Life & Culture

Ignore twitter, everyone should eat what they want

The beauty of Israeli food is there are no rules. There’s just chaos and vibrancy and flavour and colour


Last week, I had the immeasurable displeasure of entering the last year of my twenties. A shocking moment to be sure, one that made me reconsider the dying flickers of my youth, think about the meaning of it all and realise it’s downhill from here.

To celebrate this, I went out for dinner with my friends.

The one who organised it, allegedly my best friend, knows that I love Middle -astern, Ottolenghi-type, pomegranate-seeded meals and booked a great Israeli restaurant in Borough Market. Just one hitch, it was actually Persian.

Now don’t get me wrong, it was delicious, great vibes, excellent labneh (Berenjak, check it out) just not Israeli.

I don’t want to be the kind of person that overthinks these things, because I think too much thinking quite often sucks all the joy out of all life’s small joys. But.

Just a few days later, I stumbled across a Twitter thread that got me thinking.

In a very Twitter way, the debate — totally detached from reality — was between an ultra-Zionist and a Hamas superfan.

One side claiming that Israelis had invented everything anyone in the Levant had ever eaten and the other saying Israeli food was a Zionazi myth and all Jews should be forced to eat only gefilte fish and chopped liver on the boat back to the old country.

The reality of course is messy. Does Israeli food exist? Of course it does — tell me where else in the world you get Austrian schnitzel stuffed into Israeli pitta with Indian amba and Iraqi tahina?

It’s ridiculous to pretend that Jews in Israel haven’t made a huge impact on the world’s food — just look at how many cookbooks Ottolenghi has sold to Guardian readers.

People who hate Israel will tell you straight-faced that no Jew ever ate falafel before 1948, that everything that Israelis love and have given to the world is a theft of someone else’s authentic cuisine. This is stupid.

What the world thinks of as Israeli food is a wonderful mixture of the best of Sephardi, Ashki and Mizrachi traditions.

All throughout history, Jews all over the world made food that fitted their lifestyles and (often poor) conditions, and the results are everything from Yemeni yachnun, to the Polish bagel to the New York Knish. But even if all the foods that Jews brought to Israel had no deeper meaning, the fact that they have been mixed up, innovated and improved is Israeli.

That’s the beauty of Israeli food, it’s not this static immovable thing with a million rules, like French or Italian food. There are no rules. There’s just chaos and vibrancy and flavour and colour. And the world loves it. This month, Ottolenghi is celebrating 20 years in London, and his impact extends far beyond his restaurants.

Why do you think Sainsbury's now has Pomegranate molasses or preserved lemons in all their shops? Why are there more Mediterranean small plates restaurants that Prets in central London?

Chef Eran Tibi, A gay Israeli chef working in London recently told the JC that it was harder for him to come out Israeli than gay. And while that's probably slightly hyperbolic, its not hard to see a world where that's true.

Thankfully the attitude that food and politics are one and the same seems to be confined to the internet.

Food is far too important to let joyless weirdos on Twitter gatekeep what anyone can or can’t eat. Food is the sharpest edge of culture, and the easiest gateway to understanding and appreciating people who are different to you.

How many more people have eaten guacamole than have been to Mexico? How many people’s first experience of Asian food was a bang-average suburban pad thai?

The problem with trying to erect walls between people and food, is that no barrier is strong enough. Jewish food is a symbol of survival, of resistance, of a bloody-mindedness to skirt Shabbat restrictions to eat well.

If you walk down the street of any major city, the idea that food is a remote, political expression is simply insane.

If anyone in real life acted the way Twitter does, running into restaurants and screaming at people with the wrong skin colour because they’re eating the wrong food, they’d probably have the police called on them.

Normal people don’t need a treatise on the historic origins of everything they eat — they just want it to be fresh and in front of them.

At the end of my life, the only meals I’ll regret will be the ones I haven’t had. No one should feel guilty for trying new food, or be shouted at for calling tomatoes and cucumbers an Israeli salad.

But as sure as night follows day, people will try and segregate something as basic as the food we need to stay alive.

I’ll be ignoring them from whatever Persian-Israeli-pomegranate-bullshit restaurant is nearest.

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