The Politics of Food: A Case Of The Falafel

Food plays a vital part in our lives and relationships, bringing communities and families together and unite love ones with joyful and memorable experiences. Chefs and anthropologists alike travel the world to learn more about regional differences in taste and methods of cooking and to learn more about the history of food in some regions, and sometimes this authenticates originality, that such and such foods belong to such and such communities as the originators of that food.

In the Book of Job, it writes: “Their strength is consumed by hunger, and calamity is ready for their stumbling,” that the epitome of suffering and unhappiness is the loss of food, indeed Amartya Sen’ Nobel Prize winning research on famine and food distribution during Great Bengal Famine of 1943 is a clear, modern example of this calamity.

Does the power of food extend to politics? Can food be used to divide people and cultures or is it a gateway to uniting them?

Both Palestinians and Israelis believe Jerusalem to be their capital and it is clear from the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Wailing Wall how important and sacred the status of the capital is to their identity.  In 1947, the United Nations Partition Plan for Palestine proposed the corpus separatum that afforded Jerusalem a special international status due to the significance of the historical city to so many people. One of the oldest cities in the world, Jerusalem has been in control by the state of Israel since 1967 Arab-Israeli war. While tensions still clearly exist, the old city market or souq remains a united source of economics for locals, the colours of various foods in the Jewish and Muslim quarters are still successful till this day and exemplify this possibility of unity.

Jerusalem is an example of how food and its relationship to power can legitimise this historical ‘place’ where it marks a regional identification through culture and history. The actual origins of certain foods and recipes solidifies this authenticity or claim that they are the rightful heirs to the region. Falafel, for instance, plays an important role in both Palestinian and Israeli cultures, but ownership of the recipe claims an exclusivity that symbolises the identity of shared culture and nationality. Indeed, the falafel is consider a national dish! Appropriating the originals of the falafel recipes murmurs the debate of belonging and legitimacy as part of the Palestinians and Israeli narrative, similar to that of Jerusalem.

These “food fights” across the Middle East continue, the infamous battle of Hummus yet another divide when Lebanon claimed that Israelis were recipe thieves and were prepared to file an international lawsuit in an attempt to confirm the originality that Lebanon claimed.  The Palestinians see this as an symbol of Israeli occupation, that they have taken both the land and appropriated the culture as well.

Are things about to change?

Indeed, research has shown that falafel may have originated by Coptic Christians in Egypt known as ta’amiya made from fava beans, but how old the recipe actually is remains contentious. In fact, Prof. Shaul Stampfer of Hebrew University confirmed that it only began to appear after the British occupation in 1882. He notes that oil was a very expensive product and therefore these deep-fried chickpea balls were a modern invention, or at least became modern, along with tomatoes that were rare in the Middle East until the late 1800’s and popularised from there.

As said by Sidney Mintz in Food and Its Relationship to Power, “culinary history enters into the success and failure of new applications of power

A concrete case for ‘respectability’ and therefore meaning, the underlying roots to claim ownership really exposes an underlying vulnerability that uses food as a method of solidarity. Nevertheless, falafel is a recent, modern dish and arguments of its historical roots is clearly used as a symbol of legitimacy and thus synonymous with power. There remains no historical facts to any of the claims.

So perhaps, like the old city of Jerusalem, it is time to appreciate a shared love of the same food, both Palestinian and Israelis?