Veggie politics and Israel

By Clarissa Hyman, April 11, 2012
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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".

Why ignore the Israeli passion for shakshuka?

Good try - but there are also many brilliant books about individual Middle Eastern countries, including her own Persia in Peckham. 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)

    Last updated: 2:10pm, April 11 2012