The National – 10 October 2008
AFULA, ISRAEL // In the Middle East battle over who owns the copyright to the small balls of ground chickpea known as felafel, tempers are almost as hot as the oil in which the patties are deep-fried.
This week the Lebanese Industrialists’ Association announced that it was preparing a litigation to be presented to the international courts accusing Israel of stealing Lebanon’s trademark foods, including felafel, hummus and tabbouleh.
“The Israelis are marketing our main food dishes as if they were Israeli dishes,” said its president, Fadi Abboud. He added that Israel’s export of these foods around the world had possibly cost Lebanon “tens of millions of dollars annually”.
But David Peretz, an Israeli felafel-maker who runs the Golani restaurant, was having none of it. “Are they joking? Felafel belongs to the world, no one can claim it,” he said.
Mr Peretz denied Lebanon invented felafel. “It came from Egypt, didn’t it?”
And in a reminder that Lebanon and Israel have a long history of enmity not restricted to rival food claims, he said of his time in the Israeli army in the early 1980s when it invaded Lebanon: “I tried the felafel there and I can honestly say Israeli felafel is much better.”
That is unlikely to persuade Lebanon’s restaurateurs. Kamal Mouzawak, founder of Souq El Tayeb, a farmer’s market in Beirut, said: “It’s important that we protect our foods because they are part of our origins.”
He and other Lebanese traders are pinning their hopes on a legal decision six years ago that awarded Greece sole right to label its cheese product feta. The Greeks successfully argued that feta had been produced by the country under that name for 6,000 years.
Miri Buzaglo, 32, from Tel Aviv and a regular at the Golani restaurant when she visits her parents, laughed at the Lebanese claim. “I thought chutzpah was an Israeli quality,” she said. “Anyway, it doesn’t matter who invented felafel. What matters is who makes it better now, and this place makes the best.”
Like most other Israeli felafel restaurants, Golani is kosher. And, in a further departure from Lebanese tradition, its customers expect chips stuffed into the pitta alongside the fritters.
In Tel Aviv, upmarket restaurants are putting their own exotic stamp on the humble felafel with innovations that may shock purists, including a shrimp felafel starter and a chocolate felafel dessert.
But Mr Peretz said the basic recipe was a design classic that could not be bettered. He learnt the recipe from his father, who immigrated from Morocco and established Golani in 1962.
He said legal action from the Lebanese did not worry him. “Let them try to sue. I’d rather say they were hurling insults than rockets.”
A few kilometres from Afula in Nazareth, the capital of the country’s Palestinian minority, the felafel owners were only mildly more sympathetic to the Lebanese claim.
Ziad Nassar, who owns the Al Amal restaurant, said his family had been selling felafel since 1960 and had a chain of 20 restaurants throughout the country.
“The fact is the Lebanese do make better felafel than Israelis,” he said. Nonetheless, like Mr Peretz, he was unpersuaded by the threat of legal action. “I thought felafel came from Egypt, not Lebanon.”
Israel’s food commentators agree with them. Daniel Rogov, the country’s best known food critic, called the Lebanese move “hilarious”.
“It’s a great PR stunt but no more than that,” he said. “Felafel is Middle Eastern and no one can claim a copyright on it.”
Mr Rogov said the most likely inventors of felafel were the Egyptians about 5,000 years ago, though they used fava beans rather than chickpeas. “Beans were found in the tombs of the Pharoahs,” he said, adding in jest: “What were they going to do with them in the afterlife if not fry them and stick them in a sandwich.”
Although his two favourite felafel restaurants are Jewish-owned, he said in general Arabs made better felafel than Jews.
The question of who owns felafel and hummus also provoked much heated debate on internet talk forums in Israel.
One participant observed that the foods listed were of neither Israeli nor Lebanese origin, but generically Arab. “I guess that would mean that only the Arab League could sue.” Another suggested that the Israelis might retaliate by patenting chicken soup.
But if the Lebanese are only worried about the money they are losing to Israel in international sales of felafel, many Palestinians see the issue in larger political terms.
Israel’s success in marketing felafel and hummus as Israeli products, particularly in the United States and Europe, has insulted people who feel they have been dispossessed of their homeland by Israel.
One Nazareth youth, who wished only to be known as Fadi, was on holiday from studying at college in Britain.
“I’m paying my way by working in the evenings and at weekends in an Israeli restaurant in London. But although the owner is Israeli, all the staff in the kitchen making the food are Arabs.
“They took the land from us, so it doesn’t surprise me that they’ve managed to steal our cuisine as well.”
Oded Schwartz, an Israeli living in South Africa, has written several books on the history of Jewish food. He said it would be interesting to see how the courts responded to the case.
“The legal precedents were established by the French when they won the right to prevent the names of their most famous wines from being appropriated by other winemakers. Champagne is the obvious example. British manufacturers tried the same with cheddar cheese.”
But Mr Schwartz thought it unlikely the courts would accept Lebanon’s case for copyrighting the names of its foods. “Felafel was an Egyptian creation, and tabbouleh and hummus are mentioned in the Bible.”
These dishes had come to be associated with Israel because it had been good at marketing and public relations, he said.
He added: “The Lebanese, possibly under French culinary influence, made these dishes more sophisticated in the late nineteenth century, but claiming ownership is more a political point than a practical matter. Recipes are used across the Middle East and unclaimable.
“After all, what will Lebanon do after suing Israel. Sue Egypt, Turkey and Greece too?”