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Israel and Gaza's best-known chefs discuss food and identity in Israel-Palestine

Israeli chef Yotam Ottolenghi, left, with Palestinian chef Sami Tamimi, right.
Israeli chef Yotam Ottolenghi, left, with Palestinian chef Sami Tamimi, right.
Rick Madonik/Toronto Star/Getty

One of the toughest questions in the Israel-Palestine conflict is a very basic one of cohabitation: how can Jews and Arabs get along, side by side, after decades of fighting? It's a beloved cliché that food brings people together, but in Israel-Palestine even this can drive them apart. As with the land itself, there are competing claims for what dishes or flavors belong to whom, and bitter fights over possession and identity between two groups that have lots of shared history.

Could those fights over food actually be an opportunity for the Jews and Arabs of Israel-Palestine to come together? That was a major topic when, in early 2013, the authors of Palestinian cookbook The Gaza Kitchen, Laila El-Haddad and Maggie Schmitt, sat down with Israeli chef Yotam Ottolenghi for Bon Appetit magazine. Ottolenghi co-authored the cookbook Jerusalem, which explores intersections in Jewish and Arab food in the divided city, with Palestinian chef Sami Tamimi.

It's worth pulling out a few quotes from the conversation about how the food of Israel-Palestine, while often used to highlight differences between Jews and Arabs, also shows how much history they have in common:

Yotam Ottolenghi: Jerusalem is a very difficult story to tell. It's a very troubled place in a very different way from Gaza, and it's troubled because the occupation has sort of gone into the veins of everybody, Jews and Arabs. So in Gaza, it's not a positive thing, but the separation is much clearer. There's the Gazan cuisine, and it hardly ever comes into interaction with anything else. It's very easy to assert things with an Arabic name and give a sense of authority to a dish because it's cooked by that particular Palestinian person, in that particular house.

We always had to sort of tiptoe between various versions and stories, and which histories to tell is difficult to know. Jews were living in Arab countries for thousands of years, cooking those same things, and if I meet a Jewish woman from Aleppo and she says, "I used to make this kibbeh and my grandmother did," it's very hard to take a stand and say, "Oh, it's Arab."

Maggie Schmitt: Also your book does an important task because outside of Israel-certainly in the United States-very few people understand how complex Israeli society is. Very few people understand the whole history of the Mizrahim and the Sephardim. But the image of Israel is hugely Ashkenazi.

So it's important, I think, the work that you do to make it clear how false that is, how many other traditions there are, the fact that Arab and Jew are not somehow opposite, but rather have a long history woven together. That's also for me an extremely important history to tell.

Ottolenghi: That's absolutely true. And there are so many kinds of wrongdoing around that. Even when Sami and I initially tried to do just a recipe book, without addressing any kind of social political issues, I think we realized after about, three hours, that this is just not gonna happen.

The recipes are the context — there aren't recipes without a context, at least in this part of the world-and so we had to almost reconstruct the context once we had the recipes. The process was quite different from yours. Where you went out there and engaged with people came up with recipes, we had the recipes from memory or the meetings we had and then told the story in hindsight. This is where I found it really, really challenging to decide which narrative to use in each introduction to each recipe: whether it's the Jewish narrative or the Arab narrative, or if you can make them work together.

Laila El-Haddad: For me, when I kept seeing like "Jew" and "Arab," it almost felt reductionist. For me I consider, before '48, there were Arab Jews, too, but that's a different thing.

And then this is an excellent point about overlap — and one that applies far beyond food:

El-Haddad: Was there anything you were surprised by that you came across writing your book?

Ottolenghi: A million things. What was really interesting for me was the thing of access, from Libya and Palestine and Lebanon and Syria, because the best Jewish food in Jerusalem either comes from Tripoli in Libya or Aleppo in Syria. I was doing research on the Jewish part and Sami was doing the Arab part, but whenever there was overlap, it was fascinating to see how this Sephardic cuisine interacted with what was around it. And every time you come across one of those in a Sephardic Jewish recipe ,you come across an exact parallel in the Palestinian kitchen. That was the most fascinating for me to discover every time.

That shared history between Jews and Arabs in the territory of present-day Israel-Palestine is something that gets missed an awful lot in the conversation.

Partly, that's because both sides end up so predominantly focused on what makes them different rather than what makes them similar, but it's also because there's so little discussion of the many Jews who came to Israel from North Africa and elsewhere in the Middle East, mostly after they were expelled by their governments in the 1950s.

More deeply, there is a sense that the food, like the identity and the land itself, can be categorically Israeli or categorically Palestinian but never, ever both. That does not necessarily need to be the case, although the conflict makes overcoming it obviously quite difficult for people.

Both cookbooks, The Gaza Kitchen and Jerusalem, are excellent and well worth owning.

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