The Hummus Standoff

by Sarah on January 21, 2010

After researching hummus and chickpeas for a post, I decided to visit some of the better known hummus venues in Israel. There are numerous hummusias, as they are locally known, but Abu Hassan in Jaffa and Halil’s in Ramle have become a pilgrimage to some.

Abu Hassan, which is also known as Ali Caravan, is located right outside of ancient Jaffa overlooking the Mediterranean which certainly makes everything taste better. I had meandered all across the old city, trying to find the hummusia, and had the bad luck to ask the competition who walked me up, down and around to his restaurant instead of giving me proper directions.

This can't be it...

It’s supposed to be a hole in the wall, this isn’t it either…
I am getting closer

When I did finally arrive it was packed with people waiting on line, wedged together around tables and streaming in and out for takeaway.

I asked a hustled waiter if it was possible to take a picture of the establishment and this seemed to trigger instantaneous interest, especially after I mentioned writing a blog. The captain made a Herculean effort to gather every worker for a group picture, leaving the ship unmanned during the storm and flooding it with customers.

Group picture at Abu Hassan/Ali Caravan

About a nanosecond after the 1st picture was taken, man the yards!

Mind you, this is high time in the hummusia and every worker seems to be in two places at once, zipping about like valence electrons. Many agree that Abu Hassan has the best hummus in Israel and regularly come to pay their homage.

Huge pot of hadas chickpeas, unpeeled

On my way back, embarrassingly, it took me no more than five minutes to get to my car.

Halil's in Ramle

Halil’s, situated near the shuk in Ramle, is farther away from the regular tourist destinations in a historic and crumbling old part of town yet still bustling with local activity.  My first visit there happened to be Christmas day and the proprietor had a little decorated tree on top of the coca cola machine and church bells could be heard in the distance but other than that it was business as usual.  As it was still morning when we arrived I ordered the Middle Eastern equivalent of a hearty breakfast, masabacha, a uniquely Palestinian dish of hummus, tahini and whole cooked chickpeas and my husband a dish of ful madames or Egyptian brown beans which was served with vegetables wedges of tomatoes and onions.

The quartered onions reminded me of a Mr. Bean episode where he accidently explodes the thanksgiving turkey in the microwave and has nothing to serve his guests but raw onion hors d’oeuvres on the ends of toothpicks.  I am sure this humor would be lost in this culture of fresh vegetables which struck me as even funnier as I sat there with friends munching on raw onions. Halil is not only a hummusia but a small family restaurant that serves a variety of salads and grilled meats in addition to their famous dips.

There are many theories of why hummus is so popular in Israel and countless articles have been written about it. Some say it is because it is a filling, inexpensive meal which is both tasty and healthy, others say that the early Jewish immigrants adopted this dish as a rejection of their European roots. Although I don’t think the last reason played a major role, hummus is a great equalizer because it is such a cheap and widely available source of food. In my opinion hummus has become such an icon of Israeli food, perhaps surpassing falafel because of one thing- it is one of the very few foods which is still eaten with the hands, making cutlery unnecessary.

In fact, anyone seen eating with a knife and fork would probably be ushered to the door.  There are some who would call this a very basic and rustic food culture but for me it seems both luxurious and comforting to experience food using all the senses, a method often discarded from the age of two. It does not surprise me that many Indians, who traditionally eat with their hands, are adamant about keeping this part of their food culture and I am sure that eventually, just for shock value, upscale establishments will begin to use it as well.

So you want to know who has the best hummus?

In my humble opinion it was Abu Hassan but……

Halil for sure has the best masabacha I have ever eaten.

In hummus as in life, you win some, you lose some.

Abu Hassan/Ali Caravan: 1 Dophin St, Jaffa

Halil, Near the shuk in Ramle, turn right after Hanasi gardens

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