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Saturday, August 4, 2012

Hunting for hummus in Israel

Tubs of hummus – cooked, mashed chickpeas mixed with garlic, olive oil and lemon — fill refrigerators all over the globe, but where can the best be found? One contender for the gold medal is Israel, where, despite political differences, locals have embraced this Arabic dish as their own.

Although the origin of hummus (which simply means “chickpea” in Arabic), is unclear, people have been consuming this thick savoury paste for millennia in the Middle East. Medieval recipe books show it was eaten in Egypt and the Levant (Palestine, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon) before spreading to Turkey, Greece and across the Mediterranean.
Since then, it has become the basis of an entire food culture in Israel. In fact, according to Israel-based hummus manufacturer Sabra Salads, Israelis consume twice as much hummus as their Arab neighbours. The most popular version of hummus in Israel is served warm in a large bowl, sprinkled with parsley, cumin and other spices. It has the consistency of a very thick soup and is scooped up with hot pita bread, raw onion and pickled cucumbers. In Palestinian areas, hummus is usually served at breakfast, sometimes accompanied with labaneh (cold yoghurt) and fresh mint leaves. Indeed, many of the Arab hummus eateries are only open until 2 pm each day, following the traditional Arabic saying that “kings eat hummus in the morning”, referring to the tradition of cooking a pot of chickpeas overnight and savouring the freshest portion at dawn.
Israel originally adopted hummus as its unofficial national dish because it suited Jewish Kashrut laws — religious rules that deal with eating and food preparation. Religious Jews buy only kosher-certified products and they separate their meat and dairy foods. Since hummus complements vegetarian, dairy and meat dishes, it became a popular choice, and over time, has become much more than just a dip.
“We have such a deep respect for the dish in Israel that there are eateries around the country devoted to serving just hummus,” explained Inbal Baum, founder of the tour company Delicious Israel, which offers culinary and speciality boutique walks, including popular guided “hummus crawls” in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. “There are so many varieties of hummus developed in Israel based on ethnic tradition and local style that you could easily spend a long weekend touring just for hummus. Many Israelis trace their roots back to Arabic-speaking countries, and this fusion is reflected in their creative cuisine.”
The humble dish of hummus represents, quite literally, the melting pot of Israeli culture. In the last century, Jewish immigrants from countries such as Iraq, Yemen and Morocco each brought with them their own unique hummus habits. For example, Iraqis serve hummus with sabich (fried eggplant and boiled eggs) while Moroccans prefer Hasa Al Hummus, a vegetarian chickpea soup.
In more recent decades, Israel has received a growing number of African immigrants and today there is even a Sudanese hummus joint in Tel Aviv called Hummus Gan Eden (46 Yona Ha’Navi Street; 972-03-510-2230). Their African-flavoured menu features Special Hummus Darfur, which adds egg, tomato and grated cheese to the mix.
Yet, to find an authentic family-run hummusia (an eatery devoted solely to hummus) in Israel you need to be in the know. Most traditional hummus places are housed in old buildings, often hidden down alleyways and with signs only in Hebrew or Arabic. It seems the really good places do not need to advertise, as word-of-mouth reviews bring in the crowds.
A good place to start your hummus hunt is in Tel Aviv’s Yemenite Quarter. This sleepy old-fashioned neighbourhood in the centre of town, footsteps away from the bustling Carmel Market, was originally inhabited by Jewish immigrants from Yemen. Its narrow lanes play host to a number of hummus and soup kitchens such as Achim Aziri (30 Yihye Street, 972-03-516-0783), which serves hummus hot with skhug (a traditional Yemenite-style spicy sauce made from red or green peppers).
For a slice of Jamaica, head to one of the liveliest little eateries in town, Hummus Abu Dhabi (81 King George Street; 972-03-525-9090). Reggae music is popular with young Israelis, so it makes sense that this place mixes the sounds of Bob Marley with its chickpea offerings.