Borderline Views: Jewish fish and chips

As the academic year ends, a conference on the culinary delights of the region, with its mixture of cultures and histories.

By
June 15, 2010 06:35
The Jerusalem Post

fish and chips 311. (photo credit: Bloomberg)

 
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The last month of the academic year is the conference season. Just look at the university Web sites and the adverts in the newspapers and one will find a plethora of workshops and conferences which have been planned throughout the year and are coming to fruition before the teaching year ends. The topics are varied and cut across the entire diversity of academic disciplines. Unfortunately, the pressure to hold all of the conferences in the remaining time schedule is so great that many clash with each other and it is impossible to hear even a small fraction of the interesting papers delivered by both local and international faculty.

If I had to give a prize to the most original conference, it would surely be to the one which is taking place today and tomorrow at Ben-Gurion University, entitled “Food, Power and Meaning in the Middle East and the Mediterranean.” What better topic than food, and what better way to end an academic year than by discussing the culinary delights of the region in which we live, with its mixture of cultures and histories reflected in the diverse cuisines that we see on our plates on an almost daily basis.

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Serious discussions will deal with the relationship between food and power, and food and ethnic identities. The conference will conclude with a public panel where the academics will be replaced by the practitioners – as seven food writers and chefs from throughout the country will discuss cuisine and food here, under the title of “And We Have Felafel.”

BRITISH EXPATRIATES are not the best people to discourse on food. The Politics and Government Department at our university was founded jointly by an ex-Londoner and an ex-Parisienne, and it was agreed from the first day that all matters of receptions and food would be the prerogative of my French colleague. Cuisine and culinary delights are certainly not one of Britain’s specialities. Most of the tasty food in the UK has arrived in the country from elsewhere, brought by many different immigrant groups in a process of counter-colonization after the demise of the empire.

But there are British culinary specialities, notably fish and chips – tasty, full of oil and cholesterol, unhealthy and to be particularly recommended just before the start of a soccer game or other sporting event. It has even been argued that fish and chips is of Jewish origin. Anyone who has visited a Jewish synagogue or community occasion in the UK will know that one of the unique delicacies to have at the Shabbat morning kiddush is fried fish balls – a delicacy which is almost impossible to find in Israel outside the Anglo-Jewish enclaves of Netanya, Ra’anana and Jerusalem.

Fried fish, so it appears, was brought by European Jewish immigrants to the shores of Britain in the mid-19th century. Deep fried potatoes – chips (the thick variety, not the matchsticks which go under the name of French fries) are supposed to have been tried for the first time in Scotland. As fried fish migrated northward from London, and fried chips moved southward, they met each other in Manchester (now the second largest concentration of Jews in the UK) and the fish and chip combination was born.

In an article published in the Observer in 2003, columnist Jay Rayner states that “the great British chippie is all thanks to Jewish immigrants,” and that the first fish and chip shop was opened in London by Jewish proprietor Joseph Malin in 1860. The authoritative Oxford English Dictionary notes that the earliest mention of “chips” in this sense is in Charles Dicken’s A Tale of Two Cities (published in 1859) – where he writes: “Husky chips of potatoes, fried with some reluctant drops of oil.”

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Chips did eventually find their way to Israel. But as contrasted with the Dickens description of chips, most Israeli proprietors have changed the balance of ingredients, best described as consisting of “deep pools of oil fried with reluctant pieces of potato.”

The idea of adding chips to the felafel or shwarma is probably the Israeli equivalent of what is known in British working class areas as a “chip butty,” a sandwich consisting of bread and (more often than not cold) chips – a peculiar British culinary delicacy.


And in recent years, small portions of fish and chips have even found their way into the annual reception hosted by the British ambassador in honor of the queen’s birthday at his residence in Ramat Gan.

THE CHIP butty shares its British uniqueness with that of Marmite – a yeast spread which, if not mastered by the age of three, will never pass your lips. At home, we neglected the education of our four sabra children, born to two British immigrants, none of whom will touch Marmite. My Israeli colleagues believe that this is the ultimate in culinary deviation. Marmite’s Jewish connection is to be seen on the day before Pessah. It is hametz and the afficianados among us finish it off with the last toast before the eight day regime of matza kicks in.

Israel is, indeed, a country of diverse foods – ranging from the oriental through the Mediterranean and to the European. It is when they all come together, that it starts to become complicated. The definition of multiculturalism is, for many Jews, defined in terms of food. For those readers who attend Shabbat morning services, or go to mixed Sephardi-Ashkenazi weddings, there is surely no more intriguing cultural mix than seeing herring and humous on the same table. I have lived in this country for almost 30 years, but have never been able to eat the two at the same time and, dare I say, unlike my sabra children, my preference remains with the fish rather than the chickpeas.

There is one important component missing from this conference – the obligatory field trip into the kitchens and restaurants so that the food doesn’t just remain a topic discussed in the seminar room, but is translated into the reality of the world outside the university. My informants tell me that there might be a secret couscous orgy for some of the participants. We are all prepared to suffer the guilt pangs of too many calories and cholesterol for the sake of the advancement of science. It is a sacrifice that few would turn their backs on.

The writer is professor of political geography at Ben-Gurion University and editor of the International Journal of Geopolitics.

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