Culinary tradition is significant to socio-cultural, political, and economic narratives. Food memories, images, and metaphors shape human relationships and their ability to form familial and community bonds, depict identity crises, and even undo ideologies. Food is not merely about the fulfilment of one’s nutritional needs; it is also correlated with a person’s ethnic, religious, regional, and national identities.
Arguing over what Palestinian and Israeli food is can seem irrelevant given the Gaza conflict’s context and scale. But the subject is not irrelevant. Food plays a crucial role in Palestinian nationalist beliefs. Olive trees, for instance, have come to symbolise the Palestinian people’s connection to the land. Interestingly, foods like falafel, hummus, and labneh are components of the Palestinian national cuisine but they also form a part of the Israeli national cuisine.
Acrimonious political ties and unrest make claims on dishes controversial. For instance, for Palestinians, the Israeli claim of ownership of their cuisine is contextual to the historic and the ongoing violent erasure and displacement. From its procurement to consumption to its remembering, meals have a broader meaning in individual and community lives. Located at the crossroads of various ancient civilisations, trade routes, and multiple exchanges since time immemorial, this region’s food has been influenced by complex processes. Recently, Israeli food received wider acknowledgement primarily because hummus’s ownership and authenticity have sparked tense discussions. When the Israeli tourism ministry released a leaflet with an image of a falafel pinned with the national flag, it led to criticism. Arabs in general and Palestinians in particular have complained that Israeli restaurants are selling and claiming ownership of dishes that have long been a part of Arab customs. When Israelis call falafel their national snack, Palestinians accuse them of ‘cultural appropriation’.
Michaela DeSoucey conceptualised the idea of ‘gastronationalism’ to signal food production, distribution, and consumption to demarcate and sustain the expressive power of national attachment and the use of nationalist sentiments to produce and market food. This urge to ‘own’ a particular food and culture stems from the need to create a national narrative. Unsurprisingly, Israelis and Palestinians are engaged in promoting culinary diplomacy — cooking shows, the publication of cookbooks, and the promotion of restaurants and chefs. It helps enhance business, investments, and tourism and nourishes nation-branding. Some Israeli cookbook authors acknowledge and credit Palestinian influence; others refrain from mentioning Palestine. Many Palestinian chefs use new media platforms to resist what they claim are attempts to rewrite their culinary history. Food also spells nostalgia for displaced refugees. Their attachment to certain ingredients, plants, and vegetables evokes memories that bind them together in different parts of the world.
Culinary contestation is, therefore, an extension of the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. Food is integral to the national imagination of both Israelis and Palestinians. The problem begins when food items that are integral to national identities are manipulated by dominant actors to create a new narrative.
Co-existence and recognition of each other’s cuisines and cultures could enable Israelis and Palestinians to navigate common ground. ‘Gastrodiplomacy’ can be a potent tool to create a cross-cultural, culinary bridge between these two contesting nations.
Sreshtha Chakraborty is an Assistant Professor at Amity University, Noida