Chickpea wars: Israelis up in arms at bid to stop them selling hummus

Threatened lawsuit would allow only Lebanese makers to use dish's traditional name

Donald Macintyre
Saturday 22 October 2011 22:10

Itzhak Rachmo had 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: "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 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 restaurant in the Mahane Yehuda market district was founded by his uncles 55 years ago. "Because they can't create planes and guns and atomic weapons, they are trying to latch on to something so stupid."

Lebanese producers claim they lose "tens of millions of dollars" annually because of Israel marketing Middle Eastern foods – hugely popular among Jewish Israelis – as their own. They are citing the precedent of feta cheese and a 2002 European court ruling that the product was Greek and could not be marketed by that name in other countries.

While the chickpea and sesame-based hummus, and falafel fried patties, 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 has a long history of serving Jews as well as Arabs – the owner's son, Fadi Abu Shukri, took a more scholarly view. The foods 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 especially critical of mass-produced hummus in Israeli supermarkets, saying that, unlike his own, it was not hand ground with the exact proportion of ingredients. 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 and freshly baked pitta bread, gherkins and raw onion.

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

For Mr Shonkopf, the Lebanese move is a "scam" but Rami Levy took a 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."

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