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Middle Eats

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.

  • anonymous

    This seems so silly to me. So now people are not supposed to be able to cook recipes that don't align with their national origin? Granted, I live in America, where I can walk down the street and eat Mexican, Lebanese, Italian, Japanese, "Chinese" (which Americans realize our version of Chinese is far more American than Chinese)...the list goes on and on. My dad's family is largely Finnish. Does that mean I have to eat pickled herring??? Blech. If I want pasta, do I have to import it from Italy??? Isn't the beauty of cooking that people can take an idea for a recipe and make changes to it to suit their preferences? Isn't that how cuisine grows over the millenia? McDonald's doesn't have the same menu in every country for a reason. Likewise, chocolate has different recipes in various nations. I'm guessing chocolate originated in a rainforest somewhere...does that mean only aboriginals should be allowed to sell it? And only according to ancient recipes???

    April 19, 2010

  • Michael Makovi

    ARB, if the Lebanese want to sell kosher food, be our guest. "Kosher" has nothing to do with a particular culinary style. Rather, "kosher" means only that the food passes the standards of Jewish law. So as long as pork, mixtures of meat and dairy, etc., are excluded, then one can have kosher Chinese, kosher Italian, kosher Mexican, etc.

    January 20, 2009

  • Toby

    Now I don't mean to sound unsympethetic, so please don't take offence, but at the end of the day its just food. Cultures borrow things from each other and always have, like language and music. Wouldn't the best thing be to prove Lebanese Hummus is the original by making it the best product on the marketplace and the one the consumer looks out for when he/she goes shopping? Maybe this would be a better way to raise awareness of its history. You can't really blaim people for not knowing where every single food comes from.

    January 6, 2009

  • Henry

    Why is this claim embarrassing?? or even ridiculous ?? I believe it is very legitimate and it is our RIGHT as Lebanese to preserve our traditional food or cosine. In many parts of North America you see Indian's and Pakistani's owning Falafel and Shawarma restaurants, give it ten years from now they will start claiming it's their own tradition due to mixing the curry spice with it. Hummus is NOT Greek and it was never part of their cosine it is actually the many Lebanese people who owned Greek restaurants (serving Jayro's and Sovlaki's) across the western world that added hummus to the menu as a replacement for Tzatziki sauce which is a Greek specialty. I totally support Mr. Abboud's decision, this is our food and we need to preserve it and take the proper legal action required to document it, otherwise it is our loss as Lebanese.

    October 17, 2008

  • Hannibal

    I definitely support Abboud's decision.. Seems that the Israelis didn't have enough steeling lands and peoples' lives. They want to take everything under the sun!! Well, no more. Hizballah taught them a lesson in 2000 and 2006 and now its up to other parties (Abboud and others) to carry out the fight.

    October 16, 2008

  • Silvana

    Why is it ridiculous or embarrassing?... This is part of our culture and heritage, it should not be taken away. In a few years Hummus and Tabbouli will be known around the world as Israeli Dishes while they originated from the Levant.

    October 15, 2008

  • walid

    I think it is a long shot to proove that these dishes are lebanese only. Besides, our neighbor to the south will make sure that we never win this argument...Perhaps Labne or Manoushe are more lebanese than the hummus?!

    October 15, 2008

  • fawzi

    Well now wonder!few additional items added to the Israelis' long list of theft!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    October 14, 2008

  • ARB

    I don’t think the issue has been presented properly. Sushi, KFC (btw this is not a type of food but a brand…) and all other international foods won’t be prohibited in Lebanon since no one is claiming that sushi is Lebanese Italian or Ukrainian. The idea behind Mr. Abboud’s agitation is that a Lebanese product should be recognized as such. When served in a restaurant in New York, Paris or Tokyo, hummus should be recognized as Lebanese, the same way sushi is known to being Japanese… The fact that you can buy Israeli hummus makes me wonder if selling Lebanese Kosher food will go unnoticed.

    October 13, 2008

  • RICHARD RASHEED

    THE GREEKS ARE SELLING SHAWARMAH .SO DONT FORGET THAT AS WELL PLEASE.

    October 12, 2008

  • Suhayl

    I remember seeing a cooking program on TV back in 1991, where the cooking lady( a Brit) was teaching the viewers how to prepare a "very famour Greek dish called Hummus"??????? Our heritage has been up for grabs for a long time. I new york strrets you will see Falafel as part of Jewish menu etc....etc...

    October 11, 2008

  • Marianne

    This is one of the most ridiculous things I've ever heard of in my life. If this ACTUALLY goes through, which I'm sure it won't, then don't be surprised if sushi, KFC and any other non-lebanese food is prohibited in Lebanon!

    October 10, 2008