Hummus Is a Simple Food with a Complicated Identity
My father was born in Kfar-Saba, a dusty farming village in central Israel. It was 1953 and that sliver of a country nestled on the banks of the Mediterranean Sea had only been recognized as the State of Israel for five years. His parents, both born on that same land when it was known as the British Mandate of Palestine, planted orange groves and—like their Arab neighbors—soaked chickpeas overnight for the next day’s hummus. My father’s father, also born in British Palestine, toiled the land until it yielded fruits, vegetables, and grains. Unlike their Eastern European relatives, these early settlers ate the foods that the indigenous Arabs ate: tomato salad, pita bread, and hummus with tahini.
When the Jews migrated to the Middle East, they not only left behind the shtetls and ghettos of their old, harsh lives. They also shed the heavy meat-centric diets that had kept them warm through the Romanian, Polish, and Russian winters. In this new land, they learned the cuisine of the Middle East which featured vegetables, soft cheeses, and local legumes. Instead of cholent (a slow-cooked meat stew) they ate chickpeas.
On my last trip to Tel Aviv my first stop was the shuk (market). I arrived in the morning with a rumbling stomach in search of sustenance. The air was pregnant with the smells of baking bread and fragrant za’atar. I made my way through winding alleyways until I ducked into an old synagogue that now served as a modest hummuseria. Sandal-clad men and women with head scarves were hunched over bowls of hummus topped with mounds of fresh chickpeas and pools of tahini. Armed with pita in hand, I went to work. This simple bowl of pureed garbanzos was the same morning meal being eaten from Beirut to Bethlehem.
The Middle East wakes up together, and the ritual of breakfast is a similar expression of vegetables, eggs, cheeses, olives, bread and dips such as labneh (thick strained yogurt), foul (a fava bean spread), and hummus.
Hummus is a simple food with a complicated birthright. The two main ingredients, chickpeas, and tahini are non-negotiable to achieve the proper creamy texture. Garlic and lemon provide balance and depth of flavor. The first known recipe for hummus appeared in a 13th-century cookbook in Cairo, but the original iteration excluded lemon and garlic in favor of vinegar. Lemons had yet to make the journey along the silk road from India to the Middle East, so resourceful Egyptians relied on vinegar for acid. Hummus is integral to the culinary identity of several Middle Eastern countries including Syria, Lebanon, Turkey, and Egypt, yet historians are unable to determine where it originated. While many regions claim it as their national dish, hummus, like the land that is claimed by both Israel and Palestine, is both disputed and shared.
When I first visited Israel as a teenager, the hotel buffet breakfasts were a revelation. I piled my plate high with tangy white sheep cheeses, inky olives, parsley-studded tomato and cucumber salads, and velvety hummus. Hummus appeared at every meal. It was as ubiquitous as the Jerusalem stone used to build the walls of the Old City and as consistent as the Muslim call to prayer.
In Israel, I recognized hummus as the condiment my mother reliably purchased from our local health food store. But this hummus—drizzled with grassy olive oil and finished with a flourish of sumac—had little in common with the pasty commercial version I knew from home.
Breakfast in Israel helped me understand the connection between land and food. The terroir of the desert had revealed itself to me in my morning meal, and I was hungry for more. What I did not know at the time was that the food I was eating was not originally Israeli. It was a cuisine borrowed from its neighbors, adapted, and incorporated into the Jewish culinary lexicon. I had yet to digest that my meal of pita, hummus, pickles, and salad was also being eaten in countries where I was more aware of our differences than of our cultural commonalities.
Despite the endless variety and flavors now available at every grocery store in the United States, sometimes I have cravings for the type of hummus—the real hummus—you can only find after boarding a plane and traveling to the Middle East.
I think of it as the food of my ancestors who fled pogroms and washed up on the shores of the Mediterranean where they embraced their new agrarian lives. Chickpeas are hearty enough to survive desert climates, healthy enough to fuel farmers, and with a little sesame paste, garlic, and lemon, delicious enough to appeal to nations with seemingly little else in common.