Forget military threats and terrorist attacks, Lebanese and Israelis have a new battle on their plates: hummus. The latest episode took place last Friday.
For over two years now there has been growing frustration in Lebanon over what is seen as Israel’s appropriation of such an important national dish as hummus (the succulent chickpea purée that’s topped with olive oil). Fadi Abboud, head of the Association of Lebanese Industrialists, has said that he wants to sue Israel for “stealing” hummus from the Lebanese. Israel he said, was marketing hummus – as well as tabbouleh and falafel – as their own inventions, causing the Lebanese to lose millions of dollars in potential revenue.
Behind the pettiness lies a real concern over the preservation of national identity. And for the Lebanese, culinary patrimony is a very important matter.
The Arabs are not the first to defend their gastronomic traditions: the French have managed to bar any bubbly drink made outside of Champagne using the region’s name on their bottles. The Italians have achieved the same victory for Parma ham. For Lebanon, the claim on hummus, tabbouleh and falafel is more difficult as these dishes, and their heritage, are shared by other Levantine countries. Tracing their precise origin, at a time when national borders did not exist, is tricky. There is also the issue of who the Lebanese can complain to. The EU? The UN?
But then came the Guinness Book of Records.
Last October, 300 Lebanese chefs got together in Beirut to produce the biggest dishes of hummus and tabbouleh ever made, in the hope that their achievements would be duly recorded in the Guinness Books of Records (don’t ask why, but the Lebanese are obsessed with the book). The event was part of a “Hummus and Tabouleh are 100 percent Lebanese” festival, organised by the Lebanese Association of Industrialists and the Lebanese Food Syndicate. At the end of the two-day event, the cooks had produced two tonnes of hummus, and three and a half tonnes of tabbouleh.
For many enthusiasts, hummus says something about the Lebanese, and helps present them as sophisticated foodies who like to eat and enjoy life rather than launch jihad. (This claim prompted some Arab critics to see the hand of the “Christian Lebanese” behind the whole hummus affair.)
But last Friday Israel struck back, producing a four-tonne dish of hummus. Interestingly, it was made in the predominantly Arab town of Abu Gosh. The mayor declared that hummus was a regional cultural symbol, and he hoped he could collaborate soon with the Lebanese on a new joint world record. (Considering the border between the two countries is closed, unless the chefs decide to purée their chickpeas in Cyprus, this might be a little difficult.)
Kamal Mouzawak, one of Lebanon’s most respected cooks and founder of the first Lebanese farmer’s market, opposes the hummus competitions. “It is completely irrelevant. We need to do the best not the biggest and even if we produce the biggest hummus dish, does it make it ours?”
Not everyone is as philosophical. Some Lebanese are already contesting Israel’s victory, accusing their neighbours of producing the hummus in a factory. One thing is certain, the Guinness Book of Records judge better stick around in the region. There’s going to be more hummus weighing in the months ahead.