You Say Bassal; I Say Batzal
What happens when an Israeli chef and a Palestinian chef share a kitchen.
Courtesy Vered Guttman.
One day as we were prepping for a party, I told Michael that while I was roasting peppers, he should start chopping the Israeli salad. He stopped working and gave me the look.
“The Israeli salad ...”
“Well, not only did you take our land,” he said, “you had to steal our recipes, too? This is an Arab salad, not Israeli.”
I’m an Israeli caterer working in Washington, D.C., and for the past four years, I have been working shoulder to shoulder, cutting board to cutting board, with a Palestinian co-chef. The result is strange: an alliance where food is at once political and unifying, and where politics is always in the kitchen too.
Michael was born 52 years ago as Mahmud Abulhawa on the Mount of Olives in East Jerusalem, where his family still lives. He learned the business at a young age, working in Israeli restaurants with Jewish chefs, who called him Menachem. He moved to the United States about 30 years ago, and everyone here knows him as Mike.
I was born in Israel 43 years ago, after the Six Day War, in which Israel captured the Mount of Olives. My uncle was killed in that war in Jerusalem. His name was Menachem too.
Though Michael has worked with many Israelis, he is the first Palestinian I’ve ever really known. We share a kitchen, we share recipes, and we share culinary memories from our homelands, where people, despite endless conflicts, still crave the same dishes.
I had to admit to Michael that he was right about the salad. Although both my grandmother and mother made Israeli salad all the time, its origin was Arab. In fact, “Israeli salad” got its name in America. We don’t call it an Israeli salad in Israel, we simply call it a vegetable salad. Or an Arab salad.
As an Israeli food writer specializing in Middle Eastern cuisine, I am always stumbling into this kind of food war. I recently wrote in my blog, which runs in an Israeli newspaper, about freekeh, a smoked green wheat that’s been used by Arabs for centuries. All the comments posted by readers were along the same lines. Didn’t you, Israelis, already take our land? And the falafel? Now you’re taking the freekeh too?
Vered Guttman, a caterer and food writer in Washington, D.C., writes the Modern Manna blog for Haaretz.