At Akramawi, a 65-year-old hummus joint by Damascus Gate in Jerusalem, a cook named Nader Tarawe was showing me how to prepare hummus. The recipe for hummus b’tahini (as the dish is named; ‘hummus’ simply means ‘chickpeas’), consists of chickpeas, tahini, garlic and lemon. Since it’s relatively simple to make, the variations lie more in how it’s served. Should it be it smooth or lumpy, heavier on the tahini or on the chickpeas, crowned with fava beans or more chickpeas or pine nuts or ground beef? And what’s on the side? Chips? Pickles? Hot sauce? Falafel?
Tarawe topped each plate of hummus with a dollop of tahini and a sprinkling of olive oil. “Oil is good,” he said, an accidental Middle East metaphor. Hummus is a regional metaphor, too: beloved all over the world, it’s yet another source of tension, yet another question of proprietorship. Who invented the dish? Who can claim it as their own?
Everyone from the Lebanese to the Turks to the Syrians have tried, but there’s little evidence for any theory. Most of the ingredients have been around for centuries: the chickpea dates back more than 10,000 years in Turkey and is, according to Anissa Helou, Syrian-Lebanese author of several Middle Eastern cookbooks, “one of the earliest legumes ever cultivated.” And tahini, the sesame paste that is vital to hummus b’tahini, is mentioned in 13th-Century Arabic cookbooks. But the combination of ingredients that make up the popular dish is harder to pin down.
It’s a Jewish food,” said chef Tom Kabalo of Raq Hummus in the Israeli-occupied territory of Golan Heights a few days later. “It was mentioned in our bible 3,500 years ago.” I was in his restaurant eating his Tuesday special. Because it was October, the special was ‘Halloween hummus’, garnished with shredded pumpkin and black tahini.
He’s not the only one who told me that hummus is biblical. Kabalo and others are referring to a passage from the Book of Ruth, 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.”
While it’s true that hometz does sound like hummus, there’s also a good reason to believe otherwise: in modern Hebrew, hometz means vinegar. Of course, ‘dip your bread in vinegar’ would be an odd expression of hospitality, so therein lies the uncertainty.
Hummus b’tahini consists of chickpeas, tahini, garlic and lemon