A “Simultaneously Hidden and Deliciously Obvious” History of Levantine Cuisine

A “Simultaneously Hidden and Deliciously Obvious” History of Levantine Cuisine

A “Simultaneously Hidden and Deliciously Obvious” History of Levantine Cuisine

Writer Antonio Tahhan and Anny Gaul, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, discuss a new collection of essays on the region’s food.


Making Levantine Cuisine, a new collection of essays and scholarship published by the University of Texas Press, suggests that food and the fiery debates around it can shed light on histories of inequality and struggle in the region.

“As people move around the world, through forced or voluntary migration, food becomes a way to hold on to their past and build a sense of identity,” writes Reem Kassis, a contributor and author of the award-winning cookbook The Palestinian Table. But food can also spark debates about ownership, authenticity, and appropriation, and, some argue, serve as a tool for nationalist projects.

Through scholarly research, personal essays, recipes, and poetry, the authors explore the making of an “Amsterdam falafel,” the role of Lebanese kibbe in class formation, the deliberate rebranding of Antep pistachios, the trajectory of shakshuka from North Africa to Israel, and the spread of Levantine mezze in Egypt. By examining the food, culture, and politics of the modern Levant, the pieces reveal a culinary history that is, as one contributor put it, “simultaneously hidden and deliciously obvious.”

I recently spoke with Anny Gaul, an assistant professor of Arabic Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park, and one of the editors of the book, and Antonio Tahhan, a food writer, researcher, and contributor to it.

—Alexia Underwood

Alexia Underwood: You begin the book by asking, what is the history of the Levant’s cuisine? It’s an incredibly daunting question. How did you go about answering it?

Anny Gaul: Many of the foods that mainstream US audiences think of as Middle Eastern—hummus, shawarma, tabbouleh, for instance—are more precisely from the Levant, which you could think of as a subregion in the Middle East. When we refer to Levant in the book, we mean present day Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine, and Jordan, basically.

The title, Making Levantine Cuisine, came from a desire to be precise about exactly which culinary histories and cultures we’re talking about—and also because Middle East is a category that was imposed on the region from outside. The word Levant also corresponds to an Arabic term, Bilad al-Sham. So it’s a closer approximation to the way that people living in that part of the world would describe the region that they live in.

In terms of the question, on the most basic level, we set out to do what academics tend to do, which is find a gap in the scholarship and then address the gap.

Even though there’s been an expansion of food scholarship on the Arabic-speaking world, surprisingly, there’s been very little focus on the modern Levant. At the same time, there’s also a lot of popular and public discussion about these foods and about the cultural politics of those cuisines. There’s the politics of hummus, for example. There’s also, particularly in the context of Israel-Palestine, this idea that shared culinary traditions can resolve conflict.

If we could address those conversations from a scholarly perspective, we thought, it might be a way to counter some of those assumptions and suggest it’s not that food can transcend politics, but rather, understanding food can give us a clearer understanding of politics or inequalities.

AU: On that note, there’s been much debate over who food “belongs to,” especially foods like hummus, as you mentioned. You write that it’s a question of privilege. How so?

AG: Privilege and power, I would say. Sometimes what’s lost in the conversations about ownership or appropriation are these questions of really concrete, tangible forms of power, because culture doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Instead of asking who owns something, can we shift the question to “Who has the opportunity to benefit from it?” So in an immediate sense, the question is: “Who is profiting from the sale of hummus or falafel, and what are the conditions that allow them to set up restaurants or food companies that let them profit?”

But in the long-term sense, if we’re taking food seriously as a cultural form and as a kind of knowledge that’s accumulated over hours of labor, then whose labor and knowledge are the basis of that profit and who’s actually benefiting or profiting from these foods?

Soleil Ho, the food critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, has a great piece about cultural appropriation that came out this year. They specifically call for the conversation to move to a place of talking about economic justice, and class, and equity, more concrete concerns.

In Harry Eli Kashdan’s chapter in the book, for example, he talks about falafel, and hummus, and shawarma, and how they’re separated or distanced from their origins as Palestinian, or Syrian, or Lebanese, and rebranded as Mediterranean. They’re then incorporated into this global food culture that has no need to reference the origins of the foods that are within it.

Antonio Tahhan: Also, I’d like to point out how reductive national identities are to describing food. Food is not restricted by any sort of arbitrarily constructed national border—food is more regional than anything else. It’s a representation of the people who lived in a particular region.

AU: You wrote an essay, Antonio, about preparing food with your Syrian grandmother in Caracas, Venezuela. How does this broaden our understanding of food in the region?

AT: I was born in Venezuela, and I lived there until I was 4 [when I moved to the US]. We would go back every summer. I didn’t visit the Middle East until I was an adult. But growing up, food was one of the main ways that I understood who I was. I had an understanding of what Arab food was and Venezuelan food—had these distinctions in my head.

I also like to think about [food] in regard to time. A lot of this food is very labor- and time-intensive. My mom doesn’t share the same passion for cooking that I do, but when we moved to the States, she felt the responsibility to re-create all these dishes, and for her it was a chore. Sitting down and rolling a pot of grape leaves by yourself is almost torture.

When I was living in Aleppo [as an adult], a lot of my contemporaries were not learning how to make these foods. I was constantly learning from people much older than me. A lot of their children would just offer to take me out for either hamburger or pizza. That’s one of the ways specific dishes disappear—if people don’t make them enough or if that practical knowledge is lost.

Somebody asked me once about this idea of this romanticization of the cuisine of the region. However, I think the whole point is not to re-create an imagined past, a past that elides a lot of the labor and hard work that goes into a lot of this food, but to recognize the social value that these dishes carry. For someone like me, who didn’t grow up in the region, I’ve used this food to better understand who I am and where I came from.

AU: One of the arguments you make in the book is that food can be used to marginalize or erase peoples’ histories—it can be a tool of ethno-nationalist projects. How so?

AG: Nationalism is a major part of the book because of the period we’re talking about. As a primer for readers, the Levant was part of the Ottoman Empire before nation states were established, and as part of the empire, it was a very pluralistic and diverse place. So once national projects emerged, whether it was Turkey or Israel or others, founders often were trying to establish territories that were defined by ethnic unity.

Sometimes those aims were achieved by very violent ends, like the Armenian genocide, the expulsion of Palestinians in 1947 and ’48 and after—it’s ongoing—and population transfers between Greece and Turkey after World War I. But I think that project is also carried out and continued in other ways, and food is one example.

When a state is invested in making an exclusive claim to the territory, it can downplay, or erase, other claims. It also has an interest in denying or distancing those populations from their connections to cultural traditions that have newly been branded as national. In that sense, the naming of things carries a lot of political weight, and it aids in a process of material erasure or displacement.

In the case of Israel-Palestine, the chapter by Dafna Hirsch is interesting, because it presents us with some of the history of cultural appropriation of Palestinian foods by Israelis.

So, then, there is this embrace of something like falafel, not as Palestinian, but as Israeli. So that’s not just a renaming, it’s a renaming that coincides with a dramatic shift in who controls territory on the ground, and who is displaced, and who is settling the territory.

Reem Kassis, one of our contributors, has a great essay in The Washington Post from a couple years ago about why she objects to the label Israeli cuisine that lays all this out really clearly from her perspective.

There’s also the practice of referring to Palestinian citizens of Israel as Arabs, rather than as Palestinians. That is a deliberate act of erasing a national category that would become a threat to an ethno-nationalist project. There’s something similar that happens in cuisine, where there’s an Israeli food culture, where certain foods will be referred to as Arab rather than Palestinian.

AT: I’d also point out that by using the term “Arab cuisine,” it erases a lot of the different ethnic groups that are not Arab that are part of the region as well. So in Syria, for example, there’s a sizable Kurdish community, there’s also a sizable Armenian community. That Armenian community is much more integrated into Syrian society, because of the Kurdish state question, the state apparatus tends to try to basically marginalize Kurdish ethnic identity within Syria.

AU: In the introduction to the book, you mention an essay that bell hooks wrote, “Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance.” How has hooks’s thinking influenced the book?

AG: It’s an incredible essay, which I read when I was beginning to study food in a scholarly way, even though it’s not explicitly about food culture.

She writes that as difference becomes commodified, particularly in white, mainstream US culture, consuming or enjoying the culture of the “other” can very easily become this self-congratulatory, reductive form of cultural exchange. When it’s understood as a substitute for challenging the status quo or when it erases social or historical contexts, it can even be harmful.

In reality, that kind of uncritical consumption of another’s cuisine does very little to address structural inequalities or systems of discrimination. That principle, the idea that encounters with difference and consumption across cultures are not always inherently positive, is at the foundation of the book.

hooks doesn’t call on us to embrace notions of cultural purity but to question where they come from and how they are represented and understood. That requires us to be attuned to and name the structural factors that are framing the encounter or the desire for the “other.” Is there a hierarchy there? What is the hierarchy? What are the conditions producing that difference, and so forth.

That’s important for us, producing a book within a US academic setting about a region where the US has a history of political and military involvement, to begin by acknowledging that set of issues. Very often, I think, in white, mainstream US culture, there’s this embrace of “ethnic cuisines” as something that’s celebrated or thought to be inherently positive or beneficial. But what are the conditions of the laborers producing them? Where do the recipes come from, and why might we perceive them as interesting or desirable? Who’s benefiting from their consumption or enjoyment?

On a basic level, we wanted the book to dispel the idea that modern Levantine food represents a single essential, timeless tradition by explaining various aspects of its history, which are linked with the rise of modern transformations like capitalism, globalization, nationalism, and so on.

AU: Given the effort that went into the book, do you think writing about food can lead to new conversations, new possibilities?

AG: I do, but in very qualified ways. To go back to bell hooks, consuming knowledge about food [in this sense] isn’t necessarily going to change anything on the ground, but I think it can give us tools for understanding how difference and hierarchies get implemented and sustained, and this can open up a very different way of thinking. It’s not a sufficient step for political transformation—but it can be a step.

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