By Hannah Jannol
LOS ANGELES — Most people think of mall food courts as a hub for petty gossip, grubby-fingered children or greasy pizza. Food courts may be all of those things, but they can also be the setting for philosophical introspection.
Recently, one mall food court in particular was the scene of one of my most unexpected identity crises. As a vegetarian and Jew, I have always opted for falafel when eating out. So as usual, I quickly passed by the McDonald’s and the hot dog and pizza joints.
I gave my order to the person behind the glass counter at a restaurant featuring Mediterranean food. My attention was on the food so I didn’t think to look up and see who I was ordering from — a Palestinian, a Jew or even a combination of the two.
“Falafel in a pita wrap,” I ordered.
The counter man asked if I wanted any meat.
“No meat,” I responded.
“I’ll have hummus and tahini.”
We then both stepped two feet to the right to the next phase of containers: vegetables.
“Can I get some romaine lettuce and cabbage?”
“Sure. Anything else?”
Last but not least, I ordered the pièce de résistance of any good falafel sandwich.
“I’ll also have some Israeli salad,” I added.
And that was when I looked up, because suddenly I realized that what I ordered and the name I used might not be what was on the menu.
“You mean tomato and cucumber salad,” the counter man asked, except his voice did not go up at the end the way one’s normally would when posing a question. It was really a rhetorical question, an unexpected challenge that made me pause and think about something that seemed ordinary and innocent.
For the brief second our eyes locked, a myriad of questions ran through my head. Do I insist on calling the salad what every Jewish and Israeli person I know calls it? What does it say on the menu? Is this a Jewish place or a Palestinian place? Did I just anger that counter man? What should I say? Yes, this may have just been an order at a food court in California, more than 7,500 miles away from Tel Aviv. But suddenly I felt as if I had to decide on my own two-state solution.
If I insisted that the side order is called Israeli salad, I might offend the man at the counter but I would be defending Israel’s culture and existence. For a peaceful two-state solution to be possible, we must defend Israel’s right to exist at every opportunity, even when ordering lunch. Camouflaging the true name of the dish would conceal Israel’s legitimacy as a nationality, and more importantly, a nation.
Then again, there are other ways to defend Israel’s status, and offending the man across the counter from me didn’t seem to be the way.
“Yeah, tomato and cucumber salad,” I said.
Yet the order left me feeling uneasy. I wanted to understand the counter man’s correction and my own hesitation. Surprisingly, after about two minutes of research I found that the dish I call Israeli salad is actually Arab dish in origin:
In an episode of BBC’s “Cooking in the Danger Zone,” a documentary television series featuring food stories in dangerous locations, Israeli culinary journalist and chef Gil Hovav told the BBC, “Of course it’s Arabic. Humous is Arabic. Falafel, our national dish, our national Israeli dish, is completely Arabic and this salad that we call an Israeli salad, actually it’s an Arab salad, Palestinian salad. So, we sort of robbed them of everything.”
The salad, comprised mainly of chopped tomatoes, cucumbers and other spices and seasonings depending on the chef, was popularized by Israeli kibbutzim in the early days of the Jewish nation-state.
Based on this, I guess everyone should start calling Israeli salad “Arab-Israeli” salad instead. When those two words are hyphenated, the word that often follows is “conflict” or “crisis.” But imagine a world where the two cultures could be connected not by violence or political contention, but by their shared love of food.
Yes, those attempting to avoid any conflict or confusion could just say “tomato cucumber salad.” But this would be an epic and unfortunate whitewashing of a salad that is rich in its culture and history.
Another person might argue we should call the salad by its original name, but that is misleading since it is so popular in Israel that it is now a national dish. Not to mention, many foods are not called by their original name because of the interconnectivity of the last few centuries. Additionally, to remove Israel from the name of the recipe is a blatant negation of Israel’s statehood and existence. Arab-Israeli salad is truly the most accurate name for the dish.
After all, calling it Arab-Israeli salad when so many separate the names based on their politics, can unify the two nations in a positive way. The name signifies validation of both peoples’ right to exist, stitched together by the tradition of cultural exchange. Ultimately, or at least hopefully, it could be a step toward the hyphenation of Arab-Israeli to be followed by “resolution.”
In all political reality, it will take more than the name of a dish to resolve one of the most convoluted international conflicts of the last century. But what we call a simple salad should not be underestimated.
Words can change the world. So dissolving barriers — creating real peace — might just be possible. One Arab-Israeli salad at a time.
—Featured photo/illustration below: At left, a photo of Arab Salad/Wikimedia Commons. At right, a drawing of Arab-Israeli salad captures all of the myriad ingredients and thoughts of a two-state national dish. Graphic by Ari Sassover.