Veggie pol­i­tics and Is­rael

The Jewish Chronicle - - Comment - Clarissa Hy­man

VEGGIESTAN, by Sally Butcher, is a vegetable lover’s tour of the Mid­dle East. The cook­book is ex­tremely well writ­ten and as de­li­ciously packed with in­spir­ing ideas and fas­ci­nat­ing facts as a stuffed aubergine. There are dishes from Iran, Iraq, Le­banon, Egypt, Jor­dan, Syria and Kur­dis­tan. Butcher even pushes the boundaries by in­clud­ing ones from Afghanistan, Turkey, the Maghreb, Cen­tral Asia, Ar­me­nia, Saudi Ara­bia and the Gulf States.

I can’t say the I-word is not men­tioned once. It is. Once or twice. A tiny Mid­dle East­ern coun­try with a dy­namic and thriv­ing food cul­ture gets only two mar­ginal ref­er­ences — a strik­ing ab­sence de­spite the in­clu­sion of an old He­brew say­ing: “Stolen water is sweet, and hid­den bread de­li­cious.”

Is there some sub­text here? Or have I plunged into para­noia?

Butcher writes that when it comes to Jewish cook­ing “there are many bril­liant recipe books out there to take care of that”, and that her timely recipe for haros­set con­tains “the very essence of the Mid­dle East”.

Good try — but there are also many bril­liant books about in­di­vid­ual Mid­dle East­ern coun­tries, in­clud­ing her own Per­sia in Peck- ham. The con­fla­tion of Is­raeli and Jewish cook­ing is not a get out of jail card.

Clau­dia Ro­den’s sem­i­nal 1968 book Mid­dle East­ern Food is in­debted to Is­raeli, Arab and North African sources. In 1969, a Time-life se­ries on world food in­cluded a whole chap­ter on Is­raeli food in the Mid­dle East­ern vol­ume, and in 1982 Arto der Haroutu­nian had no hes­i­ta­tion in in­clud­ing Is­raeli recipes in Mid­dle East­ern Cook­ery.

Most writ­ers avoid the is­sue by us­ing ei­ther the term “Mediter­ranean”, generic Mid­dle East def­i­ni­tions, or ig­nor­ing the is­sue al­to­gether. In Tess Mal­los’s 1979 book The Com­plete Mid­dle East Cook­book, for ex­am­ple, both Is­rael and the Pales­tinian Ter­ri­to­ries are air­brushed. Oth­ers are more par­ti­san. The Mid­dle East­ern Kitchen by Ghillie Basan de­scribes Sephardic tra­di­tions but Is­rael ap­pears in only a brief, one-sided his­tor­i­cal con­text. Clas­sic Veg­e­tar­ian Cook­ing from the Mid­dle East & North Africa by Habeeb Sal­loum con­tains many Pales­tinian-jor­da­nian recipes but vir­tu­ally ig­nores Is­rael, even when it comes to avo­cado salad. On the other hand, in Ali­son Behnke’s Cook­ing the Mid­dle East­ern Way, aimed at a young read­er­ship, there are two Is­raeli recipes and zero Pales­tinian, at­tribut­ing the lat­ter’s iconic up­side-down lamb and aubergine dish to Syria, Le­banon and Jor­dan alone.

Maybe Is­raeli cui­sine is prob­lem­atic be­cause of its poly­glot di­ver­sity and rapid evo­lu­tion — but that’s what makes it so fas­ci­nat­ing. When, for ex­am­ple, Butcher cites an egg dish called “men­e­men” in Turkey and “chak­chouka” in Tu­nisia, it seems per­verse not to men­tion the Is­raeli love for “shak­shuka”. Writ­ing about cheese, she de­scribes Veggiestan as a dis­ap­point­ing, Greece, apart. She lists some in­ter­est­ing ex­cep­tions, there is no men­tion of the many fine, ar­ti­san Is­raeli cheeses.

Is­raeli kitchens have even safe­guarded re­gional au­then­tic­ity. Pho­tog­ra­pher Rafram Chad­dad, af­ter a clan­des­tine culi­nary tour of Tripoli and Beng­hazi, de­scribed how poorly Libyan ver­sions of mafroum (stuffed pota­toes) com­pared with Is­raeli ones. In Libya, he got in­fe­rior bread rolls stuffed with a pre-baked mix of camel and veal mince. He rue­fully com­mented, “It was not tasty.” I can only be thank­ful Butcher didn’t em­bark on the great hum­mus and falafel con­tro­versy, although she does re­flect on Egyp­tian, Lebanese, Syr­ian and “Euro­pean” pref­er­ences. Maybe that’s it. Is Euro­pean the code word?

For most food writ­ers, it is rel­a­tively easy to keep such po­lit­i­cal un­pleas­ant­ness at arms’ length. Yet calls to boy­cott Is­raeli pro­duce bub­ble away, as shown by the re­cent (failed) at­tempt to block Is­raeli goods at Brook­lyn’s Park Slope Co-op.

I un­der­stand Butcher’s dilemma. Veggiestan is an ir­re­sistible ti­tle, but to sub­ti­tle it ei­ther a vegetable lover’s tour of the Arab or the Mus­lim World would both present ob­vi­ous prob­lems. There was, how­ever, an­other so­lu­tion.

In­ten­tion­ally or not, pol­i­tics has in­truded into culi­nary cel­e­bra­tion. If we can­not come to­gether around the din­ing ta­ble, then where can we? To re-adapt Churchill’s fa­mous phrase: “Jaw-jaw is al­ways bet­ter than war-war.” Clarissa Hy­man is au­thor of The Jewish Kitchen (In­ter­link Pub­lish­ing Group 2003)

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