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After the “Jerusalem bagel”… the “kunafa pizza”

Jerusalem24 – Yara Alnazer – An announcement by Pizza Hut Israel that it was launching a new menu item called the “kunafa pizza” has sparked strong reactions from Palestinians and Italians alike.

Social media users have taken to Twitter to vent their distaste, with one Palestinian-Italian user calling the invention “insulting on so many levels” and “an insult to Arabic pastry”.

While every Palestinian knows the city of Nablus birthed the best kunafa in the world, the delicacy is a traditional dessert in the wider Arab region, made with a special spun pastry, soaked in sugar syrup and layered with cheese, topped with pistachios and other nuts.

And pizza – of course – is pizza.

So how did this ill-advised mashup come about? The “kunafa pizza” actually joins a long list of traditional Palestinian food items which have sparked accusations of culinary appropriation by Israel. “Jerusalem bagel”, anyone?

“Something it’s not”

A subset of cultural appropriation, culinary appropriation occurs when a food item traditional to one culture is reclaimed by another often with no mention of that culinary tradition’s origins, history, or cultural significance.

Israeli chefs themselves recognize their society’s problem with culinary appropriation, which “hinges on exploitation, abuse, erasure, scorn and theft”.

And Palestinian chefs of course have plenty to say on the subject.

“Culinary appropriation is problematic because it is an element of denying the origin of food and produce,” Chef Fadi Kattan tells Jerusalem24. “It is denying the heritage and transmission of our great-grandparents, the transmission of the know-how to the younger generations – but also our celebration of the Palestinian landscapes, the Palestinian produce, the diversity of the seasons…”

In his Bethlehem restaurant (named Fawda, Arabic for chaos) as well as his new London venture, Chef Fadi allows his menu – and his inspiration – to be guided by whatever foodstuffs are available in the market that day. So he doesn’t have a problem with the practice of experimenting in itself.

“It’s the dimension of appropriating Kunafa as an Israeli dessert that is very problematic,” he says. “Because not only is pizza made into something it’s not, but kunafa is also made into something it’s not”. 

“Kunafa is a beautiful Palestinian dessert, and as much as I am for taking modern approaches to cuisine and changing things, and playing around with texture and flavors, it just looked horrible… Horrible to see that kunafa on a pizza.”

The bagel debacle

The “kunafa pizza” is far from the first item to have appeared on an Israeli menu to have sparked controversy. Hummus, shawarma, falafel, shakshuka – all traditional Arabic and Palestinian dishes – have been marketed to the world as “Israeli”.

Palestinian maftoul, which is boiled, sun-dried, and painstakingly hand-rolled wheat? “Israeli couscous”.

Ka’ek Al-Quds, an oblong-shaped bread rolled in sesame, the quintessential Palestinian breakfast, stuffed with falafel or maybe hummus? The “Jerusalem bagel”.

Incidentally, Chef Fadi also had some strong feelings about the “Jerusalem bagel” debacle, which is still being used to urge tourists to “visit Israel”.

So why not simply call dishes by their traditional, Palestinian names?

“National symbols”

When many Arab Jews immigrated to newly-created Israel in 1948, they brought along their own variations of dishes also found in Palestine. Other white European immigrants brought their own cuisine.

With the abundance of cultural differences in a newly-founded state with no culture or history, a unified cuisine was deemed essential by political figures as a determining cultural root to unify existing differences into one homogenous imagination, and “everyday objects – here, foodstuffs – were transformed into national symbols”.

This is how the falafel sandwich became “Israel’s national dish”.

And while both the occupied and the occupier have traditionally influenced each other’s kitchens (the Levant’s and Turkish cuisines are very similar today due to the influence of the Ottoman Empire), Israel often goes beyond borrowing culinary practices and simply omits their Palestinian origins.

But beyond the role culinary appropriation plays in wider settler-colonial processes, for Chef Fadi, the first and foremost exercise this practice impedes is a basic, wholesome celebration of food.

“Basically, food appropriation for me denies that there is beauty in everything we do as chefs, in the culture that we have, to celebrate the origins of food provenance, to give them the right reality of how they came to us and where they come to us,” he explains.

“That’s not specific to Palestine only: it’s specific to any product I would use as a chef. I need to recognize where it comes from, and celebrate that part.”

In the meantime, the kunafa pizza has been greeted very coolly – even by Israelis.

Noelle Mafarjeh contributed additional reporting to this article.

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