Hummus and The Hummus Wars: A Delicious Story of Controversy
By: Noah Robertson/Arab America Contributing Writer
Love for hummus has swept across the world, but what many do not know is the controversy that rages around it. Its spelling, origins, how to properly make it, and who makes it best are all hotly debated. Some readers might have even heard of The Hummus Wars, which we will go into later. Hummus has been around for thousands of years and is so popular because it is delicious, easy to make, and versatile. Grab a bowl of hummus and your favorite food to scoop it with, and we will learn about its history and why it can be so controversial.
What Is Hummus?
Most people consider “real” hummus to be a blend of chickpeas (garbanzos), tahini (sesame paste), lemon juice, garlic, and olive oil. It can vary from being thicker to thinner and smoother to chunkier, but those five ingredients are the base of what most consider hummus today. Each hummus shop, manufacturer, home-chef, or anyone else will have their own variation and will add ingredients such as salt, cumin, paprika, red pepper flakes, etc. There are also many topping variations such as fava beans, chickpeas, lamb, pine nuts, etc. People have even created dessert versions.
In theory, hummus can be made in just about any way, but what is considered traditional is referred to as hummus b’tahini, translated to chickpeas with tahini (some say tahina). This means it must have these two ingredients for it to be considered “real” by most. We will soon see why this distinction matters.
The issue with spelling hummus is the translation from Arabic into written English, which is nearly impossible to do exactly right. Given this, hummus, hommus, houmous, hommos, and hummus are all used by some. The first two are the most popular, and the third is mainly said by the British; the variation is pretty much based on pronunciation. Many Arabs say hommus because they pronounce it as such, and Americans say hummus. This article will spell it as “hummus,” but does not claim one spelling is right or wrong.
Where Does Hummus Come From?
Well, this is a loaded question. Despite its popularity, many do not know its origins, and to be blunt, most do not care that is outside of the Middle East. No one can say exactly where hummus comes from because it has been around for so long, and written texts were haphazard, incomplete, and often dated by the time they were written and widely read. What is certain, is that all of the ingredients for hummus were available and known predating writing, lemons were the last ingredients, introduced in 700 CE.
There are a few likely theories about when hummus first was popularized, with an early record being found in 13th century Egypt. The record is in a cookbook called Kitab Wasf al-Atima al-Mutada, using the term “hummus b’tahini,” but it actually uses vinegar and no tahini or garlic. Another record from that century is in Kitāb al-Wusla ilā l-habīb from Syria, but this recipe also has just chickpeas and lemon. In the 18th century, Damascus, a recipe with chickpeas, tahini, garlic, and lemon was found, and this seems to be the earliest record of “real” hummus. The cookbook also says no other people know about this dish, but this is difficult to believe, given the common use and knowledge of the ingredients.
A fourth possible origin, albeit a bit less likely, is one that claims hummus as a Jewish food because of a passage from the Book of Ruth. The passage says, “Come hither, and eat of the bread, and dip thy morsel in the hometz.” Some Israelis claim “hometz” to be hummus, but its direct translation is “vinegar.” Those supporting this theory dispute this by saying no one would want bread and vinegar, but others argue that bread dipped into olive oil and vinegar is common. This theory is not widely accepted especially with the translation of “hometz.”
What People Think of These Theories
Charles Perry, president of the Culinary Historians of Southern California, believes that Damascus, Syria is the likely choice for who invented hummus. Throughout much of the Middle East, hummus is served in a red-clay bowl with a raised edge, and it is then whisked with a pestle, so it mounds up along the edge. Given this, Perry said it indicates, “…a sophisticated urban product, not an ancient folk dish. I’m inclined to think hummus was developed for the Turkish rulers in Damascus.” Damascus was the largest city with the most sophisticated ruling class, but he chooses Beirut, Lebanon as the second most likely location given their sophistication, “with a vigorous culinary tradition, and lemons were abundant there.”
If one were to ask the general public theories, vary widely, but most people agree that there cannot be a determination for where exactly hummus came from. The ingredients were too far spread, and the written history too spotty to be sure. However, there is a lot more certainty among those who debate whether it is an Arab or Jewish dish.
The Hummus Wars
The official start of the so-called Hummus Wars was in May of 2008 when Hummus Tzabar, an Israeli manufacturer, served an 881lb plate of hummus. This enraged Lebanon who already felt as if Israel had stolen a traditional Arab food and rebranded it as Israeli in the Western world. Fadi Abboud, minister of tourism and chairman of the Lebanese Industrialists Association, recently came from a food exhibition in France where hummus was referred to as Israeli. This led to the second “attack.”
In October 2009, Lebanon beat Israel’s record with a 4,500lb dish of hummus that put them in the Guinness Book of World Records. At the time, Abboud was also leading an effort to register the word “hummus” with the European Union as Lebanese. He wanted Lebanon to have exclusive rights to producing and selling hummus. This, of course, was fueled by nationalistic pride and anger over Israeli-hummus company’s domination of Western markets, but it also was economically minded. If the trademark had been allowed, it would have been a major source of economic strength for Lebanon. Other countries have been given exclusive trademarks on foods, such as feta for Greece, but Lebanon could not prove hummus originated there. Therefore, the EU considered it to be from the general region leading to the request being rejected.
As they attempt to register the food was going on, Israel fought back in January 2010 with a 5,000lb dish. The record was broken by Jawdat Ibrahim, an Arab-Israeli restaurant owner from Abu Gosh (an Arab village). He wanted to prove that “hummus is for everybody,” not just for the Lebanese. His idea was essentially that hummus should be for everyone and hopefully a peaceful unifier of a dish everyone loves.
Attack #4: The Final Battle
Then, in May of 2010, Lebanon concluded the world record battle with 22,994lbs of hummus (also setting the falafel world record at 11,381lbs). Their record still stands today, and though no one can agree on where hummus originated, Lebanon can say they are in the Guinness Book of Records for it.
The Deeper Story Behind The Hummus Wars
While an interesting back and forth “battle,” there is a deeper significance behind this “war.” 72 years ago, Israel was given Palestinian land by the European government to have as their own. Early settlers in Israel were quick to adopt local Arab food products for a couple of likely reasons. The simplest is that it was tasty and well-adapted to the region, it also helped them get around state rationing systems, but most importantly, it tied them to the land. Given that the State of Israel was claiming land, by adopting local food, they aimed to establish a sense of nativism there. Though settlers adopted hummus, they stripped the Arab association because anything “Arab” was politically charged, and with mass consumption, it became “Israeli.”
For many, this Israel actions directly reflect Israeli geopolitical current and historical moves to take territory from Palestine and settle there. It also is representative, to the broader Arab world, of Israel’s use of dishes considered traditionally Arab like tabouli and falafel, to reap economic benefits for Israel. To many Arabs, “The Hummus Wars” represents the larger war with Israeli over its push for control in Palestine and its rocky relationship with the Arab World. With companies like Sabra having 40%+ of the US hummus market share and Israel pushing to not allow Palestinian hummus to be sold in Jerusalem, this is more than a debate over food origins. Sabra also means an Israeli Jew born in Israel, which is a double blow to many Arabs. Not only do many see Israel as profiting off their food, but they see them as flaunting their success.
This further is complicated by the fact that there are many Arab-Israelis and that many Israelis actually seek out Arab-owned hummus shops because they are so good. Take Jawdat Ibrahim, for example. He is an Arab-Israeli, and though he may consider hummus Israeli, he does not say it is not Arab. Many Israelis actually agree that it cannot be traced to anywhere in particular or that it is actually Arab. Even those who say hummus is Israeli are not always attempting to be mutually exclusive; many simply say it is a part of Israeli culture and Arab culture. In fact, many who argue over hummus are just debating who makes it best, but this debate does not make the news.
This is Complicated, can You Simplify It?
Essentially, the debate is not really about hummus. It is about the relationship Israel has with the Arab world. It is not a good one; Israel has fought with many Arab countries, taken land from Palestinians, and committed un-disputable crimes. Hummus is simply a milder symbol for the feelings that many Arabs have about Israel and how it has taken their culture and food to brand as Israeli and/or make a profit off of in the West. The idea of another culture profiting more off what one considers theirs traditionally is not an easy pill to swallow and stirs up memories of Israel’s other actions in the Arab world for many.
Just like in the physical conflict, in the hummus conflict, not everyone is at war or locked into an extreme point of view. Many are in the middle of these conflicts and simply hoping for peace; maybe food is the way to find it. Only time will tell, but despite all this, go and enjoy a little bit of peace and happiness in a homemade bowl of hummus made however you like!
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