The Origin and Metamorphosis of Hummus
By: Blanche Shaheen/Arab America Contributing Writer
The Egyptians are not only known for their pyramids—but they have also been making and eating hummus for over 7000 years, so many believe hummus originated in Egypt. Cookbooks from the 13th century in both Egypt and Syria both have chickpea purees without tahini in their recipe collection, but the historical origin of this dip is still nebulous. For instance, the mystery remains as to who added tahini to the chickpea puree to turn it into the ubiquitous hummus eaten today. The word “hummus” is literally the Arabic word for garbanzo beans.
One fact remains certain, many countries throughout Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria take pride and ownership of their hummus, adding their own styles and touches to this globally popular dip. For instance, the Palestinian Jibrini family takes pride in making tahini the old-fashioned way, with their sesame mill that remains in Jerusalem from the Ottoman empire. This mill is one of the last remaining in the world, where sesame grains are toasted in a traditional stone oven, rather than a modern metal and electrically powered oven. The flavor that results from the sesame grains toasted on these stone bricks gives their tahini an unparalleled flavor in the modern world. The family members adhere to their ancestor’s backbreaking methods of standing at the iron door opening of the oven’s inferno, raking the mounds of sesame with a long-handled iron rake for literally hours at a time. The flavor of this particular tahini gives hummus a flavor that more closely resembles the original, ancestral hummus from centuries past.
However, American food historian Charles Perry, president of the Culinary Historians of Southern California and an expert on medieval Arab food, believes modern hummus originated in Damascus Syria. The reason? The common red clay bowl used to make and serve hummus originated in Syria. He believes “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.” Not to leave the Lebanese out of this narrative, Perry thinks Lebanon is also a serious contender, because their cuisine uses lemons and olive oil in many of their dishes. Indeed, the Lebanese take their role in the history of hummus very seriously. To this day they hold the world record in making the largest platter of hummus to date, weighing in at 10,452 kilograms.
There is no doubt that hummus is rooted in ancient traditions that are thousands of years old, and purists believe the only real hummus contains chickpeas, lemon juice, olive oil, tahini, salt, and cumin. However, with the recent popularity of hummus in American markets, the definition and interpretation of hummus has gotten lost in translation. This poor dip now wrestles with western gastronomic gaffes, mixed with everything from gingerbread spice and coconut curry, to chocolate and even salted caramel flavors. One of the latest offenders is “tabouli hummus” where days old tabouli salad, which only tastes good fresh, is incorporated into the hummus. Trader Joes must have thought adding soggy salad flavors to hummus was a good idea, since they now carry this product on their shelves.
The meaning of cultural appropriation is “the act of taking or using things from a culture that is not your own, especially without showing that you understand or respect this culture.” Western companies have truly taken on this definition of appropriation, shoving true hummus and its ancient traditions by the wayside in favor of gimmicky flavors. Even their plain hummus products contain inflammatory seed oils instead of olive oil and tahini, as well as factory produced citric acid instead of fresh lemon juice. Cumin is only an afterthought, if added at all.
Worse yet, all of these unconventional flavors have nothing to do with true hummus. Perhaps companies can be more truthful in their product labeling, calling them flavored chickpea purees rather than cashing in on the hummus name. In the video below, my mother and I sample a cross-section of flavored chickpea spreads, and find some atrocious combinations, as well as some that are more palatable:
Making hummus from scratch tastes so much better than any store bought hummus, and literally takes less time to make than going to the supermarket. The flavors of fresh lemon juice and garlic, along with good quality cumin is missing from most hummus on supermarket shelves. The recipe below yields more than 2 cups of hummus for only about $2.00, a fraction of the price of store bought hummus, which ranges anywhere from $4.00 to $7.00 a container with half the volume.
1 (15-ounce) can chickpeas
1/3 cup tahini paste
1/3 cup lemon juice, or to taste
1 clove garlic, or to taste
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
Optional extra garnishes:
Olive oil, paprika, chopped parsley, olives, pickle and tomato wedges
Drain the chickpeas, reserving about 1/4 cup liquid. Place the chickpeas with tahini, lemon juice, garlic, cumin and salt in a food processor and blend until smooth. If the hummus is too thick, add some of the reserved chickpea liquid until it reaches desired consistency.
Place the hummus in the center of a large flat plate and spread it toward the edges with a spoon, creating a rim around the edges so it looks sort of like a pizza crust. Drizzle with fruity extra virgin olive oil, and if desired, garnish the edges with dashes of paprika, chopped parsley, pickles and olives.
For a demonstration of how to make homemade hummus, click on the video below:
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Blanche Shaheen is a journalist, host of the cooking show called Feast in the Middle East, and soon to be cookbook author. She specializes in Arab cuisine of the Levant and beyond. You can check out her cooking video tutorials and cultural commentary on growing up Arab American at https://www.youtube.com/user/blanchetv Her recipes can also be found at https://feastinthemiddleeast.wordpress.com/