Countries’ claims to traditional Lebanese foods leave a bad taste in the mouth

That interest in food continues its upwards trajectory is hardly breaking news. We live in the era of Jamie, Nigella, Rick, Delia, Gordon et al.

In this delicious new zeitgeist we rush home to watch the Great British Bake off, go to restaurants that are called “kitchens” and salivate over what we now call “street food”. Authenticity and integrity are everything, even if it also involves very big money.

I felt the full force of this seemingly unstoppable movement last week in London when I attended The Guild of Food Writers annual awards in Opera Holland Park, where nearly 50 authors and broadcasters were shortlisted in 14 categories of writing and journalism. It was a full-on foodie-love in.

Two Lebanese beverage companies, Château Ksara and IXSIR were smart enough to spot the huge commercial opportunity by agreeing to be one of the events sponsors and it was not long before a few of the great and the good of food writing (and I mean some seriously influential people) were cooing (and I mean seriously cooing) about Lebanon and its culinary tradition.

They quite openly said they would love to visit (ie be invited) and that they were not in the slightest put off, neither by the foreign office advisory on travelling in Lebanon, nor the country’s proximity to ISIL forces plying their fiendish trade in nearby Syria. “We don’t worry about things like that,” the head food writer of a national daily, said with cheerful sangfroid.

But British composure aside, the Lebanese are nonetheless grappling with yet another manifestation of what has become a chronic image problem. If it’s not one thing it’s another; and these days the Syrian conflict threatens to spill over into area of the Bekaa Valley and the northern city of Tripoli. The foreign office warning does not make happy reading but the frustrating thing is that there are so many potential feel-good factors that the country could sell to a world that has apparently fallen head over heels with all things Mediterranean, especially its healthy diet.

The tourism ministry, which by the admission of a former minister at a human resources conference in Beirut last week, is overstaffed by ten times as many employees than it needs, should be the public sector department responsible for helping sell Lebanon as foodie heaven. And if it is not up to the job, the task should be farmed out. If I were running the show, I would give the job to Kamal Mouzawak, the man who for the past decade has almost single-handedly been fighting the good fight to correctly position Lebanon in today’s food-bonkers world.

With Tawlet – Arabic for table – his popular restaurant concept, Mr Mouzawak has successfully reminded the Lebanese of the origins of their culinary heritage. His formula is simple. He rotates an army of housewives from Lebanon’s different regions, who cook food they make in their own kitchens every day. The restaurant, sorry “kitchen”, would not look out of place in London’s Shoreditch or New York’s West Village, living and breathing traditions derived from a melting pot of different ethnic influences from the Lebanese mountains, the Bekaa and coastal plains that go back centuries. It is marketing gold dust.

But there is an arguably more pressing reason for the Lebanese to make a robust stand when it comes to their food. On April 6, in this paper, I suggested that a new generation of restaurateurs in the UK, the US, Denmark, Dubai and Australia, were driving Lebanese food to a new and exciting culinary erogenous zone.

So far so good, but ironically this new drive was started by the Israeli food writer and chef, Yotam Ottolenghi, a man who with his Palestinian partner Sami Tamimi, has graciously championed the region’s culinary pull but, and here’s the rub, in doing so, other Israelis have made no bones about claiming traditional Arabic food and ingredients – such as tahini, thyme and sumac – as their own.

And these are not the fears of a paranoid columnist. At least two influential Lebanese restaurateurs have voiced similar concern that their food might be “stolen”. In 2010, the then tourism minister Fadi Abboud, in the face of a ferocious Israeli attempt to share the culinary spoils when it came to hummus, called for the popular dip to be given a Lebanese designation in the same way the Greeks claimed feta cheese as their own.

What might now be nothing more than an irritation, could spiral into full blown cultural theft. What’s next? Israeli arak?

Michael Karam is a freelance writer who lives between Beirut and Brighton.

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