WASHINGTON (JTA) — It’s lunch break during a one-day conference on “Israeli Cuisine as a Reflection of Israeli Society” — so naturally I’m eating lunch.
Everything on my white plastic plate can be considered Israeli food. There is a burek (which originally heralds from Spain, by way of Turkey), a chopped cucumber and tomato salad (Israeli or Palestinian, take your pick) and a quinoa salad (from Ecuador? Peru? Or maybe it’s Mediterranean). Small triangles of pita surround the centerpiece of my plate: the controversial chickpea spread known as hummus, which has engendered endless debate regarding its origins.
Just what exactly constitutes Israeli food — and, in turn, what effects Israeli cuisine has had on Israeli society — is the reason for the event at American University. By and large, the conference is celebratory in nature. The opening session on Sunday night, for example, showcased Israeli celebrity chefs including Michael Solomonov and Lior Lev Sercarz.
“Israel today is not the start-up nation,” Michael Brenner, the director of American University’s Center for Israel Studies, told the crowd of some 200. “It is the gourmet nation and a champion of sophisticated, healthy cooking.”
Despite the laudatory feel of the opening night, however, the sessions throughout Monday’s main event addressed complicated duality that constitutes Israeli cuisine. On the one hand, there’s the celebration of the commingling of food traditions that Israel — a nation of immigrants eager to join the global community — naturally incubates. On the other, there’s the anxiety that these same immigrants may actually be colonialists who have appropriated an indigenous cuisine.
One panel, for example, “Cuisine as an Expression of Modern Israeli Culture,” featured chef Einat Admony, who owns a number of Israeli restaurants in New York City, including Taim and Balaboosta. She kept referring to the “miracle” of Israeli cuisine in a land that once was a desert — enchanting, yes, but also a hoary narrative that ignores the presence of Palestinians and others in the region long before the advent of modern Zionism.
Panel moderator Mitchell Davis, the executive vice president of the James Beard Foundation, visibly winced at Admony’s remarks. He asked other panelists to address cultural “appropriation.”
The other panelists, including Sercarz and Solomonov, didn’t bite — excuse the pun — but appropriation was very much the theme of the next panel, “Israeli-Arab Food Politics.”
“There is a lot of politics behind the food you eat,” said the moderator, Johanna Mendelson Forman, who teaches a course at American called Conflict Cuisine: An Introduction to War and Peace Around the Dinner Table. “The kitchen has become the venue of new foreign policy.”
The three social scientists on the panel — Nir Avieli, Ronald Ranta and Ronit Vered, all Israeli Jews — advanced the theme that there was an original sin to Israeli cuisine: the repression of its origins among Palestinians.
Some of their arguments were salient and recognizable to anyone who has lived in Israel. For instance, there’s the tendency for Israelis to refer to “Arab cuisine” — and not Palestinian — although there are dishes adopted by Israelis that are specifically indigenous to Palestinians, such as maqloubeh, a meat, rice and vegetable concoction. (Solomonov is an adamant exception and refers to an indigenous Palestinian cuisine that he has incorporated into his repertoire.)
Other arguments from the academics, however, seemed a tad overeager to make a point about Israel and colonialism. Ranta, a lecturer on international relations at Kingston University in London, decried the “denial of an Arab Palestinian contribution” among Israelis to their cuisine, saying that the argument that many Jews of Middle East origin were likely to already be acquainted with the dishes was a “glaring example” of this denial.
Avieli, the president of the Israeli Anthropological Association, said that pizza was the most popular food in Israel, suggesting it was because Israelis despise their neighbors and long to be European.
“They are in the Middle East, what can you do? Where they would like to be is southern Italy,” he said.
The conclusion baffled Forman, who rejoined that Americans also tend to favor Italian food, too — the implication being that it’s not because of a national neurosis but rather because Italian food is quick and delicious.
The only chef on the afternoon’s panel: Osama Dalal, a Palestinian Israeli who runs Maiar, an upscale, seafood-heavy restaurant in Tel Aviv (currently closed as he seeks a new venue), brought the conversation back to the natural, logical evolution of cuisine — namely, if it tastes good, make it.
Dalal said that growing up in Acre’s old city, the site of his first restaurant, he drew inspiration from his Jewish neighbors, both Polish and Moroccan.
“Being 2017, I can do what I want,” he said of his menu.
In the most vivid account at the conference, Dalal recalled how as a child, he would lick the walls of his grandmother’s home because they were infused with the flavors of her cooking.
These days, Dalal makes a custard dish inspired by his grandmother. But, he added, “Custard is not Israeli or Palestinian.”