Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images
A cook prepares to serve plates of hummus and fava beans to clients at a restaurant in the Old City of Jerusalem, 2022Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images
Navigate to Food section

The Search for Israel’s Best Hummus

A new book offers a guide to the country’s best hummusiot, and what makes one better than another

by
Dana Kessler
November 07, 2022
Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images
A cook prepares to serve plates of hummus and fava beans to clients at a restaurant in the Old City of Jerusalem, 2022Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images

A new Israeli book called The Big Hummusiot Guide aims to send hummus lovers on endless culinary adventures across Israel. A hummusiah (hummusiot is the plural form) is a restaurant dedicated to hummus—just as a pizzeria is dedicated to pizza or an espresso bar is dedicated to coffee. It’s a kind of little restaurant where hummus is constantly made fresh, without colorings and preservatives, and consumed for breakfast or lunch. It’s a place where hummus is the main dish and sometimes almost the only dish served.

“A good hummusiah has to be meticulous about every little detail,” Ran Atzmon, one of the book’s authors, told me. “The two most important things are high quality olive oil and the freshness of the hummus. A real hummusiah serves hummus, msabbaha, falafel, chopped salad, and that’s it. It’s OK to vary a little and add other dishes as long as they’re from the same neighborhood, like kubbeh or tabbouleh. French fries are fine, too, as long as they’re fresh and not frozen.”

The Big Hummusiot Guide is not the first and probably not the last book written in Israel about hummus, from various different angles (here is one example), but it’s a welcome addition. It includes reviews, anecdotes, and information about almost 90 hummusiot across the country. It is also a book about travel, since conducting pilgrimages to remote hummusiot, as many do, is a way to see the country. The Big Hummusiot Guide is interspersed with playlists that Atzmon compiled for these road trips, including scan codes you can use to listen to them on Spotify.

I imagined that Ran Atzmon, Erez Tikolsker, and Eiran Shoshani—the three co-authors of the book—were childhood friends, arguing about which hummus is best since elementary school. But they actually only met a few years ago, through Facebook, due to their undying love for hummus. First, they offered their opinions on hummus on social media. When they saw how much engagement their posts got, they realized it was time to graduate to an actual book.

None of them was ever a culinary professional. Atzmon is in the music business and used to be the head of the international department at Hed Arzi record company. Tikolsker is a lawyer, and Shoshani was one, too. While working on the book, Shoshani died of a heart attack, and the other two continued without him, crediting the book to him as well.

The book opens with the 10 commandments of hummus, including: Never eat hummus with paprika or cumin sprinkled over it (a bit of cumin inside the paste is fine, but not on top); never eat cold hummus; and eat hummus in the morning—never later than noon (1:30 p.m. at the latest if you woke up late). This is why I was surprised that when I tried to schedule a lunch date with Tikolsker at a hummusiah of his choice, he wanted to meet me at 2 p.m.

When we met at Hummus Hamudi on Yehuda ha-Levi Street in Tel Aviv, I asked him about the late hour. “Eating hummus in the morning is part of the 10 commandments of the book,” he said with a smile. “If you keep eight out of 10, you’re good.” Then he explained that a late lunch is OK, but swore he would never, ever eat hummus in the afternoon, or later than that.

So, what is a hummusiah? It isn’t a restaurant exactly, nor is it a fast-food place or a snack bar. “The food arrives fast but it’s cooked slow,” Tikolsker said, trying to help me define something he never thought needed definition. “It is a place to meet with friends, but it’s not a place where you sit for hours like you would in a bar.”

I suggested that hummusiot inspire a similar kind of loyalty and emotion that sports fandom does, and that generally more men than women are obsessed with hummus. “The fact that men are more into hummus might have something to do with the army,” Tikolsker offered. “Or maybe with the fact that traditionally you eat hummus in a coarse manner, which is not very ladylike. A hummusiah is also great for men because it’s not a place for deep conversation about life of family. It’s a casual and easygoing place for light chit-chat about sports or girls and a place to argue about which hummusiah is the best, which men love to do. Plus, going to hummusiot is part of the Israeli soccer experience. It isn’t like that anymore but when I was growing up, soccer matches in Israel were held in the middle of the day. When you traveled to see a soccer game somewhere in the country, it started at 2:30 p.m. and you ate hummus before.”

There is something practical about a hummusiah—you go there when you’re hungry—but it’s also an emotional experience. Israelis romanticize hummus and can argue for hours about which hummusiah is the best. Israelis argue about this with highly intense emotional involvement—the only thing that comes close are arguments about politics or about who is the greatest basketball/football/soccer player of all time.

When you go to a hummusiah you love, the first bite always tastes like heaven. You close your eyes and are transported. Tikolsker believes it’s not just a cultural thing. He suggests that there may be something nutritional/chemical in the hummus that induces that pleasant feeling.

I theorize that perhaps the fact that Israelis attach such a special meaning to hummusiot has something to do with the fact that Israeli existence is a complex one. Many Israelis are at odds with themselves and the place they live in and have a nagging feeling that they should be somewhere else. But when sitting in a hummusiah you suddenly feel at home. It connects you to your Israeli identity. Even Israelis living abroad that never want to return to Israel say the only thing they miss about the country is the hummus.

“Hummusiot connect Jews and Arabs and it connects you to Israel in a geographic sense because you travel to get to places with great hummus, and when you do you also visit the place around it,” Tikolsker said.

Tikolsker wanted to meet at Hummus Hamudi because it’s one of his favorites in the area. Zaid Hamudi, the owner, grew up in Beit Hanina, an Arab Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem—and worked at his father’s hummusiah there, before moving to Tel Aviv and bringing a taste of Jerusalem to the city. Yes, there is a difference between hummus from different areas of the country, and the first thing you ask an Israeli when discussing hummus is which genre they prefer. “The three of us come from different schools of hummus,” Tikolsker answered. “Ran is from Jerusalem so obviously he loves that genre, and nowadays he lives in Jaffa, which also has very distinct hummus. Eiran was a northerner so he came from the school of Galilee hummus. I grew up in Rehovot, which is not known for its hummus, so I don’t have an affinity for one specific genre. I discovered hummus relatively late in life. As a kid I didn’t love hummus, which isn’t surprising considering most of the hummus I ate then was supermarket hummus. With hummus there is always an element of local patriotism, but none of us are dogmatic.”

He explained the regional differences: “Jerusalem hummus is sourer, they put a lot of lemon in their paste. And it is served with lots of olive oil. When ordering hummus in Jerusalem you basically get a bowl of olive oil with hummus in it. The hummus in Jaffa, the Central District, the Sharon plain, and the Triangle [the Israeli Arab towns and villages adjacent to the Green Line, located in the eastern Sharon plain] is less sour, and more neutral in its tastes, and served with less olive oil. And then there is the Galilee hummus, which I have difficulty describing but can easily recognize when tasting it.”

Tikolsker won’t say which hummusiah is the best in the country but he has no problem reciting his personal favorites, after clarifying there is no hierarchy between them. “In Jaffa and Tel Aviv, I love Hamudi, Alkalha, and Danny Foul, which despite the name is an Arab place. The owner’s name is Maher and he is originally from Nazareth. In Jerusalem, I love Arafat in the Old City. In Nazareth, I love Al-Sheikh, and in Akko I love Abū Elias (Tony). I love Maher in Tarshiha, Abū Fauzi in Kafr Yasif, and Al-Akawi in Kafr Qara.

“Up until a few years ago people would say that you only eat hummus in Arab establishments, and indeed all of my favorite hummusiot are Arab,” he continued. “But Jews learned how to make good hummus and nowadays you can find good Jewish hummusiot, like Hummus Abū-Berkowitc in Ramat Ha-Sharon.” Adding the prefix “Abū” to the Ashkenazi-Jewish name Berkowitc is obviously a joke, referring to the kunya—the practice of referring to Arabic parents by the name of their oldest child—which is the reason that so many hummusiot are called Abū-something.

I also asked Atzmon which is the best hummusiah in the country. His favorite is Alkalha in Jaffa—his home turf. But the best hummusiah in the country, he said, is Arafat in the Old City of Jerusalem. “It’s not just the best hummus in Israel—their hummus is the best dish you can eat in Israel, period.”

As much as Israelis like to romanticize the hummusiah experience, there are other types of hummus that are part of the Israeli experience as well. One of them is homemade hummus. The book even includes a recipe. Lots of Israelis make hummus at home and it usually has a homemade charm. The recipe in the book, Tikolsker promises, is different. It’s hummus like you’d find in a hummusiah. The recipe includes tips he got from professionals and he promises that if you follow instructions exactly, the outcome will taste like in an actual hummusiah.

The book also includes episodes about two highly dubious kinds of hummus that Israelis feel nostalgic about: 1980s-style Israeli-steakhouse hummus (which has a cementlike consistency, usually contains preservatives, and is frequently served with canned mushrooms on top) and hummus in a small tin can manufactured by Telma, which for many was the first hummus they ever tasted (it doesn’t exist anymore). Refrigerated supermarket hummus in plastic containers is a strict no-no, but the two aforementioned types of hummus, although controversial, are loved by many. Neither are considered “good hummus,” but for their cultural significance they can’t be ignored.

Yes, Israelis are obsessed with hummus. And not everybody likes that. Some regard it as cultural appropriation, or worse. “Israel’s obsession with appropriating Palestinian food and culture is more than mere theft,” wrote journalist Ben White, author of Israeli Apartheid: A Beginner’s Guide, “it is about erasing the memory and identity of Palestine’s people.”

The cultural appropriation accusation is mentioned in The Big Hummusiot Guide but Tikolsker doesn’t feel any qualms about his hummus obsession. “There are so many things we need to address seriously, and rightfully so,” he said. “I don’t think we need to force seriousness on a discussion about hummus. We can acknowledge the Arab original, add in humor that hummus might have been mentioned in the Bible, and just judge hummus by its quality and not its religion or nationality. All in all, Arab hummus is still much better than Jewish hummus.”

Dana Kessler has written for Maariv, Haaretz, Yediot Aharonot, and other Israeli publications. She is based in Tel Aviv.

Support Our Journalism Today

The Jewish world needs a place like Tablet where varying—even conflicting—viewpoints can exist side by side. Our times demand an engagement with big ideas and not a retreat from them.

Help us do what we do.