ones because they are grown in the sulfur-deprived soils of Vidalia, Georgia. Onions grown anywhere else just won't be the same, hence the specific designaton is appropriate.

    Food products like hummus, on the other hand, almost always consist of ingredients from more than one locality and thus are more like a commodity than a unique product. Thus, the designation "hummus" properly belongs in the public domain.

    Grumbling about "Israelis stealing food" is inaccurate because it is not happening; only the name at issue. So this red herring is meant to associate Jews with something dastardly, presumably indicating that the Israelis are doing nothing of real substance to gripe about.

  2. Anonymous8:20 PM

    I remember seeing couscous being branded as israeli and being used on a number of cook shows.

    To my knowledge couscous is far from being an israeli food item.

  3. Hey,

    Thanks for the warm welcome.In the case of Feta cheese, in which the name association was with a geographical region, as opposed to the ingredients being from a certain region, I found the following site pretty useful.

    At the end of the day, perhaps we’ll end up with a sort of compromise situation similar to that between doenner kabbabs and gyro pitas – the former being used by the Turks and latter by the Greeks to, basically, denote the same food [inferior shawarma ;)]. Under this scenario, perhaps we could see the name hummus, Arab in origin, exclusively used to associate the dish with Lebanese heritage, while using another, perhaps generic, name (chic pea paste?) to denote the product without the nomenclatorial connotations.

  4. Anonymous12:53 AM

    this is totally foolish.

    safardic and mizrahi jews are as middleastern as any moslem.

    better to fight over foul than chick peas.

    were did islam get the idea about not eating pork? from us jews. so go eat a pork roast and STFU


  5. Welcome back BJ, finally I am no longer getting W. Al mouallem smiling face every time I open your page.I would rather see Mr Abi Nader and Mr Abboud spending their time and energy onto more important and needed matter such as lobbiying the government for subsedized energy for factories, tax free raw materials...etc. But then again this is Lebanon and Hommos is more important.

  6. The first anonymous comment is interesting, but fails to reflect the legislation commonly agreed on in Europe (and around, which obviously includes the Middle-East). Culturally marked products, such as processed food, are seen as not just the production of a combination of land and breed or variety, but also of recipes, traditions and specific local techniques. A process in itself being a technique, its apparition in one area can be compared to international property of this area.

    The whole debate is thus not to know if hummus can be made with similar properties in Israel (it obviously can). It is to know if that traditional process originated only in Lebanon or also on the current Israeli territory. If it did not originate in Israel too, then Lebanon can legally force Israeli producers to call hummus something else.

  7. Hi Marillion,

    Thanks for the welcome. Yeah I hated that photo as well but keeping it there was a conscious decision. I think you would agree that the Syrians are in the midst of a renewed push against our bulwarks of sovereignty, with Mouallem taking the role of poster-boy of that push.

  8. NOWLebanon talks to the experts on the Hummus contraversy and Lebanon's case.


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