In the 1960s and early 1970s when Americans were traveling abroad, they often came back with the taste of garlicky hummus on their breath. The mixture of chickpeas and tahini, or sesame seed paste, was delicious, it was exotic, and later, with the advent of the food processor, it was easy to prepare. When I lived in Jerusalem in the early 1970s, I fell in love twice—first with the man who would become my husband, and second, with hummus. When I got married in 1974, I requested hummus at my wedding and gave the caterer a recipe for the dip. One person who had never tasted this before thought my recipe—with its hint of that exotic spice, cumin—was so good I could sell it to Zabar’s. I didn’t heed the call but others did, and today hummus is marketed around the world.
In the early 1970s the only ones selling hummus (which also means “chickpeas” in Arabic and modern Hebrew) in the United States were Middle Eastern ethnic stores like Sahadi’s in Brooklyn, which has been catering to the Arab community since 1895, when Abraham Sahadi immigrated from Lebanon. “In the early 1970s we had outside contractors making hummus for us or we would buy it already prepared from the Middle East,” Charlie Sahadi, Abraham’s son, told me as we browsed the shelves of his store. “In 1985 our hummus was so popular that we put a deli in the store. Today you go to a specialty food store and you see seven varieties of Americanized hummus: sun-dried, basil, pepper, black bean … I don’t know what [it is], but it isn’t hummus.”
When I was recently in Israel, I met with Yehuda Litani, a former correspondent for Haaretz and the co-author, along with the Druse poet Naim Ariedei, of Not on Hummus Alone, an Israeli best-seller published in 2000 about hummus’ culture and history. (The book is not available in English yet.) A hummus purist, Litani almost choked when I told him that I throw a preserved lemon in my version. “Don’t tamper with my hummus,” he told me while we were driving around Jerusalem. Then he added, rubbing salt in the wound, “Whoever makes good hummus can’t speak English. Whoever speaks English can’t make good hummus.” To research his book, Litani visited 1,200 hummus haunts in Israel, and he sent Arab friends to check out hummus places in Syria and Lebanon.
Litani likes hummus so much that he eats it every other day. He told me that at Jerusalem’s renowned Hadassah hospital, “the psychology department recommends that people eat hummus to calm the nerves twice a week.” In 2005, 75 tons of chickpeas were stolen from Kibbutz Einat, and this hummus heist became news.
It is not a surprise, then, that Litani hears from many people about their passion for hummus. The novelist Meir Shalev contacted him, saying that the first hummus reference in print was in was in the second chapter of the Biblical Book of Ruth. “And Boaz said unto her at mealtime, ‘Come hither, and eat of the bread and dip thy morsel in the chometz’ ” which most translations call vinegar but was probably chickpeas, which ferment quickly. According to Shalev, whom I reached in Jerusalem, the letters “chet” “mem,” and “zadek” are the same letters that make up the words for chamootz (which means vinegar) and chimtza (hummus). “In biblical Hebrew there were no vowels, so words were more confusing,” he said. This first recipe for hummus, more than 3,400 years old, would have probably been a paste of cooked chickpeas (called chimtza in classical Hebrew) mashed with a mortar and pestle and mixed with lemon juice, tahina, and perhaps salt. “Anyway, if Boaz served his workers pita dipped in vinegar instead of something more substantial like hummus, they wouldn’t have been very happy,” said Shalev.
“Hummus places in Israel and Palestine are like Starbucks in the States,” said Litani, as we dipped our warm pita bread in hummus at Ikramawi, one of his favorite joints in Jerusalem. It was 11 o’clock in the morning, and workers were coming in to eat the dish, served in a dark amber ceramic bowl with white stripes, sprinkled with fava beans (or foul, in Hebrew), pine nuts, and ground meat. As Mr. Litani speaks good Arabic and is friends with the owner, we were served a particularly delicious warm hummus with hints of garlic, parsley, and cumin.
The other place we visited was Abu Shukri in Beit Hannina, a suburb of Jerusalem, near Ramallah. As we entered, we passed a man praying on his prayer rug. It was noon, late for hummus. In a nearby bakery, we also saw cooked, creamy eggs for sale, similar to the overnight eggs that Sephardic Jews put in their hamim (Sabbath stew).
I know Abu Shukri’s hummus well. Years ago I learned to make hummus by watching Abu Shukri’s father, then an elderly gentleman, at his other shop near the 5th Station of the Cross in the Old City of Jerusalem. He stirred the warm chickpeas in a cauldron, pounding with a mortar and pestle and ladling them out to customers as they came for breakfast early in the morning. My boss at the time, the mayor Teddy Kollek, considered it his favorite place to eat.
Fath Shukri, Abu Shukri’s son, told us that his chickpeas are soaked for a day, then cooked in a large vat with water and a tiny amount of baking soda starting at about 3 a.m. Later, when they are soft, they are blended in a large robot coupe or food processor. “He knows by tasting how much garlic and tahina to put in his hummus,” Litani said.
Inside his son’s shop we tasted his delicious hummus; it has a bit more chickpeas in it than some others I’d tried. Then he served us Msbaha, a dish I had never tasted before, lighter than the typical hummus. A deconstructed hummus with tahina sauce, drizzled with olive oil and sprinkled with chickpeas on top, it is eaten in the summer months.
Besides the use of a food processor, the only difference between hummus-making in the ’70s and now is the type of chickpeas used. About five years ago the Volcani Institute of Agricultural Research in Beit Dagan, Israel, developed a new kind of chickpeas whose peel dissolves in cooking: The Arabs call it the “kibbutz” chickpea, and the Israelis call it “hadas.”
After years of hummus-making I have concluded that despite the temptation to use canned chickpeas, the flavor is much better when it is made with the tiny Turkish, Bulgarian, or Israeli dried chickpeas found in Middle Eastern stores. First I soak a large quantity overnight, cook some, and then drain and freeze the rest in two-cup batches in plastic bags. Whenever I need them for hummus, falafel, or for the many chickpea soups and stews I make, I just take them out of the freezer. When substituting canned beans, figure one cup of raw chickpeas equals two cups of cooked or canned. I add to my hummus a little bit of cumin and, despite Litani’s objection, throw in a preserved lemon that blends beautifully with the garlic and lemony flavor and tastes so good.
Some Favorite Hummus Haunts in Israel
- Hummus Foul Said, Central Market
in the Old City
- Abu Yousef II, 1 Ha-Meginim Blvd
- Faraj, 29 Hamaginim Blvd
(also called Abu Hassan), 1 Hadolphin Street
- Abu Shukri, 63 Al Wad Road at Via Dolorosa
- Rachmo’s, 2 Ha-Eshkol Street, in the Mahane Yehuda market
- Taami, 3 Shamai Street
- A Sheik, Afifi Building, Iksai Street
- El-Gal, 5 Mikveh Israel Street
- Hummus Akram, 59 Sheinkin Street
- Tsnobar, 293 Dizengoff Street
Joan Nathan is Tablet Magazine’s food columnist and the author of 10 cookbooks including King Solomon’s Table: a Culinary Exploration of Jewish Cooking from Around the World.