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Seeking a solution, the story goes, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion turned to Eugen Propper, a founder of the Israeli food concern Osem, and asked him to develop a mass-producible rice substitute. The European-born Propper thought of farfel, and Osem began to manufacture white, rice-shaped grains of it that were given the commercial name of p’titim and popularly known as orez Ben-Gurion, “Ben-Gurion rice.” Israeli cookbooks of the period, which were largely designed to help housewives cope with a shortage of food without starving their families or boring their taste buds to death, had numerous creative ideas for what could be done with the invention.
Time passed, austerity was over, real rice was now readily available and Osem decided that p’titim would be better marketed in rounded, farfellike pellets rather than in elongated, ricelike grains. By now, they had become part of Israeli cuisine, a food that could be served with almost anything and would obligingly soak up whatever was poured on it. Mothers liked it for its quickness, children for its blandness, the toothless for its softness, and no restaurant dreamed of putting it on its menus.
Cut to the early 1990s. One evening — so the story continues — the Israeli chef and cookbook author Mika Sharon, then living in New York, hosted the American chef and cookbook author Don Pintabona for dinner. On the stove was a pot of p’titim that Sharon had made for her small daughter, and Pintabona, who had a cheffy habit of poking around people’s kitchens, stuck his hand into the pot and from the pot into his mouth.
It is not recorded whether he said “Yum!” or “Hmmm! This might go better with Hungarian goulash than fettuccine,” but before long he was serving p’titim, relabeled by him “Israeli couscous,” in his New York restaurant. The rest is history.
There’s a lot of earlier history, too. Farfel, sometimes called “egg barley” in English because of its physical resemblance to pearl barley, has been around for centuries. (Pearl barley is processed barley with the hull and bran removed, as opposed to barley groats, which retain the bran.)
The Hungarians, who indeed do eat their goulash with p’titim, call them tarhonya, a word deriving from Turkish tarhana, a dish of dried curds and pearled wheat that originated in Iran. The Sardinians eat something called fregola, which you might also think was invented by Osem if you didn’t know better; the Palestinians have their maftoul, and the Lebanese their moghrabiyeh. P’titim aren’t couscous, and they’re not particularly Israeli, but there’s no denying they go well with blackened salmon.
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