Hummus, In War and Peace

by Sarah on December 22, 2009

What could be more benign than a plate of hummus?

Don’t let appearances fool you; people have worked up a frenzy debating the various aspects of this humble dish.  Everything is disputed; from where the best hummus is made, what type of chickpeas should be used, what is the best recipe, where hummus originated and even who owns hummus.

In culinary terms The Arab-Israeli conflict boils down to hummus and when Israel encroached on this much beloved dish it was taken very seriously.  If hummus was made into the official national food of Palestine perhaps nobody would raise an eyebrow but in Israel it is equally as ubiquitous.  True, polish Jews were not eating hummus garnished with horseradish but the Sephardic Jews, or Arab Jews as they were once known had as much affinity to the chickpeas as their fellow Muslim or Christian Arab neighbors. When thousands of Sephardic Jews immigrated to Israel, eating a myriad of colorful cuisines it is not surprising that hummus rose to the top; it is cheap, healthy and very versatile, the same reason the indigenous Arabs were eating it. Janna Gur, Israeli food critic, also believes that the early Jewish settlers in Israel who came from Russia rejected the food from the Diaspora and embraced the Arabic style of cooking.

Partly to protest the brazen outpouring of the Israeli love of hummus the Lebanese decided to take it a step farther and made the biggest hummus in the history of the universe, a colossal achievement simply to bring the point home: Hummus is ours (and then Israeli counter attacked with one even larger and then Lebanon retaliates…).  It is one thing to be patriotic but another thing entirely to be so nationalistic that not only are differences between other nations rejected even similarities are disputed. Tensions in the Middle East are even felt on the culinary level by those who feel it is important to differentiate from the enemy and hate the idea of sharing, especially something so fundamental.

Despite all the controversy surrounding the chickpea it can also be considered the peacemaker as in the case of the joint chickpea research collaboration between Israeli and Palestinian scientists, funded by UNESCO’s Israeli-Palestinian Scientific Organization (IPSO). Shahal Abbo of the Faculty of Agricultural Sciences, Department of Field Crops and Genetics, at Hebrew University located in Rehovot and Palestinian scientist Mustafa Khamis, a physical chemist at Al-Quds University have become friends while working together studying ways to increase farm productivity in the arid climate of the Palestinian territories and Israel.

The chickpea ( Cicer arietinum), considered a third world crop and not high in the priorities of academic research was chosen by Shahal Abbo as his topic of interest because of its connection with crop evolution. Based on his research he suggested that chickpeas were one of the first crops grown in fields, also known as founder crops, together with wheat, lentils and peas despite being difficult to domesticate. Chickpeas have high levels of tryptophan, a nutrient essential for human development and the most likely reason for the importance of this crop during ancient times.  Shahal Abbo proposes the area of what is today south-eastern Turkey and northern Syria as the probable area of first domestication because there are the highest number of wild progenitors located there and not in the Jordan Valley and Southern Levant as some believed.

Despite the ancestry of the chickpea, the hummus that is known today with the combination of pureed chickpeas and sesame paste (Tehina) is a relatively new addition to the culinary table and probably invented in Syria or Lebanon.  The Middle Eastern countries have many of the same culinary attributes because of their shared history and several countries can equally boast having the  best hummus, including Israel. While many hummus restaurants are owned by Arabs, it is no longer monopolized by them, although they are still very popular.

If you talk to any hummus maker they are very specific about how to make hummus but it is nearly impossible to obtain the recipe. From what I have gathered from merchants, restaurant owners, books and the internet there are two main types of chickpeas that are preferred for making hummus, the Hadas and the Bulgarian variety.

Common name Bulgarian(Bulgarit) Hadas Spanish(Spharadit) Kala Chana(Bengal Gram)
Variety Kabuli Kabuli Kabuli Desi
Center of Origin South-Eastern Turkey South-Eastern Turkey South-Eastern Turkey South-Eastern Turkey
Origin of Variety Bulgaria Israel/Palestine Mexico Ethiopian
Uses HummusFalafelStews and soups HummusFalafelStews and soups For stews and soups.Can be used for hummus but is not the preferred type Ethiopians germinate orsoak and dry roast for snacks. Indians make curries
Area of growth Temperate regions Temperate regions Temperate regions Semi-arid tropics

* Notes on the flavor, texture and cookings times of the different variety of chickpeas at bottom

The origin of cuisine and its development is part of a nation’s history but it is also an indispensible part of daily life and rituals, weaving together memories and flavors and linking the past to the present.  On a personal, religious and national level food is an important composition of identity which everyone can participate in. As Shooky Galili who authors the Israeli Hummus blog writes,

“Hummus doesn’t belong to the country that invented it, but the people who love it” and I couldn’t agree with him more.

What’s next? Jawdat Ibrahim who organized the hummus event in Abu Gosh wants to work with Lebanon on a joint world record project but says “competition is healthy” and is ready to defend his Guiness World record.

Hummus topped with meat

My major problem when cooking chickpeas or any other large bean, and something I didn’t realize for years, is the exceptionally hard tap water in the area. After doing some research I read that Calcium ions, Ca2+, found in hard water, can form cross links between pectin molecules making them less soluble and keeping the beans tough. The baking soda binds the Calcium molecules allowing the beans to soften. Too much baking soda leaves a soapy after taste and also degrades some of the B vitamins. My husband’s grandmother always used baking soda and I always dismissed this as an old wives tale but she was right all along.

I also don’t always peel the chickpeas because that is such a tedious job but many do this extra step to produce a smoother product.  This hummus is good, but for heavenly hummus I usually like to go to the professional hummus restaurants.

Meat topping

500 grams ground meat, beef or lamb

1 onion, chopped

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon black pepper

1 teaspoon baharat

1/2 cup toasted almonds or pinenuts (heat almonds in a pan with a bit of oil until they brown)

Two cups of dried chickpeas
¼ -1/2cup tehina
Juice of about one lemon, or ¼ cup
2 teaspoons salt.
1-2 cloves garlic, crushed

Soak the beans overnight with abundant purified water, if in doubt us a pinch of baking powder. Boil the beans in purified water and then reduce heat to a simmer. Once the beans are soft but still hold their shape, drain them reserving the cooking water. Put aside about ¾ cups of cooked chickpeas. Put the remainder of the chickpeas in a food processor until a paste is formed. The paste should hold together and not be liquid but the consistency of creamy peanut butter. Add tehina (sesame paste), garlic lemon juice and salt. Add cooking water if the mixture is too dry.

For the meat topping

Fry the onion until it is golden, add the garlic and mix for a few moments making sure it doesn’t burn. Add the ground meat and cook while breaking lumps with the back of a fork until the color changes. Continue to cook the meat until it becomes dark brown, while cooking in its own fat. This is an important step to create a more flavorful dish. Add the spices and mix well.
To prepare a plate of hummus, take a few tablespoons of hummus and spread it on a plate using the back of the spoon, creating a valley in the middle to put few tablespoons of meat topping. Add the toasted nuts on top. Serve with pita bread and salad.

I am still learning about the differences between the chickpeas in terms of flavor, texture and cooking times. From my experience the smaller the chickpea the harder they are and the longer they take to cook, at least the chickpeas I get here. Also the skin of the Bulgarian chickpeas do not come off as easily as the others, perhaps I need to extend the cooking times. The Hadas and Bulgarian chickpeas have a stronger flavor and the reason they are more popular in dishes that consists mainly of chickpeas, such as hummus and falafel. There are many more cultivars of chickpeas but these are the most popular in Israel.


Crop evolution in Rehovot, Much More than Falafel, Lab Times

Crop Gene Bank

The chickpea, summer cropping, and a new model for pulse domestication in the ancient near east., Q Rev Biol. 2003 Dec;78(4):435-48.

Abbo S, Shtienberg D, Lichtenzveig J, Lev-Yadun S, Gopher A.

Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Rehovot 76100, Israel.

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