Cuisine often unites what geo-politics seeks to divide. Take, for example, the history of falafel: the small fried balls made from spices and chickpeas, ubiquitous throughout the Middle East, have become – in just a few short years – the national dish of Israel. They’ve always been served as one of many mezze – the infinite array appetizers/snacks from the Arabic tradition, similar to the Spanish tapas – but today, the “sandwich” version has become so diffused as a fast food throughout the region that the falafel pita is even called the hotdog of the Middle East.
Arabs and Jews have been disputing about falafel since the first Zionists arrived in Galilee at the beginning of the 20th Century. At the time, the immigrants who were arriving from Europe adopted some Arab traditions, including the local eating habits and foods, which were must more suited to the climate of Palestine than the heavier foods that many of them brought over from Central Europe.
Tasty, cheap, easy to prepare, and meatless (therefore making it kosher), the falafel sandwich (served in pita bread along with salad, tomatoes, sesame sauce or yogurt), has become the favourite dish of Israel’s young generation and even a kind of symbol of Israel’s new cuisine.
All it takes is picking up any Israeli cookbook to find an authentic falafel recipe, or else take a walk around the streets of Jerusalem and you’ll immediately understand the omnipresence of the dish – this kind of culinary marketing hasn’t been seen since the worldwide diffusion of pizza, which eventually became, for many Americans, emblematic of their own national cuisine, just as much as the hamburger.
It’s only when discussing the Middle East and national identity that problems inevitably arrive – and when addressing a topic as delicate as food, it’s important to step very carefully.
Lebanese and Palestinians sustain that falafel has been nationalized by Israel during the process of strengthening its national identity. As a response, the more extremist of the Israeli’s call attention to nothing less than the Bible, where all of falafel’s ingredients are cited. How could the Jews have stolen something already present in the Old Testament?
The problem becomes even more serious when somebody – like in the case of a Lebanese company years ago – tries to trademark the falafel, trying to give it a PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) status, much like what Greece obtained for its feta cheese in 2002. It’s a question of pure politics that fails to take history into account or the fact that foods, unlike people, aren’t given passports but simply follow populations and are diffused according to economic necessity and environmental variables.
In any case, the most authoritative sources claim that falafel’s origins aren’t tied either to Lebanon or to what is now Israel, but instead can be traced back to Egypt, where it’s called ra’amia and is prepared not with chickpeas, but with fava beans. It was the food that the Eygptian Christians would eat during the days in which meat was banned for religious reasons.
Easy to carry and preserve (a fundamental quality in the torrid climates of the Middle east) the dried bean balls were one of the easiest dishes to prepare, and required very little cooking fuel. It was a cheap source of protein that migrated from Egypt throughout the region over the course of centuries, making use of the commerce that began in the port of Alessandria.
From Morocco to Saudia Arabia, every nation has its own falafel – and for the most part, the dish is similar everywhere. The first to open the falafel kiosks in Israel were most like the Yemenite Jews in the 1960s, but already in 1958 there was an Israeli song by Dan Almagor that went: «Every country has its national dish... and we have falafel». This should ease the controversy a bit.
Even though the real scandal would be not understanding that, by now, the tasty falafel has gone beyond any regional borders and – from New York to Ramallah, today it’s become a truly global food. One that unites all foodies, despite the tendency of geo-politics to put a national identity on a dish that has none.