Hummus history: Middle East restaurants claim they have the best


Though a centuries-old concoction, these days hummus can be modernized with the addition of jalapenos or carrots.

TOM HARTE

By Tom Harte

As famed Israeli chef Yotam Ottolenghi tells it, Abu Shukri has always been considered one of the best hummus restaurants in Israel. One day another place, run by the son-in-law of the original owner, opened across the street sporting a sign that read, “We moved here. This is the real Abu Shukri.”

The next day, the old restaurant hung out a sign which read, “We didn’t move anywhere. This is the real Abu Shukri.” Shortly thereafter the upstart eatery erected a large banner reading, “The real, one and only, original Abu Shukri.” The rivalry continued for years.

The incident underscores the fact that tension in the Middle East is not limited to political matters. Indeed, the so-called Hummus Wars may very well be the most intractable disputes in the region. Battles are waged not merely over who makes the best hummus, but over the central issue of who can claim credit for inventing the stuff.

Thus, some years ago Lebanon determined to settle the matter by making the largest tub of hummus in the world, weighing over 4,500 pounds. Israel retaliated with a batch tipping the scales at four tons, served in a satellite dish. Lebanon counterattacked with an even larger vat and petitioned the EU to give it proprietary rights to the name hummus. The petition was rejected because hummus, the EU ruled, is the food of an entire region, not a single state. As filmmaker Oren Rosenfeld observes, “Hummus is a Middle Eastern food claimed by all and owned by none.”

Pita bread is dipped into authentic hummus, served here at the Olympia Restaurant in St. Louis, Missouri.

TOM HARTE ~ photos@semissourian.com

The origin of hummus is something of a mystery. According to legend it dates back to the time of the Crusades. Some antique cookbooks suggest it was invented in the 12th century for the first Sultan of Egypt and Syria. The name itself derives from the Arabic word for chickpeas, the major ingredient of hummus and one of the earliest of cultivated legumes, grown, according to some accounts, in the Gardens of Babylon. Domesticated chickpeas predate pottery and have been found in Neolithic sites across Europe. The cradle of hummus, it turns out, is also the cradle of civilization, the so-called Fertile Crescent, where agriculture, writing, the wheel, and glass were also invented.

Though its origins are ancient, it’s only in the last 20 years or so that hummus has become popular in this country, rivaling salsa, Greek yogurt, and guacamole. Heretofore, if you didn’t go through a “hippie” phase or have a parent who did, you probably never heard of it. Today, however, 25 percent of American homes routinely keep the spread in the refrigerator.

Truly, the planet would be a whole lot better off if everybody followed documentarian Trevor Graham’s injunction to make hummus, not war.

Hummus and Variations

Try this homemade version of hummus or its variations, adapted from budgetbytes.com, and you’ll never go back to store bought.

A batch of homemade classic hummus is ready to be enjoyed with vegetables and pita chips.

TOM HARTE

* 15 ounce can chickpeas

* 2 tablespoons olive oil

* ¼ cup lemon juice

* ¼ cup tahini

* 1 clove garlic

Though people in the Middle East may fight over who invented it, hummus is actually a fairly simple spread made of chickpeas, tahini, lemon juice, olive oil, garlic and spices whirred together in a food processor.

TOM HARTE ~ photos@semissourian.com

* ½ teaspoon salt

* ¼ teaspoon cumin

Drain chickpeas, reserving liquid, and place in food processor along with remaining ingredients. Pulse until mixture is relatively smooth. If too dry, add up to 4 tablespoons chickpea liquid.

Carrot Hummus: drizzle two pounds baby carrots with a tablespoon of olive oil, sprinkle with two teaspoons cumin and 1 teaspoon salt and roast at 400 degrees for 30-35 minutes until soft but not dark. Add to basic hummus and process adding additional olive oil as necessary until smooth. Chill before serving.

Roasted Red Pepper Hummus: add two well drained jarred roasted red peppers and a dash of smoked paprika to basic hummus and process adding additional olive oil as necessary until smooth.

Carrot hummus and jalapeno hummus are but two variations on the ancient spread, a staple in the Middle East.

TOM HARTE ~ photos@semissourian.com

Jalapeno Cilantro Hummus: stem a jalapeno pepper, slice lengthwise, and scrape out seeds. Add to basic hummus and process adding additional olive oil as necessary until smooth.

Pumpkin Hummus: prepare basic hummus substituting cinnamon for cumin. Add one cup pumpkin puree and process adding additional olive oil as necessary until smooth.

Bacon Hummus: cook four slices bacon and drain on paper towels, reserving one tablespoon drippings. Crumble bacon and add to basic hummus along with drippings and two tablespoons green onions. Process adding additional olive oil as necessary until smooth.

Once you make a batch of homemade hummus like this, you’ll never go back to store bought.

TOM HARTE

The name “hummus” derives from the Arabic word for chickpeas, the major ingredient in hummus and one of the earliest of cultivated legumes, said to have grown in the Gardens of Babylon.

TOM HARTE



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