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Food Files: Who Invented Hummus?

posted on: May 13, 2018



Hummus is one of the world’s oldest and most savored foods, with groups such as the Turks, Greeks, Lebanese, and even Israelis having a rich hummus history. But of all these countries, who can claim hummus as its own? Let’s have a dip into this spicy matter and see what we can digest from it.

Food Files: Who Invented Hummus?

Egyptian Hummus recipe. Image credits: Paul Goyette.

Hummus history

If you don’t know what hummus is, then you’re missing out. The delicious spread, which also serves as a dip, is made from mashed chickpeas blended with tahini, olive oil, lemon juice, salt, and garlic (recipes may vary). You can find it in grocery stores and restaurants all throughout Europe, the Middle East and Northern Africa, and it’s slowly making its way through North America as well. Its origin is hotly debated, with several countries claiming it as their own.

“Hummus” comes from the Arabic word meaning “chickpeas” — a legume which has been grown for at least 10,000 years in the Middle East, and is still widely popular in a variety of dishes. The lesser used full name of hummus is actually ḥummuṣ bi ṭaḥīna, which means “chickpeas with tahini”. So whoever can claim the dish as its own needs to incorporate tahini, a paste made from hulled sesame seeds, into the recipe.

The name also seems to suggest that hummus originates in an Arabic country, though that’s not necessarily the case. The oldest recipe of something similar to hummus was written in Cairo in the 13th century, featuring vinegar and pickled lemons with herbs, spices, and oil, but no tahini or garlic. Ironically, the first recipe for tahini also comes from a (different) Egyptian cookbook, but this still isn’t enough to solidify their claim.

A biblical food?

“It’s a Jewish food,” said chef Tom Kabalo of Raq Hummus in the Israeli-occupied territory of Golan Heights, discussing with the BBC. “It was mentioned in our bible 3,500 years ago.”

The passage he is referring to is a part of the third and final section of the Hebrew Bible: “Come hither, and eat of the bread, and dip thy morsel in the hometz.”

Food Files: Who Invented Hummus?

Hummus is traditionally made from chickpeas.

However, while hometz sounds a bit like hummus, there’s a good reason to doubt that they are the same thing: in modern Hebrew, hometz actually means vinegar. Of course, “dip your bread in vinegar” doesn’t really sound like the warmest of welcomes, but it’s still enough to cast a shadow of a doubt.

Greece also claims hummus as their own. It’s certainly a staple in Greek cuisine, but then again so is the baklava — a honey-based cake which likely originated in Turkey. There was a lot of trade and crossover between the Greeks, the Turks, and other Middle Eastern people, so the Greeks’ claim is also questionable at best.

Egypt, Greece, and Israel aren’t the only contenders. Other Middle Eastern countries also lay claim to hummus, and out of all of them, Lebanon seems the strongest. American food historian Charles Perry, president of the Culinary Historians of Southern California and an expert on medieval Arab food, treats the Lebanese claim seriously. He believes that Lebanon would be his second choice for the origin of hummus. Beirut, Lebanon’s capital, has a history as a vibrant, cultural city that uses lemons and olive oil in a variety of dishes. His first choice, however, would be Damascus, the capital Syria.

Food Files: Who Invented Hummus?

Image credits: Foodista / Flickr.

He believes that modern hummus originated in Damascus. The reason for this lies not in the recipe itself, but rather in the plate in which it was served. Hummus is traditionally served in a red clay bowl, gently whisked around so that it piles up along that edge. This particular type of bowl traces its origin to Syria, and to the rich aristocracy in the city.

“The practice of whipping hummus up against the wall of the bowl indicates a sophisticated urban product, not an ancient folk dish. I’m inclined to think hummus was developed for the Turkish rulers in Damascus,” Perry told the BBC.

At the end of the day, Perry himself says that this particular debate won’t be solved anytime soon.

“Nobody can say who invented hummus, or when. Or where, particularly given the eagerness with which people in the Middle East borrow one another’s dishes. But I associate it with Damascus in the 18th Century because it was the largest city with a sophisticated ruling class,” he said.

Popular dishes come and go, and just because a particular food resembles one that was popular centuries ago doesn’t mean that one stems from the other. So Perry believes that 18th century Damascus is likely where hummus, as we know it today, originated.

Why this matters, at least for some

It might seem like a trivial matter, one that’s not worth anything more than a drunken debate, but the origin of hummus is important for much more than just patriotism or a sense of culinary identity. The already legendary ‘Hummus Wars’ began in 2008 when Lebanon accused Israel of cashing in on what they believed to be their rightful heritage. They sued Israel for copyright infringement and issued a petition to the European Union to acknowledge hummus as a Lebanese food. Both efforts proved ineffective, but this did nothing to quell the fiery battle. It’s unlikely that the Hummus War will end anytime soon, but that doesn’t really prevent anyone from enjoying the dish itself.

Hummus isn’t just delicious; it’s also healthy, containing protein, fiber, and a hefty amount of potassium, iron, magnesium, folate, manganese and vitamin B-6. It’s a nutrient-rich food that has almost no saturated fats when prepared with the original, healthy ingredients.

At the end of the day, as important as the debate may be for national producers, it makes little difference for us, the consumers. The best we can do is enjoy this delicious and historical dish, in its purest possible form.