Making the Case for Israeli Hummus

February 9, 2014Dan Garwood

I love hummus. No, like, I really love hummus.

I’m not sure you understand: I have eaten hummus for breakfast. Just hummus, with help from its good friend pita. Same goes for lunch and, on occasion, dinner.

Hummus is not just an appetizer, nor a condiment (though it performs those jobs admirably). Really good hummus is a satisfying meal unto itself.

I picked up my hummus habit in high school, when I spent a semester in Israel on with NFTY-EIE High School in Israel, a Reform Jewish study-abroad program. On some of our frequent field trips, I saw old men playing dominoes in the Jerusalem shuk (marketplace), a bowl of hummus by one hand and worn wooden game pieces by the other.

As an impressionable teenager spending four months in our ancestral homeland, I wanted to do everything as “Israeli” as possible. Hummus for lunch, then. That’s how my love affair began.

And I’m not alone in my devotion. In Israel, hummus is both a staple and way of life. It’s served three times a day in kibbutz cafeterias. Abu Gosh, an Arab-Israeli village in the Judean hills, is widely hailed as producing the best hummus in the country. The village is also in the midst of a “hummus war” with Lebanon, vying for the Guinness World Record title for Largest Bowl of Hummus (Lebanon is the current leader). Hummus is even invoked as a metaphor for the politics of the region and in appeals for peace.

Growing up in a Jewish home, my first interaction with mashed chickpeas came long before my junior year of high school. My mother often made homemade hummus to serve as a nosh (snack) before family holiday dinners. She’s a fantastic cook (I’m not just saying that because she’s my mother), and she would often produce creative takes on traditional Eastern European Jewish cuisine. I’m talking pot roast with caramelized onions and pomegranate molasses, rosemary-seasoned potato latkes, creamy yogurt and eggplant dip… but her hummus was, well, boring.

That’s not to say my mother’s hummus isn’t good. It’s just not the mind-blowing, life-altering, ideal chickpea mash that you can get from any old shmuck in the shuk for a few shekels. Thus, I think a comparison is in order. First, my mother’s recipe: heavy on the garlic and cumin, brownish-yellow in color, and the consistency of Play-Doh. My theory is that my mother’s holiday cooking was informed by Eastern European Jewish cuisine, where there’s often a little too much flavor and some weird consistencies (I’m looking at you, chopped liver); it seems reasonable, then, that her hummus was made to stand up to that flavor profile.

On the other side, we’ve got Israeli hummus. Soft and creamy, yet viscous enough to cling to your pita. Glistening off-white, the color of Jerusalem stone, with puddles of green-gold olive oil. Maybe some whole chickpeas or pine nuts on top. The perfect blend of chickpea starch, mildly bitter tahini, a light zing of garlic and lemon, a grassy overtone of olive oil, and a touch of cumin to tie it all together. That’s the hummus I fell in love with.

Whether or not you’ve ever been to Israel, I encourage you to try hummus as more than just an appetizer. Start with this great Israeli-style recipe from Tina Wasserman. The stuff is satisfyingly filling, packed with protein, ridiculously healthy, and obviously vegetarian-friendly. It’s also easy to make and keeps well in the refrigerator, so you’ll never be in short supply. And, of course, there’s nothing stopping you from serving hummus as an appetizer if that’s your preference – just remember to leave room for dinner!

International Hummus Day is May 13! Celebrate by making one of these delicious homemade hummus recipes.

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