P’titim and How We Do Food History

I have a particular love for small doughy pastas. Growing up, orzo was by far my favorite kind of pasta; the mere mention of couscous can send me into an excited tizzy. I once tried and failed at making farfel from scratch – the traditional grated dough of Ashkenazi cuisine is not friendly to sticky-phobic hands – but I have scarfed many a plate thereof. In a recent conversation on the topic of this pasta, a friend of mine asked if I could write a post about “Israeli couscous” – p’titim – and where it came from. I do wish to point out that part of this post’s purpose stems from my reaction:

“Did you mean maftoul?”

Stewed meatballs with eggplant and fruit, served with maftoul.
Stewed meatballs with eggplant and fruit, served with maftoul. The maftoul is covering the biggest piece of eggplant from the pot! Photo mine, May 2016.

In Israel, p’titim are attributed to a particular origin. The tale is as follows: In the years after the formation of the state in 1948, food shortages were rampant throughout the country – and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Rice was in short supply throughout the country, and the Israeli government commissioned food companies to create a substitute based on wheat, which was in better supply in the early State. The Osem food company – famous for its bouillon-esque “soup powder” (avqat maraq) – developed a substitute by toasting tiny balls of wheat paste in an oven. The p’titim – nicknamed Ben-Gurion rice – became popular, and remained so after austerity ended. Today, they are considered a children’s food in Israel. Here in the United States, however, they are popular across age groups.

Here’s the thing: Palestinians were already eating something pretty close, called maftoul or mugrabiyeh. This pasta – technically a coated couscous – came about after Moroccan migrants brought couscous to the area in the early modern period. Maftoul developed as Palestinians adapted the pasta from semolina (used in Morocco) to the more common bulgur. For the past century and a half, maftoul has been a traditional holiday or festive food in Palestine and across the Levant generally. Many families continue to make maftoul at home. In Lebanon and Syria, maftoul are called mugrabiyeh – literally “that from Morocco.”

P'titim
P’titim. (Photo NSaum75, from English wikipedia via Creative Commons)

Purists will point out the difference in the pastas. Maftoul is a couscous, p’titim are made from a dried paste. Maftoul are largely uniform in shape; p’titim are now made in more than one shape. The Wikipedia article on p’titim maintains that considering the pastas the same is a common mistake. But I would like to respond with a question: is it a mistake? Or is it simply politically inconvenient? In other cases, we seem to be only too happy to acknowledge the similarities in different foods – be it the Jewish origins of the very porky Spanish cocido or the common love for pickled fish shared across Ashkenazi and Christian cuisines in Eastern Europe. Yet here – and I admit that maftoul and p’titim are slightly different – we are urged to distinguish between the two. Yet the fact is that before the Nakba, Zionists settlers were probably exposed to Palestinians – Muslim, Christian, and Jewish – eating maftoul. I sincerely doubt that there was no crossover.

Maftoul with chicken and chickpeas
Maftoul with chicken and chickpeas. (Photo Ebushnaq via English Wikipedia and Creative Commons)

What’s so scary about acknowledging the Palestinian and Moroccan origins of an “Israeli” food? Some of it is that we don’t get to be as particularist as we like, or particularist in a certain way. But there’s also a very real power dynamic at play here: once you acknowledge the little things that come from Arab cultures, you have to acknowledge the wider dynamics of the occupation and how Zionism plays into that. And for many, that’s a very uncomfortable conversation.


I don’t want to leave this post on a completely sad note, so here are five ways to serve your p’titim/maftoul/mugrabiyeh:

  1. Serve p’titim with a good meat stew – from this blog you can serve either the Beef with Eggplant, Apricots, and Dates or Stewed Meatballs with Eggplant and Fruit;
  2. This recipe for mugrabiyeh with lamb by Kano at Syrian Foodie is divine.
  3. Kitchen of Palestine has an awesome recipe for chicken and maftoul that shows you how to make homemade
  4. Taste of Palestine has a Maftoul and Lentil Salad similar to something I’ve made for myself before.
  5. Liz Steinberg has a recipe for leek and pumpkin p’titim that looks like an excellent recipe for the autumn.
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