Hummus is always on everyone’s lips in Lebanon. But this week, hummus, tabbouleh and falafel became buzzwords worldwide, as many column inches were devoted to the president of the Association of Lebanese Industrialists’ announcement that he planned to register local specialties as Lebanese and forbid other countries from selling them.
Fadi Abboud, the industrialist instigator, is galled that other countries can make and sell hummus, tabbouleh, falafel or other dishes that he sees as Lebanese, and that, “the world does not know what most of these are Lebanese specialties.” While scornful of the Brazilian version of tabbouleh and the hummus marketed in the UK as a Greek dip (“you cannot even buy it in Athens!” he said), he reserves his most vehement ire for Israeli companies who market hummus as an Israeli dish. “The same with baba ghanouj, for God’s sake,” he lamented to NOW Lebanon.
National pride is not the only thing driving Mr. Abboud’s campaign. Legally, if it were possible only to call a product tabbouleh if it came from Lebanon, sales of the Lebanese salad would skyrocket, and factories now making tabbouleh (or hummus, or falafel) abroad might move their operations to Lebanon.
So, is Mr. Abboud in with a chance? Global intellectual property law demands that before a foodstuff is granted the right to use a geographical indication – a sign to show that a food is officially from a particular region – it must demonstrate “qualities, reputation or characteristics that are essentially attributable to that place of origin.” In 2002, Greece successfully argued that its particular grazing terrain contributed to the unique taste of Feta cheese, and Danish and German companies were forced to stop production of cheeses under that name.
Another way of getting a geographical indication, however, is to prove that the method of production is local and traditional. It is here that the Lebanese urge to prove that hummus, falafel and other dishes are theirs and always have been could come into play. And so, the million-dollar question presents itself. Are hummus, tabbouleh, baba ghanouj and falafel Lebanese? And if they are, can anyone prove it?
As impassioned as Fadi Abboud is, he might benefit from inviting a gentleman named Charles Perry to join him for maza. Perry is an eloquent and learned champion of Middle Eastern food and author of Medieval Arab Cookery and Medieval Cuisine of the Islamic World. He pointed out to NOW Lebanon that the history of hummus and its ilk is somewhat shrouded in mystery, not least because there is no Arabic cookbook from the 14th through the 20th centuries, and because records of such humble, everyday foods tend to be scant.
However, he does say that “The nearest medieval recipe to any of these dishes is hummus kasa, which appears in the anonymous 13th-century cookbook Kitab Wasf al-Atima al-Mutada. Here's the recipe: "Take chickpeas and pound them fine after boiling them. Then take vinegar, oil, tahineh, pepper, atraf tib (mixed spices), mint, parsley, dry thyme, [pounded] walnuts, hazelnuts, almonds and pistachios, cinnamon, toasted caraway, dry coriander, salt and [minced] salted lemons and olives. Stir it and roll it out flat, and leave it overnight and serve it."”
Good as this sounds, there are marked differences between it and the modern hummus bi-tahineh eaten across the country. There is, for example, no garlic. The connection between the two chickpea compotes may not be strong enough to hang a court case on, and Perry added that “As for falafel, it is a fried version of the bean pastes that are found throughout the Arab world, so it's not clear that it's Lebanese. There is a similar dish in Egypt called tamiyya.”
Imad Toufeili, Professor of Food Science at AUB, also sounded a skeptical note. “It’s extremely difficult to be sure about this,” he said, “because these foods are consumed all over the Middle East... Hummus is cosmopolitan now. You would have to go back thousands of years to find the truth.”
And yet, there is hope. Charles Perry said that although the recipes are widespread, “the ingredients of these dishes strongly suggest that they originated in the Mediterranean coastal region of Syria or Lebanon, which implies that their home is probably Beirut.”
The truth is that the arguments as they stand would make for a slightly unconventional application for geographical indicator status. From Parma ham to Xianju waxberries, most protected products are agricultural produce from a certain area, rather than a particular dish. But the World Intellectual Property Organization acknowledges that the indicators are “a relatively new area of Intellectual Property,” full of what it calls “delicate compromises.” A legal way may yet be found.
Of course, if Fadi Abboud’s dream comes true, and Lebanese hummus and tabbouleh become internationally-recognized products, the debates will be far from over. For then the Lebanese will have to agree on what constitutes truly typical Lebanese recipes to register them with the World Trade Organization. Then the hummus wars will really begin.