- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 30, 2004

SAN VITO LO CAPO, Italy — An international couscous festival billed as a bridge-building event among “cooks for peace” degenerated into recriminations when Palestinian chefs accused their Israeli counterparts of using chicanery to obtain a prestigious prize.

“The Israelis stole my land and my country, now they are even stealing our recipes,” Palestinian delegate Mohammed Kebal complained to reporters. “The hand of [the Israeli intelligence agency] Mossad is at work here. We will never take part in the contest again.”

The seventh annual cookery contest concluded this week in the seaside town of San Vito lo Capo in Sicily, where local fishermen have eaten the semolina dish with a spicy fish sauce ever since Saracen pirates raided the island.

An international jury of 17 well-known gourmets, food critics and journalists solemnly sampled dishes prepared by cooks from Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria — the traditional North African homes of couscous — as well as Ivory Coast, Senegal, Israel, Italy and the Palestinian territories.

Flags waved and national anthems played as each team’s offering was carried into the main competition hall in a tent in the grounds of a former medieval convent.

An Israeli panelist joined her colleagues in standing to respectful attention as the Palestinian chef, Mohammed Najeeb, proudly held aloft his chicken-based dish. Arab members of the jury, likewise, stood ramrod straight as Israel’s Roaz Cohen carried in his creation based on recipes used by Jewish communities in North Africa.

But the good feelings turned sour when a special prize for originality was awarded to Mr. Cohen, prompting Mr. Najeeb and his assistants to storm out in protest.

Mr. Najeeb, a chef at Jerusalem’s famed American Colony Hotel, said it was “an insult” to the Arab origins of couscous to declare an Israeli dish the most original. Other Palestinian team members accused the president of the jury of awarding the prize without a formal vote.

Mr. Cohen was unavailable for comment because he already had left Sicily to observe the Yom Kippur holiday in his homeland.

But Vittorio Castellani, an expert on exotic cuisine who provided commentary for a television broadcast of the contest, said it was not the first time that Middle Eastern politics had marred the event.

“One year, the hotel where the Palestinian delegation was staying was set afire. The Palestinians said it was an arson attack by Israeli intelligence. In the end, the police said the blaze was set by extortionists working for a protection racket run by the Cosa Nostra, the Sicilian Mafia,” he said.

The top prize in this year’s contest, incidentally, went to Tunisian chef Arroum Mimoun for his rich lamb couscous garnished with chickpeas.

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