Thinking beyond falafel and hummus

Consuming Palestine and the entirety of the Middle East has remained a debate for long. Even today, one doesn’t think beyond falafel and hummus (classic party snacks in urban India and abroad)

Thinking beyond falafel and hummus
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Rini Barman

Consuming Palestine and the entirety of the Middle East has remained a debate for long. Even today, one doesn’t think beyond falafel and hummus (classic party snacks in urban India and abroad). My last summer visit to Arambol (Goa) reminds me of a common perception that foods like knafeh, olives and salads are only restricted to the national boundary of Israel. Another popular “Israeli” item here — schnitzels — are facing competition from junk/packed foods in present day Arab-Palestine. There is also a bone of culinary contention in-between. Is schnitzel purely Israeli or Palestinian?

Or does it also have Austrian-German origins?

Yasmin Khan’s book Zaitoun: Recipes and Stories from the Palestinian Kitchen, originally published in 2018, filled this much abused vacuum. It has also been shortlisted for Palestine Book Awards 2019. A valuable resource of Israel-Palestine, her travelogue narrative emphasises on how food can create hope and solidarity in conflict zones.

Yasmin states in the book, “More than 4 million Palestinian refugees live in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon, making Palestinians the largest refugee population in the world. There is no country called Palestine, it hasn’t existed since the British mandate of Palestine ended in 1948...Today, pockets of Palestinian Kitchen can be found all over the world, from Bethlehem to Beirut, Berlin to Brooklyn.”

As such her book includes recipes from Jerusalem, Nazareth, Bethlehem to the OPT (Occupied Palestine Territory). It divides Palestinian cuisine into three regional variants: Food of the Galilee, West Bank and the Gazan Strip.

While the Galilee food’s major attraction are the mazzeh (appetisers) dishes, the West Bank food comprise of mostly bread with zatar (Khubz) and meat. Zatar is a herbaceous Middle-Eastern wild herb — and the name for the traditional Palestinian spice mix consisting of the herb, sumac, sesame seeds and salt. On the other hand, the Gazan strip palette is tangy — titled towards a connoisseur of fish. Other essential divergences include the preference of Palestinians’ love for lemony taste in their hummus as opposed to the Egyptian area palate where the tahini taste dominates.

The strength of little nitty-gritty condiments (fresh dil leaves, pungent herbs, olive oil dressing, pomegranates et al) tells us that Palestinian preparations are also testimonies of simple living. The salads that accompany main courses are user friendly (in terms of the prepping required), adaptable and create a fine balance. Dishes like fattoush (a citrusy salad made with lettuce, pita bread, cucumbers) and tabbouleh (a salad made of bulgar wheat, tomatoes, mint leaves) etc cool the warmth of the stews and meat-dominated recipes. And all of these unique foods are under massive threat today due to geo-political turbulence affecting the soil, vegetation and aquatic life.

Omar Gharib, a Gazan journalist informs in Zaitoun that the rise of cancer rates is due to the agrarian produce in the Gaza strip (where tonnes of artillery have damaged the soil). The shorelines are not spared either. According to Egypt Today (July 9, 2019), Israeli Occupation forces have banned fishing in 85% of Gazan area creating a maritime siege for Palestinian fishermen. Some of the traditional sea-food dishes like sayyadiy (fish fried with caramelised onions and lemon) or zibdiyit gambari (spicy prawn and tomato stew) are now at risk of extinction. Its memories exist, perhaps only in the diasporic imagination.

Mr Ahmed Masoud, a Gazan playwright, informs the author in the book, “It was our main food source. Especially sardines, there were so many when I was growing up. We’d barbecue them on the beach, make them into kibbeh, bake them, fry them... They were cheap and plentiful.” Besides, fish slowly cooked in clay-pots (a distinct Gazan cooking style) is also rare now.

I wonder if with every packaged hummus or schnitzel, we too are consuming a stereotype of Israel/Palestine and reducing enormous possibilities with every bite. Back in Arambol, the fate of Palestinian and Gazan dishes has compelled many sellers to shift their cookware and spices to interior shacks. The guy, who served me for example, like most migrants, had his fair share of suffering, constantly having to prove his identity.

Being dressed up as a hipster (Bob Marley tee/dreadlocks et al), and dishes he cooks solely to please the American clientele are part of his performance now. To this effect, he has had to over-fry his schnitzels or make oddball combinations with the dips. He told me, “Ever since 2012, when Goa’s ex-CM had declared that “outsiders” like Russians and Israelis will not be tolerated in local beaches, things have been rough. Now, it is imperative to perform the ‘Israeli’ more than ever.”

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