Ask Vir Ask Vir

Culinary war

Should gastronomy become a weapon in war?

In the case of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, it almost certainly has. Long before the current round of hostilities broke out, Arab foodies had often accused Israelis of trying to colonise their food.


As we all know, the food of the Middle East is a continuum where the same dishes appear in country after country with notable regional variations. This similarity extends beyond what we would call the Arab Middle East and dishes with similar roots can be found in Cyprus, Greece, Turkey and other countries.


   For the most part, Arabs are not particularly annoyed to see their food spread everywhere. As Anissa Helou points out in her masterly work on the food of the Islamic world, Feast, we find dishes with Middle and Central Eastern origins all over the world. The pulao, jalebi, samosas and seekh kabab of India all have Islamic origins. So does the satay of Far East Asia.


   But there has always been one notable exception: The Arab attitude to Israeli food. Long before the current instalment of the conflict began, Arabs were protesting about the appropriation of hummus. The spiced chickpea paste which you find all over the region has no clear national origin but it is clearly not a specifically Israeli dish. And yet, it is sometimes treated by Israelis as though it is one of their own, almost as a national dish.


   This anger over hummus has become a symptom of a culinary war between Arabs and Israelis. The Arabs say that the Israelis have colonised their cuisine, appropriated their culinary culture and are now doing to Arab food what they did to Arab territory.


   The disagreement has been mostly academic and has taken the form of arguments, but over the last month, it has also translated into serious action. The New York Times reports that there is a move to boycott Israeli restaurants in the US and some Israeli and Arab chefs are not even speaking to each other.


   This is unusual. In most conflicts, food rarely plays a part. During World War II, the Germans laid no claim to French food even when they occupied that country. When the Germans attacked Britain, it was hard to decide which of the two countries had the worst food (Britain, probably.) During the Vietnam war, the American did not steal the pho soup that is typical of Vietnamese cuisine and the Vietnamese did not claim that the hamburger was really theirs.


   Ironically enough, capitalism took care of all that. The US is now full of Vietnamese restaurants and American fast food dishes have spread throughout the South East Asian countries America once fought with.


   Even the India-Pakistan situation is much simpler. Even when tensions have been at their height, food has never entered into it.


   Certainly, there are areas of similarity in Indian and Pakistani cuisine mainly because both countries have highly influential Punjabi populations. And because Partition is relatively recent, it is hard to say who owns any single dish, most of which emerged from a shared heritage.


"India and Pakistan don’t fight battles over gastronomy; over the ownership of black dal for instance."

   Tandoori chicken was created in Peshawar in the 1930s when there was no Pakistan. But Peshawar is now a part of Pakistan. Does that make tandoori chicken a Pakistani dish? What about its descendants --- butter chicken is the most famous ---- which were created when the inventors of tandoori chicken chose to live in Delhi after Partition?


   As far as I know, there is no India-Pakistan war over tandoori chicken, or butter chicken. And as for our seekh kabab, we don’t acknowledge its Iranian origins and quietly share the credit between ourselves.


   You could argue that this is because ---- as many people point out ---- Indians and Pakistanis are the same people unlike the Israelis and the Arabs who are traditional enemies. In some ways this is true. Any Indian who finds himself in a strange country will find much more in common with a Pakistani than he will with the citizens of the country they both find themselves in. And the principles of nearly all subcontinental food are broadly similar: Dal, roti, subzi, chawal, mithai etc.


   But we don’t necessarily eat the same food, despite these similarities. In 2011, I judged an India vs Pakistan food show on NDTV Good Times (as it was then). The show was called Foodistan and it was a vastly ambitious enterprise, with several episodes and many days of shooting.


   The Pakistanis sent over a team of top chefs and when one of them backed out at the last moment, a Pakistani diplomat posted in Delhi lent the producers his own chef. It was all very friendly and good-natured. (Try organising something like that now!)


   There was, as far as I could tell, no India-Pak tension on the sets; Indian chefs went out of their way to make the Pakistanis feel at home. But as the competition progressed, it rapidly became clear that we didn’t really have the same food.


   Pakistani food was basically the food of Punjab with some Sindhi influences thrown in. The Pakistani chefs knew nothing about South Indian cooking (“what is a dosa?”) or of the vast range of cooking styles available across India. Even their North Indian food was much more meat-focused than ours. Our own Punjabi chefs thought Pakistani Punjabi food was too old-fashioned, too rich and too heavy and began using terms like ‘rustic’ (or ‘Shere Punjab style cooking’) for their dishes.


   The Pakistanis tried to reach beyond Punjabi food because they believed that Awadhi cuisine represented some ideal of Islamic food but never quite got there themselves because they never mastered the subtleties that are characteristic of the food of Lucknow.


   By the final stages of the competition when it was clear that India was winning, one of the Pakistani chefs walked out and flew back early to Pakistan where, incredibly enough, he was invited to TV interviews to discuss how unfair the competition was. The show’s British judge, he said, knew nothing about our subcontinent’s food. I wasn’t such an idiot and may have known something about food, he conceded, but “Vir Sanghvi has never been to Pakistan” and so was under-qualified. As for the Pakistani judge, she was married to a Hindu, which to his mind, ruled her out of any consideration.


   I was saddened by his behaviour. And it upset me that, when things didn't go as they had hoped, Indians and Pakistanis fell back to squabbling in the old familiar ways.


   I don’t suppose there will be another Foodistan-type show for a while but we have to accept that despite the political tensions and the tendency to squabble, India and Pakistan don’t fight battles over gastronomy; over the ownership of black dal for instance. Nor do we demand boycotts of each other’s restaurants abroad.


   Food is about joy. It should unite not separate. And when it becomes part of a political battle, it loses its point and purpose.



Posted On: 07 Nov 2023 11:49 AM
Your email id will not be published.
Security code:
Captcha Enter the code shown above:
Your email id will not be published.
Friend's Name:
Friend's E-mail:
Your email id will not be published.
The Message text:
This email was created by [your name] who thought you would be interested in the following Article:

A Vir Sanghvi Article Information

The Vir Sanghvi also contains hundreds of articles.

Additional Text:
Security code:
Captcha Enter the code shown above:

CommentsOther Articles

See All

Ask VirRead all

Connect with Virtwitter

@virsanghvi on
Vir Sanghvi