Rivalry Over Hummus

From the Economist
(Illustration by Peter Schrank)

MIDDLE EASTERNERS have had a habit of making war but they suffer a stronger addiction to hummus, the chickpea dip that is a staple of Levantine cuisine. So what could be more explosive than a mix of both passions, war and peas? Just such a conflict is raging between those old foes, Israel and Lebanon.

Last year, a team of Israeli chefs concocted what they claimed was the world’s biggest-ever batch of hummus, rolling out a vat weighing 400kg (882lb) in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market. It took a year to muster an Arab counter-strike, but on October 24th a squadron of Lebanese chefs cooked up a bunker-busting bowlful that weighed in at over 2,000kg. For good measure they also unveiled a terrifying 3,500kg batch of tabbouleh, the cracked wheat and parsley salad for which Lebanon is justly famed. Gastronomic gigantism may be a fad in Lebanon, where chefs recently baked a tray of kibbeh, a pie of minced meat and cracked wheat, at 20 square metres (215 square feet) a candidate for the Guinness Book of Records.

But for nationalists there is more at stake than fashion. Foods such as hummus originated in Lebanon, they say, and this should be recognised, as much as Greece’s exclusive claim to feta cheese or Parma’s to parmesan. Alarmed by Israeli firms’ success in marketing Middle Eastern foods in the West, where they are sometimes labelled as traditional Israeli fare, they see the food fight as an extension of Arab “resistance” against the usurping of their patrimony.

It is true that two Israeli companies, one allied to Pepsi and the other to Nestlé, control most of the American hummus market, worth $250m a year. And it is true that Israelis are devoted to hummus. Some claim it is mentioned in the Bible, while humourists have pictured Israelis brushing their teeth with it, and stirring it into their coffee....

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