The covert effort to appropriate Arabic cuisine

Ruba Saqr (Photo: Jordan News)
Ruba Saqr (Photo: Jordan News)
Syrian-Lebanese chef and food writer Anissa Helou, currently based in London, must have had to swallow her pride when her publisher decided to stick a blurb from an Israeli celebrity restaurateur on the cover of her cookbook: “Feast: Food of the Islamic World.”اضافة اعلان

To have an Arab woman’s work on a rare topic, such as traditional food of followers of the Muslim faith, receive “the nod” from an Israeli-British chef and food writer, is an insult.

To look at this from a patriarchal lens (devoid of the Arab-Israeli context, and from a man-to-woman perspective), it is obvious the man has no breadth of knowledge, nor authentic cultural experience to justify his quick-fix impressions. Simply put, he is no expert to judge the book’s contents.

The Israeli cook, whose words adorn the cover of “Feast,” is none other than superstar chef Yotam Ottolenghi. His dizzying celebrity (and probably the PR firm that works for him) has prompted food journalists, in the US and Europe, to develop a habit of fixing his family name to a slew of Arab-origin dishes.

Thanks to Ottolenghi’s best-selling books, we now have “Ottolenghi hummus” and — believe it or not — “Ottolenghi maqluba.” The latter is a quintessential rice-based Palestinian dish that has been “rebranded” (or rather culturally-appropriated) as an Israeli dish.

What is surprising is that Ottolenghi gained insight into the homemade Palestinian cuisine through his coauthor, Sami Tamimi, a Palestinian Jerusalemite who, for some reason, never made it to the same celebrity status as his Israeli business partner.

Their relationship is tricky. Tamimi is the coowner of the Ottolenghi chain of restaurants in London. Why, then, wasn’t the chain called Ottolenghi-Tamimi? In a 2013 interview with the Independent, the Israeli partner confessed: “I always feel guilty about it and seek to justify the name. I actually didn’t want to call it Ottolenghi at first, but (my business partner) Noam thought it sounded mysterious and exotic, and I was happy to be in the limelight.”

From a marketing point of view, the name Ottolenghi does sound distinctly Israeli. This has had an enormous branding by association effect on a massive scale; Western audiences have been groomed to believe his cooking is synonymous with so-called “Israeli cuisine.” As a result, millions of home cooks, food writers, journalists, and regular people who buy the odd cookbook, now believe many Arab and Palestinian dishes are part of Israeli culinary identity.

 “Israeli cuisine” is one of the most peculiar case studies on the planet. Rooted in deliberate cultural appropriation, it represents an incoherent mishmash of Jewish food that is offered on religious occasions, in addition to the traditional foods of Arab-Israelis, West-Bank Palestinians, and more recently, Gazans (even though the Gaza Strip has no Jewish or Israeli presence).

Add to this the cuisine of Israeli immigrants from the Eastern Mediterranean, North Africa, and those with Arab roots. This is how it goes. If the immigrant is from Syria, Morocco, or Iraq, Arab food — like hummus, shakshuka, or even kibbeh — becomes instantly up for grabs, and can easily be rebranded as “Israeli food.” But if an Israeli immigrant is from French or Italian origin, he or she are unlikely to call a croissant or pizza Jewish or Israeli. The assault is on Arab identity.

Ottolenghi’s blurb on the cover of Helou’s cookbook (Helou is a Christian Arab, by the way) reads as follows: “Her range of knowledge and unparalleled authority make her just the kind of cook you want by your side.”

Muslims and Arab Christians should be deeply offended, not by the pseudo religious-tolerance antics, but by the double-standards of it all. Try and turn it around and you would have an international PR crisis strong enough to send right-wing Jews and devout American evangelicals into an endless fit of fury.

Let us reverse the roles: imagine an Arab Muslim or Christian woman, giving her stamp of approval to a book by an Israeli man on the topic of Jewish food, with kosher recipes customarily cooked on occasions of a religious feast, like Passover. Imagine the reactions; the onslaught of opinion pieces across major American, British, and European media outlets, ripping through the condescending gesture. 

I have been following the Middle Eastern culinary scene for close to nine years now, and I can tell you with absolute conviction, there is an unmistakable bias in the publishing scene in countries like the US and Britain — skewing Israeli.
Cookbooks, by mostly Arab women or women who are originally Arab and born in the West, are usually treated with a patronizing air. Those women are frequently forced to make hard choices and concessions — that often go against the basic premise of their books — just to get published.

A Palestinian food writer attempting to document iconic Palestinian and Levantine food that has been culturally-appropriated by the Israeli PR machine, writes her recipes for hummus, maqluba, musakhan, kidreh, and falafel — only to be forced to live in the shadow of an Israeli celebrity; the price for publicizing her book. Laila El-Haddad, author of “The Gaza Kitchen: A Palestinian Culinary Journey,” readily comes to mind. 

For so long, Western publishers have treated Arab cookbook writers as the genre’s disenfranchised underdogs. The same publishers would not dare use those same tactics with an Israeli chef, or a food writer proud of his/her Jewish food. The double-standard is troubling and dangerous, seeing how Palestinian and Arab identity hangs in the balance.

What are the Arabs in North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean doing about this? Nothing. They are lounging around while their culture and identity are being eroded.

The English edition of Haaretz, a liberal Israeli newspaper, has had a regular food writer tackling Israeli, Palestinian, and Druze culinary identity since 2013. Arab media is not even aware of the crusade of cultural appropriation eating away at the identity of millions of Palestinians, Arabs, North Africans, and Levantines. Our universities are completely oblivious to the need for Arab and Levantine food studies, offering no known academic degrees on this region’s rich gastronomic heritage.

For a better understanding of the topic, look for an opinion piece by Reem Kassis, a Palestinian food writer known for her cookbook, “The Palestinian Table.” Published early last year in the Washington Post. The article — on the difference between cultural diffusion and cultural appropriation — is titled, “Here’s why Palestinians object to the term ‘Israeli food’: It erases us from history.”

Read more Opinion and Analysis