Ancient Israelite Cuisine: What Did It Look Like?

Image source: Wikimedia Commons
Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Are Jews “appropriating” falafel? What about hummus? Or shawarma? Or other Levantine-Middle Eastern staples such as baklava and labneh? Do we have less of a right to claim these dishes than non-Jewish Levantine populations do?

Because of our long exile in Europe, many refuse to admit that Ashkenazi Jews (i.e. Jews with exile history in Germany/Eastern Europe) have any claim to Levantine identity at all. This, naturally, extends to Levantine cuisine.

However, the entire formulation of Ashkenazim as being foreign to the Levant is false and antisemitic. Therefore, so is the attendant claim that Ashkenazim are “appropriating” Levantine foods like falafel and hummus, as we will soon see.

My argument is not that cultural appropriation is a bogus concept, or that Jews “invented” any of these dishes (although some arguably were invented by Jews). Nor do I mean to argue that Mizrahi Jews (who now comprise the majority of Israel’s population) had these foods with them in their own diaspora countries. Rather, this article is concerned with pointing out that these dishes – or at least, precursors of them – are thousands of years old, predating the Arab conquests and the Roman exile. Thus, they are ancestral to all Jews, including Ashkenazim.

I penned a similar article back in 2019, but the information contained therein has been rendered at least partially obsolete in light of subsequent digging. That is why I have elected to write a new one. My primary sources for this piece are historians/archaeologists specializing in ancient Near Eastern cuisine, namely Miriam Feinberg Vamosh, Mor Altshuler, Nathan MacDonald, Gil Marks, among others.

Without further ado…

Hummus – A chickpea paste meshed with tekhina (tahini) that is often, but not always, cooked with lemon juice and garlic. Although the earliest surviving (“surviving” being the operative word here) record of this recipe is from an Arabic cookbook, all evidence points to it being far older.

Firstly, chickpea cultivation in the Levant goes back to 8000 BCE, at the latest. Chickpeas were a daily source of protein in ancient Israel and were consumed in all manner of ways, and this includes blending them into pastes (hummus) and frying them in patty form (falafel, more on that later).

Secondly, we have what is seemingly a direct reference to hummus in Ruth 2:14: “And Boaz told her when it came time to eat, ‘come forward and eat the bread, and dip your piece of bread in the vinegar”. As I noted in my 2019 article, the Hebrew term for “vinegar” (“hometz”) which sounds virtually identical to the modern Arabic term “hummus” and to the modern Hebrew term “himtza”, which means “chickpeas”. It is unlikely that hamitz or hometz actually meant “vinegar”, since vinegar is an acid that, while often used in cooking, is not served on its own. Certainly not on a romantic date. Hummus, by contrast, is very much a dip. The Arabic term “hummus” is most likely just a bastardized form of the ancient Hebrew word for chickpeas.

Falafel – As with hummus, the oldest surviving reference to falafel is from a medieval Egyptian cookbook. However, the Egyptian version is markedly different from the Levantine one. Namely, the Levantine version is made with chickpeas (see above), whereas Egyptian falafel is made with fava beans. Chickpeas were being fried in oil form, as patties, long before the Arab conquests, so the odds of them having “introduced” it to the region are nil.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Basbousa – A semolina cake drenched in date syrup. In ancient Israel, semolina was often used to bake cakes and other desserts, which would then be sweetened with date honey/syrup. Then, as now, various nuts (particularly almonds) would be added in.

The connection between ancient Israelite semolina cake and basbousa seems fairly straightforward.

Halva – For this section, it will be far easier and less time-consuming if I just copy/paste what I wrote back in 2019.

“Although the precise origins of halva are still a matter of debate, there is sufficient evidence that Jews have been eating Levantine halva since Biblical times. This version is made from tahini, a type of ground sesame paste that was allegedly introduced to Israel by the ancient Persians either during or shortly after the Babylonian Exile, although sesame and honey (the main ingredients for halva) have existed in Israel since the Natufian period. The Babylonian Exile predates the Arab conquest by more than 1,000 years, whereas the Natufian period predates the Arab invasions by 9-10,000 years, so halva is obviously not an Arab food. According to archaeologists, sesame in a “cake-like form” (halva) was eaten by Jews in ancient Israel. Some scholars have even theorized that Levantine halva may, in fact, be the fabled manna mentioned in the Torah. Other optional ingredients (e.g. pistachios) may be included also.

It is commonly assumed, based on the etymology of the term “halva” (Arabic for “sweet”) and the fact that the earliest recorded mention of halva is in a 13th century Egyptian cookbook, that halva is an Arab food. This view is flawed for a number of reasons. One, ground sesame (tahini) forms the basis of the Israeli halva. Although sesame is native to the Levant and Mesopotamia, it does not grow in the Arabian Peninsula (as the environment there is too arid to support such a crop). Furthermore, ground sesame is mentioned in ancient Mesopotamian texts going back at least 3,000 years (at a time when Israel and Mesopotamia were closely linked), so the concept certainly did not arise in Arabia. As with hummus and pita, the idea that no one in the Levant ate tahini before the Arabs arrived is ludicrous.

Second, Levant style halva is apparently old enough that it had been eaten by Ashkenazi Jews in Europe for well over 1,000 years, even in areas that had never been touched by the Arabs or the Ottomans. Third, and most importantly, it was customary of Arab colonists to attach Arabic names to foods, clothing items, instruments, and even cities taken from indigenous peoples. The fact that halva is an Arabic term is by no means conclusive proof, or even evidence, of Arab origin. If anything, it is consistent with the pattern of Arab colonialism and appropriation of indigenous cultures.

The most likely explanation is that Levantine halva is an indigenous (albeit Persian-influenced) southern Levantine food that had been eaten by Jews since antiquity, but had an Arabic name grafted onto it either during or after the Arab conquests.”

Za’atar flatbread – A flatbread or cake peppered with za’atar. In Hebrew, za’atar is known as “ezob” and was used as a both a condiment (for everything ranging from meats to cakes and, yes, flatbreads) and ritual purification agent.

Again, fairly straightforward.

Image source: Flickr

Kubbeh – According to Mor Altshuler, our ancestors in Israel invented kubbeh so we could eat meat on Shabbat without slaughtering any animals that day. The meat would be then wrapped in dough so that it wouldn’t spoil before Saturday. It is referred to in some other parts of the Middle East as “Jewish kofta”.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Speaking of…

Kofta – Referred to in Miriam Feinberg Vamosh’s book as “Martha’s meatballs”, kofta is made from cooked chicken/lamb/beef/goat mixed with spices and sometimes other ingredients.

Image source: Flickr

Shawarma – Thin-cut meat (usually cooked lamb or goat, but could also be chicken or beef) with leafy vegetables wrapped in flatbread.

Those familiar with Torah will know that this essentially describes Hillel sandwich.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Kebab – Meat and vegetables skewered on a stick. Although a universal concept, kebabs are named outright in cookbooks on Biblical cuisine. However, as with many other foods on this list, kebabs were likely only consumed by upper classes and kings.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Dolma and Globi – Cheese wrapped in cooked vine leaves and cooked in fried sweetened “ball” form. Like kofta, these dishes are both mentioned in Miriam Feinberg Vamosh’s book.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Baklava – Although the origins of baklava are uncertain, the earliest form of baklava (layered dough, chopped nuts, cinnamon, and honey) is believed to have originated in Assyria circa 800 BCE. From there, it made its way into Israel/Judea where it was consumed by ancient Jews.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Lentil soup – A soup made with lentils (obviously), peas, beans, and sometimes meat. It is mentioned repeatedly in the Torah, and is referred to as “Nezid”/”Meraq Adashim” in Hebrew.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

Molokhia – An ancient Egyptian stew derived from an inscription on a pharaonic tomb, Molokhia quickly made its way to Israel where it was regularly consumed by Jews.

Image source: Wikimedia Commons

For the most part, Arabs (and to a lesser extent, Turks) did not bring anything exotic with them on their conquering sprees. Instead, their custom was to take local cultures – be it art, history, music, or cuisine – and attach their own names to it, thus rechristening it as “theirs”. The same has been and is being done in Israel, to the Jewish people.

But just for the sake of argument, I’ll point out that even if these dishes were – hypothetically speaking – “invented” after the Roman exile by Arab/Turkish conquerors or brought over by them via conquest, Ashkenazi Jews would still have a rightful claim to these foods, for two reasons…

1. Ashkenazi Jews are indigenous to the land of Israel. Ergo, foods invented in our land, using our resources, are rightfully ours.

2. Food introduced by colonizers (Arabs and Turks, in this case) are fair game for indigenous people to claim. Saying otherwise would be like saying Navajo tacos are “white people food”, or that Natives are “appropriating” cornbread.

In short, much of what Jews are being accused of “stealing” from Arabs and Turks is not being “stolen” at all. In fact, Jews were eating these foods – or precursors of them – long before the Arab and Turkish conquests of the Levant. In light of that, there is no conceivable way that Ashkenazi Jews – or any other historically exiled Jews, for that matter – can be accused of appropriating these foods, let alone from later colonial conquerors.

About the Author
Half-Irish/half-Jewish American activist, musician, and writer.
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