It has been said that food is a great equalizer, but food has also been the catalyst for many a conflict and wars have even been fought over the origin of a national dish. While some food conflicts were wacky and harmless, others actually were responsible for change. Sometimes, food wars were caused by misunderstandings; in other cases, food was used as an opportune excuse in territorial disputes. Ultimately, food has played and still plays a major role in our national identities and a sometimes-unsuspecting protagonist in national, religious and political conflicts.
Interestingly, we are witnessing once more in these very days another significant step forward in the resolution of the very complicated Israeli / Arab conflict with the agreement to normalize relations between The United Arab Emirates and Israel.
So what has this got to do with food you might ask? Well as a resident of this area I have always been aware of the often delicate and complicated relationships with our Palestinian neighbors and citizens; not that I am in any way inferring or trying to `make this issue seem simplistic or trite but one could actually reference this through the dispute of who exactly owns the deed to that national dish of a simple paste made from chickpeas….Hummus!
Hummus is characteristically a quintessential Middle Eastern dish associated with Arabic food, but has become also a symbol of national identity for Israeli Jews, thus transforming this simple dish of the people into one of the unintentional symbols of the Middle East conflict. with Arabs and Israelis alike claiming it as their own. It is, in essence both essentially Israeli and utterly Middle Eastern / Arabic at the same time. Although at this point the Greeks will no doubt jump in with their own version of the story!
Hummus, the ultimate comfort food is basically a working man’s dish of blended chickpeas, sesame paste, garlic lemon and salt. Heretics and Americans add cumin; and if you want to fancy it up somewhat it is often served warm with fuul (fava beans), whole boiled chickpeas or tahini, a little paprika, chopped parsley and olive oil to finish then scoop up with fresh and fluffy pita bread, add a few pieces of raw onion to munch and maybe a spicy chili relish. Anything else is just for the tourists.
Both Arabs and Israeli Jews sometimes serve it with ground meat. One difference: while Jews eat hummus all day long, Arabs traditionally take their (warm) hummus in the morning or early afternoon.
The exact origins of this most basic of peasant dishes is lost in the mists of time and no one really knows for certain who mashed the first chick pea but most likely it originated in ancient Egypt. According to several historical sources, the earliest mention of a hummus like dish dates back to Egypt in the 13th century. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hummus#cite_note-14
Chickpeas along with lentils, beans and primitive grains were the staple foods of the Fertile Crescent regions of the Middle East and commonly eaten right up to today. In fact, the word hummus means chickpea in both modern Hebrew and Arabic. The ancient Greeks and Egyptians traded for centuries. So it is no coincident that many of the foods in the Greek and Middle Eastern repertoire are identical. Stuffed grape leaves, Baklava, kebab, and of course Hummus are all favorite middle Eastern and Greek dishes that “crossed over” especially during the height of the Ottoman Empire.
As for the Israeli connection. Hummus had been a staple food of the area for both the original Jewish and Arab inhabitants and it was eagerly adopted by the early Jewish pioneers who started the return to the land of Zion in the late 19th and early 20th century and the integrating of Arabic foods, dress and Arabic slang was seen as a way of identifying with the land. Later waves of Jews immigrating to the newly born State of Israel from other Middle Eastern countries as well as Europe quickly adopted Hummus as not only a daily staple but a virtual rite of passage for anyone wanting to be seen as “fitting in” and be accepted almost is if they were a bona fide Sabra*. Today most Israelis believe hummus to be an Israeli dish. But ironically on the other hand, when we want to eat hummus “asli”*, most Israelis will go to an Arab hummus restaurant. Just try getting a seat at Hummus Lina on the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem old city or in any one of the Middle Eastern restaurants in the Israeli Arab town Abu Ghosh where on the weekend hundreds of Israeli cars are lined up trying to find a parking spot for the best mezze, hummus and grilled meats in Israel.
Of course ask any genuine native of Tel Aviv and you will be quickly informed that only the Israeli Arab owned Abu Hassan in Jaffa is the real deal although Hummus Shlomo & Doron in the Yemenite Quarter or Hummus Hacarmel situated at the Carmel Market (easily identifiable with its colored stained-glass entrance like that of a synagogue), are also considered to be two of the best Jewish owned hummus joints in Tel Aviv
Truthfully the love of eating a plate of Hummus is probably one of the few things that both Palestinians and Israelis can agree on but maybe there is hope. Today in any one of the numerous local Israeli “hummusiya” or in Arabic restaurants whether in Jerusalem’s Old City or in one of the mixed Jewish / Arab towns like Akko or Jaffa you will find both Jewish Israelis and Arabs both Palestinian or Israeli Arab sitting down together involved in nothing more than that essential Middle Eastern pastime of “wiping” a plate of hummus.
There is no menu; one knows that there will be hummus in a few variations: Hummus with tahini, Hummus with ful, Hummus with egg, Hummus with fried minced lamb and spices and of course, Mesabacha.
That Hummus and falafel are familiar to most people around the world is a given but outside of the Middle East most people do not recognize Mesabacha. Made fresh, this fancy version of the hummus dish consists of whole cooked chickpeas and hummus combined, with garlic, lemon juice olive oil. Served warm, it is a very special and more piquant incarnation of Hummus.
To summarize It always strikes me as ironical but at the same time uplifting when I frequently make my way up to Jerusalem, wandering through the city center or the “Shuk”, Mahane Yehuda market, at the sight of both secular Jews and kippa wearing religious Jews, Israeli and East Jerusalem Palestinian Arabs, young Israeli soldiers, rifles slung over their shoulders, Arabic mothers in traditional dress with their children in tow, all mingling together to order a falafel or sitting side-by-side devouring a pita stuffed with shawarma and scooping up plates of hummus. I am fascinated that people who say they distrust each other will without a second thought, oblivious to the day to day political tensions eat the same foods, sharing in peace the same culinary traditions. Food really does close up the political divide – at least for as long as it takes to wipe clean a plate of hummus.
So let’s make Hummus not war!
Try making your own…it’s worth the effort:
Ingredients [4 extra-large bowls of Hummus]
- 1 cups dried chickpeas (the smallest you can find)
- 1/2 cup tahini
- juice from 1 squeezed lemons
- 1-2 garlic cloves
- 1/2 teaspoon cumin
- 1 tablespoon + 1/8-1/4 teaspoon baking soda
- olive oil
- Pour the chickpeas over a large plate. Go over them and look for damaged grains small stones, or any other foreign bodies!
- Wash the chickpeas several times, until the water is transparent.
- Soak them in clean water over night with 1 tablespoon of baking soda. Then, wash it, and soak again in tap water for a few more hours. The grains should absorb most of the water and almost double their volume.
- Put the cleaned and soaked chickpeas in a large pot. Cover with water, add the rest of the baking soda. DO NOT ADD SALT! .
- Cook until the grains are very easily smashed when pressed between two fingers, around 1-1.5 hours/
- During this cooking period it is recommended to remove the peels and foam which float over the cooking water and change the water once again to bring to the boil.
- When done, sieve the grains and keep the cooking water.
- Put the chickpeas into a food processor and grind well. Leave it to chill a little while before you continue.
- Add the tahini and the rest of the ingredients and go on with the food processor until you get the desired texture.
- If the Humus is too thick, add some of the cooking water. It should be thinner than the actual desired texture.
- Serve with some good olive oil and chopped parsley.
Sabra*. A Sabra (צַבָּר Hebrew, tzabar) is any Jew born in Israel. The name refers to the thorny desert plant, prickly pear, with a thick skin that conceals a sweet, softer interior. Comparing to the Israelis who are supposedly tough on the outside, but delicate and sweet on the inside
“asli”* Origin of asli is in Arabic in the word asli (أصل) meaning original or local