Beyond Hummus and Falafel: Social and Political Aspects of Palestinian Food in Israel

Beyond Hummus and Falafel: Social and Political Aspects of Palestinian Food in Israel

by Liora Gvion, David Wesley, Elana Wesley

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Beyond Hummus and Falafel is the story of how food has come to play a central role in how Palestinian citizens of Israel negotiate life and a shared cultural identity within a tense political context. At the household level, Palestinian women govern food culture in the home, replicating tradition and acting as agents of change and modernization, carefully


Beyond Hummus and Falafel is the story of how food has come to play a central role in how Palestinian citizens of Israel negotiate life and a shared cultural identity within a tense political context. At the household level, Palestinian women govern food culture in the home, replicating tradition and acting as agents of change and modernization, carefully adopting and adapting mainstream Jewish culinary practices and technologies in the kitchen. Food is at the center of how Arab culture minorities define and shape the boundaries and substance of their identity within Israel.

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University of California Press
Publication date:
California Studies in Food and Culture Series
Edition description:
New Edition
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

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Beyond Hummus and Falafel

Social and Political Aspects of Palestinian Food in Israel

By Liora Gvion, David Wesley, Elana Wesley


Copyright © 2012 Liora Gvion
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95367-3


Women's Ways of Knowing

Culinary knowledge is at the core of social identity for Palestinian women in Israel. Women acquire culinary knowledge and master certain food preparation skills as part of a normal process of gender socialization. First and foremost, women must learn to prepare, preserve, and store foods on a family budget. They must also master the accepted culinary norms and social practices of Palestinian family and society, particularly as they govern hospitality and the practice of hosting guests from the larger community. Women's cooking is based upon obligation and reciprocity, and it ensures the continuing life of a family and the community at large.

Knowledge at a technical level includes proficiency in the techniques of cooking, storage, and baking: Should one cook using gas or coals? Bake in the taboun or in an electric oven? What means of storage and refrigeration should be used? And should dough be kneaded by hand or mechanically? Technical knowledge also requires a response to changing household technologies. For example, when it became possible to prepare dough in commercial quantities, the technology of baking at home gradually disappeared from the knowledge reserves of Arab women in Israel. As a result of new household technologies, there has been a decline in home preparation of dishes such as baklava and kishik, a dish made from dehydrated sheep's milk mixed with bulgur.

On the level of day-to-day culinary organization, women's knowledge involves familiarity with the criteria for selecting products and putting them to maximal and varied use. Women in general, and especially those in developing societies, are adept at finding food in ways that depend as little as possible on a monetary economy. In many societies, women raise crops for domestic use and exchange goods and services with other women. Among Palestinian women in Israel, this proficiency expresses itself in the ability to select vegetables for cooking that are inexpensive and nourishing, and to locate natural sources of food that do not cost money, such as edible wild plants that grow in yards and fields. Palestinian women are skilled at preparing meat dishes from fresh meat and making use of all parts of the animal; they are also able to serve meat dishes that contain very little or even no meat. The function of women as food suppliers increases their value in the family and in the community but does not challenge power relations in the home.

In Palestinian culture, women are generally responsible for preparing meals in the home. The meal is an expression of the level of female culinary knowledge, since it demonstrates a woman's ability to translate into practical knowledge not only the theoretical knowledge of cooking but also the semiotic system and the popular cultural beliefs invoked by food. Women thus become responsible for organizing the structure of the meal, the tastes and aesthetics of its serving, and the rules of food classification. The culinary knowledge held by Palestinian women in Israel may be understood as part of the development of their female identity and the institutionalization of the gender definition of roles in the family and in the community. Culinary knowledge also serves as a means of constructing the distinct cultural identity of Palestinian citizens of Israel.


Food preparation in the traditional Palestinian domestic kitchen is based upon simple technology. Until the 1960s, baking, cooking, and food preservation and storage were carried out by female manual labor in a traditional spirit. Starting in the 1960s, electric appliances became accessible and popular. Concurrently, some of the simple means of food preparation have gradually disappeared, while others have survived and continue to be used—especially among the older generation—alongside modern means. In this discussion, I focus on the two main technologies most common in the kitchens of Palestinian citizens of Israel: the technology of preserving and storing and the technology of baking. We shall discover how these technologies both strengthened the gender division of labor in the Palestinian community and helped to institutionalize community ties.

"We No Longer Make Kishik": Food Preservation and Storage Technologies

Before the 1960s, most Arab villages and towns in Israel lacked the infrastructure necessary to support the use of electrical appliances in the home. Under military rule, Arab localities were of less concern to Israeli politicians, who often considered the provision of proper infrastructure as a return for Arabs' expression of loyalty to the Jewish state. In the absence of electric means of refrigeration that would enable the long-term storage and preservation of meat and milk products, Palestinian women in Israel developed alternative methods based on keeping food in cool places, preserving it in oil, or drying it. Practically speaking, these three solutions enabled women to store food instead of discarding it or allowing it to spoil. Socially, these preservation and storage methods reinforced community boundaries, since they were based upon a gendered division of labor and institutionalized trust among women. They also accorded well with the transition to a monetary economy, built upon relations of trust between women as consumers and salespeople in local shops.

First and foremost, these preservation technologies responded to the needs created by the times: the absence of an electrical grid and economic means that kept electric appliances out of the villages for quite a long time after the establishment of the state of Israel. Most Arab families did not eat meat every day, for economic reasons; their aim was to keep a herd of sheep as a permanent source of milk products. On holidays or for special occasions, they would slaughter a sheep, and after all had eaten, they would store the leftover meat under conditions that ensured its preservation for several days at least. Keeping the meat in a cool place was the short-term solution—effective for two or three days—and demanded very simple expertise: meat was stored in a covered ceramic pot. Some hung the container high up—on a lamp shade, for example—and others lowered it down a well, hanging it above the water, to exploit the coolness there. Nabiya from Majd-alKurum explains:

After we slaughtered a sheep and ate, my mother would take the leftover meat and put it into a jar. On the jar she would place cloth or dough.

Sometimes she would tie it with rope from a light fixture; sometimes she would lower it into the well so it would stay cool. It would keep that way for a day or two.

To keep meat for a longer period of time, other techniques were employed. The most popular was to store the meat in its own fat. After cutting it into cubes and cooking it until it was three-quarters done, says seventy-year-old Um George, from the town of Rama:

When the fat was like oil, we covered the meat in its fat to enclose it and put it in a ceramic container. Whenever we needed meat, we opened up the fat, took out as much as we needed, and covered the meat again.

Another simple preservation technique is drying meat. In Arab society, drying and salting meat was less common than storing it in oil. Turkiya, a sixty-year-old cosmetics shop and grocery store manager from Jaffa, relates that before there was a refrigerator in their home, her mother preferred drying leftover meat to storing it in oil:

She used to cut the meat into cubes and cover it with a lot of salt so all the liquid was removed. Then, she put it in a basket, covered it with a cloth, and hung the basket on the chandelier so the cat couldn't reach it. We could keep the meat two weeks that way.

All three techniques were based on cutting meat into small cubes—a method that suits many dishes commonly consumed by Arabs. Additionally, all three techniques reflected a gendered division of labor, according to which women cook, preserve, and store meat after men have slaughtered the sheep. The slaughter, preservation, and storage of food enabled regular family and community life by ensuring a constant supply of food for the family as well as for broader circles.

The creation of an accessible supply of milk for the periods when goats and sheep are not lactating satisfied similar needs. Certain milk products were stored in oil or dried, similarly to the meat. The most common and best-known example of a milk product of this type is labaneh, which in the Arab sector is stored and sold covered with olive oil. Today, in the era of the refrigerator and commercial labaneh, olive oil serves as a garnish and also imparts flavor and a sense of authenticity. Labaneh is prepared in the summer, when goats produce richer milk. Using the traditional method, women took ten to twenty liters of goat's milk and put it in small sacks, hanging them to drain the fluid. Once the milk had drained sufficiently, women added salt, formed balls, and put the balls into jars, covering them with olive oil. Isam, a literature teacher from the village of Kabul who now lives in Haifa, says that his mother still prepares labaneh every summer for her extended family:

She brought us about twenty jars a year and a half ago. Today I straightened out the storeroom and found one jar. It still tastes superb!

Another traditional technique for preserving and storing milk is still used today: milk is dried or transformed into a solid, so that with the addition of liquid, the milk can be reconstituted. In the Palestinian kitchen in Israel milk is stored as hard cheese that can be changed into laban that is suitable for cooking. The two most popular products serving this purpose are kishik and jibne, the Arab cheese. These products serve as milk reservoirs that free women from needing to seek out fresh milk.

Ethnologists, linguists, and historians have had difficulty ascertaining the origins of kishik. According to Françoise Aubaile-Sallenave, who analyzes the linguistic and use aspects of kishik, the source of the word is the Persian kishik. Kishik is known outside of Israel in Iran, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Kurdistan, Lebanon, the Arabian Peninsula, and Egypt. Despite its variations, kishik can be identified by its main ingredients: sheep's milk mixed with a grain (especially bulgur). Methods of its preparation are varied: in Iran it is prepared from yogurt and preserved in small balls; in Turkey it is defined as sour dried milk; in Syria, Lebanon, and Israel it is known to be boiled milk mixed with bulgur and then dried in the sun.

Along with the development of domestic technology and amid a growing economy in Israel, refrigerators were introduced into the home and sales of commercial milk products jumped. For these reasons the preparation of kishik in the home became superfluous and not worth the effort, until it eventually disappeared from the culinary scene.

In the past, the custom was to prepare kishik from boiled sheep's milk. After the milk had cooled and bulgur had been added, it was all moved to a cloth bag and the liquid was drained out. When the milk had drained, a large heavy stone was placed on the cheese thus produced for several days in order to squeeze out the small amount of moisture still remaining. Then the cheese was coated in salt, a string was run through it, and it was hung to dry further in the sun. To transform the kishik to laban, a piece of it was pounded very fine, and it was mixed with water until it became a thick liquid.

Nabiya, a sixty-year-old single woman from Acre, still prepares kishik every summer in order to preserve the waning tradition. For years she tried to convince her niece to learn to prepare kishik in order to assure continuation of the tradition, but her niece believes there is no room for kishik in the modern daily menu. Nabiya explains:

It takes a lot of work, and you need to feel it in your fingers before you set it out to dry. It takes me fifteen days to prepare it. In winter I use kishik to prepare laban for cooking. Unfortunately, the younger generation of women would not hear of it.

In Jerusalem and the Occupied Territories, kishik is called jibjib, and some think it tastes sourer and is "as dry as stones." Today, even though the small amounts of kishik and jibjib made in the home are still prepared by women, most of it is sold to stores. As my interviewees put it, these food products are purchased only in stores perceived as being "as clean as my home." The merchant middleman who earns the confidence of his clientele is thought of as the supplier of a traditional product that liberates women from the labor of preparing it. Reina, who works in a Jerusalem barbershop, explains that for her to purchase kishik at the store she needs to be convinced the place is clean:

I go into a store several times, check out the salesperson, his hands, the floor, and his utensils. If it is all clean, I buy. I still place the kishik in boiling water so no germs remain.

Reina uses kishik mostly for the unique taste that it imparts to food, rather than as a way to provide milk: its sour flavor lends dishes such as shishbarak their particular taste. But unlike her mother, who used to crumble the kishik by hand, Reina uses a mixer.

The purchase and preparation of kishik was an important part of a Palestinian woman's realm of knowledge, which responded to the practical and social needs of the community. Women were expected to be adept at the techniques of preparing kishik, storing it, and turning it into laban for cooking. At the same time, the use of kishik enabled them to develop trust and exchange relations with those producing kishik in their stead, thus bringing them within the boundaries of the community.

Like kishik, Arab cheese provides a means to prevent milk products from spoiling, and thus creates a way of storing milk, a vital protein in the Arab diet. Cheese, too, is able to change form and taste according to the needs of the dish, since it is possible to soften it and neutralize its basic salty taste. When one wants to prepare knafeh, for example, one soaks the cheese in water, changing the water every few minutes until the saltiness is gone, and then kneads the cheese to the desired texture. In the past, cheese was prepared at home from sheep's milk. With the spread of pediatric clinics in the cities and villages and an increasing concern for hygiene and awareness of risks associated with raw milk, women who still prepare cheese at home have begun to pasteurize the milk. Fatma, from the village of Barta'a in Wadi Ara, says:

I make cheese at home like my mother did, but I buy something in the pharmacy to put in the milk to make sure the cheese is clean.

As with kishik, the technology used in preparing cheese is no longer an integral part of women's knowledge. More and more women buy cheese from village women who still prepare it at home or from a storekeeper who has won their trust. Alia, from the village of Reine in Galilee, says:

I wouldn't buy cheese from someone I don't know. You Jews taught us that there are diseases in cheese and we need to be sure that it is clean. Because of that there are fewer sicknesses among us now.

Despite knowing who has made the cheese, most women pasteurize it again when they bring it home. Nadia, from Makr, who stopped making cheese fifteen years ago when she started working outside her home, buys cheese from a woman she has known for many years. Yet she still makes sure the cheese is pasteurized and safe for eating:

I don't trust her completely. I put the cheese in boiling water and then remove it from the water and put in on a plate. If the cheese returns to its form, that's a sign it's all right. I keep the cheese in lots of water and salt in the refrigerator so I know it's one hundred percent clean.


Excerpted from Beyond Hummus and Falafel by Liora Gvion, David Wesley, Elana Wesley. Copyright © 2012 Liora Gvion. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Liora Gvion is a senior lecturer of Sociology at Kibbutzim College of Education in Tel Aviv and teaches at Hebrew University in the Department of Clinical Nutrition.

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