Lebanon lays claim to favourite Israeli dish

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Itzhak Rachmo had only one word to describe a threatened Lebanese lawsuit against Israeli hummus sellers. "Bullshit".

As a long queue of hungry clients formed at the counter for their staple Friday lunch, he clutched his forearm and declared theatrically: "There is hummus flowing through these veins."

This week the Association of Lebanese Industrialists said it was planning international court action to stop Israel marketing its own version of what it claims are "Lebanese" foods like hummus and falafel.

"I don’t know what their basis is for saying this," said Mr Rachmo, a 68 year old Jew of Syrian descent whose packed family restaurant in the Mahane Yehuda market district was founded by his uncles after they emigrated here 55 years ago. "Because they can't create planes and guns and atomic weapons, they are trying to latch onto something so stupid."

The Lebanese producers claim they are losing "tens of millions of dollars" annually because of Israel marketing the classically Middle Eastern foods - hugely popular among Jewish Israelis as well as among Palestinians - as their own. And they are citing the precedent of feta cheese and a 2002 European Court ruling that the product was essentially Greek and therefore could not be marketed by that name in other countries.

While the chickpea and sesame based hummus, and falafel, fried patties of crushed beans or chickpeas, are clearly no Israeli invention, the producers may have a harder time proving that the prized foods are specifically Lebanese.

At Abu Shukri, the most famous Palestinian hummus and falafel restaurant in Jerusalem's Old City – which itself has a long history of serving Jews as well as Arabs, particularly before the second intifada — the owner's son Fadi Abu Shukri took a more scholarly view of the foods' origins. They lay, he said, with the whole of "Bilad Al Sham" – the old Arabic term for the Levant, or Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and historic Palestine combined. "Then hummus was spread by the Turkish occupation," he added.

Hamed Badr, 58, the Palestinian owner of Uncle Moustache, also a celebrated falafel and hummus place off East Jerusalem's Saladin Street, could not resist complaining that "as [the Israelis] steal our land they also steal our hummus." He was also especially critical of the mass-produced hummus sold in Israeli supermarkets, saying that unlike his own it was not hand ground with the traditional and exactly proportioned mixture of lemon, tahina and sesame oil. He too ascribed the origins of hummus to the whole of Bilad al Sham.

Outside Pitani, the most popular Jewish fast-food restaurant of its kind in West Jerusalem, a large, mainly young male crowd were waiting for a prized plate of creamy home made hummus with plentiful oil and whole chickpeas in the middle, and freshly baker pitta bread, gherkins and raw onion on the side.

Asked if he thought of hummus as an Israeli national dish 22 year old off-duty soldier Dov Shonkopf said: "I think of it as that but I guess it isn’t really. It comes from the Arab lands but don’t forget there were many Jews in those countries."

For Mr Shonkopf, the Lebanese move is a "scam" but another client, Rami Levy, took a slightly more charitable view. "Everyone copies something from the other and then adds something of their own. It's the same in food as in music. But let them fight about food. It's a lot better than fighting about territory."