Exploring Hummus: It's Ancient, Arabic, and Amazingly Healthy
Hummus is a Middle Eastern food claimed by all and owned by none.— Oren Rosenfeld, writer and director of "Hummus! The Movie"
There's a Hummus Among Us
In the beginning, there was the chickpea (Cicer arietinum), a legume cultivated in Turkey perhaps more than 10,000 years ago. You might know it as a garbanzo bean, but rest assured that the two are synonymous. For the sake of brevity, let's stick with the name chickpea. And guess what? The word hummus is Arabic for chickpea. So the birthplace of hummus should be easy to ascertain, right?
Some Israelis state that it's a Jewish food—it's mentioned in the Bible.
In Ruth 2:14, Boaz said to Ruth, who’d been hard at work harvesting his barley all morning: “Come here, and eat of the bread, and dip your piece of bread in the hometz.”
Well, hometz sounds like hummus, but if you look at the original Hebrew (and my pastor reads and writes the language), hometz actually means vinegar. Does that strike you as an odd offering? I don't think so. When enjoying an appetizer meal in Tuscany, I've dipped my Mediterranean bread into a bowl of balsamic vinegar and olive oil so I can accept this as an invitation to a wonderful meal.
So, is it Israeli?
One of the earliest recipes for hummus bi tahini (chickpeas with tahini) appeared in a 13th-century Egyptian cookbook. But other food historians point to a 13th-century recipe from Syria.
What's the real story? According to Cooks Illustrated:
“Today chickpeas are the most consumed legume in the world, and hummus is a staple in the Middle East, where hummus shops are as common as pizza parlors in this country. Heated debate can erupt over whose hummus is best, and exact recipes are carefully guarded secrets.”
Actually, the debates went way beyond raised voices and wild-arm gesticulations. In the year 2008 chickpeas became a political hot button. The president of the Association of Lebanese Industrialists filed a lawsuit against the nation of Israel for food copyright infringement. This, dear friends, is known as The “Hummus Wars.”
To further promote national pride, the government of Lebanon petitioned the EU to have hummus classified as a uniquely Lebanese food.
The Israeli Plate Was...
Of course, a battle over whose bean dip reigns supreme can only be settled in the kitchen. In January 2010 Israeli cooks assembled the largest plate of hummus, a staggering 4,082 kilograms.
And Then the Lebanese Retaliation
Not to be outdone, 300 Lebanese chefs retaliated with a Guinness World Record plateful (actually it was a satellite dish) weighing in at 10,450 kg. To this day, Lebanon is undefeated, but bigger isn't always better.
In an online article by the BBC, American food historian Charles Perry (president of the Culinary Historians of Southern California) was quoted as saying:
“I tend to take the Lebanese claim somewhat seriously.... Beirut would be my second choice in response to the question of who invented hummus. It stood out as a sophisticated city throughout the Middle Ages, one with a vigorous culinary tradition, and lemons were abundant there.”
Therein lies the question—if Lebanon holds second place, who would Perry claim as the victor in the hummus war? Mr. Perry thinks that Syria is actually the most likely birthplace of hummus. According to his interview with the BBC:
"The traditional way of serving hummus throughout much of the Middle East is in a particular red clay bowl with a raised edge. The hummus is whisked around briskly with a pestle so that it mounds up along that edge. Not only does this present the hummus conveniently for picking up with bread, it proves that the hummus has the proper texture, neither too slack nor too stiff.
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.
Nobody can say who invented hummus, or when. Or where, particularly given the eagerness with which people in the Middle East borrow one another’s dishes. But I associate it with Damascus in the 18th century because it was the largest city with a sophisticated ruling class."
And the Health Benefits?
We've talked about the origins of hummus, and how many thousands of years it has been a staple of Middle East dining, but is it really "amazingly healthy?" Let's take a look:
- Plant-based protein
- Low in calories
- High in fiber that promotes good gut bacteria
- Olive oil is rich in antioxidants and has anti-inflammatory benefits
- Sesame seeds (tahini) also reduces inflammation
- Low on the glycemic index, so may help control blood sugar levels
- Gluten-, nut-, and dairy-free
39% of RDI
26% of RDI
21% of RDI
18% of RDI
18% of RDI
14% of RDI
12% of RDI
12% of RDI
10% of RDI
7% of RDI
Easy Peazy Lemon Squeezy?
With just five ingredients (chickpeas, tahini, garlic, olive oil, and lemon juice) one would think that hummus would be virtually fool-proof. However, if you peruse the deli section of most major grocery stores, you will find that the concoctions that wear the name bear little resemblance to real, authentic hummus. Sundried tomatoes, soybeans, jalapeños, and avocado have no place in our chickpea spread.
The ideal hummus is smooth and creamy (not grainy or watery), with the buttery flavor of chickpeas. The earthy toasted-sesame taste of tahini balances out the sweetness of the chickpeas and just a touch of lemon and garlic lend brightness and bite. Let’s examine each component.
As with any other dried legume, dried chickpeas should first be spread out in a single layer on a cookie sheet and examined for debris, small stones, or beans that are withered or damaged. Then place them in a wire mesh strainer and rinse under cool running water to remove any dust.
If you are short of time, you can substitute canned chickpeas. Unlike other processed vegetables, there is little difference in the nutritional value of dried vs. canned beans. Three-fourths of a cup of dried beans is about 1 1/2 cups cooked, the equivalent of one 15-ounce can, drained and rinsed.
Although chickpeas get all of the attention, it's the tahini that gives hummus that rich, luxuriant flavor we know and love. Tahini is a paste made from hulled sesame seeds. It can be purchased in most large supermarkets, but we are making the best hummus and so need the freshest ingredients.
Inspired Taste provides an easy recipe and video to show you exactly how to make your own tahini.
There are some things that improve with age—a fine red wine, a robust cheese, dry-aged beef, Virginia hams (and perhaps Carb Diva's), but olive oil is not one of these.
When buying olive oil look for the harvest date; you should strive to find an oil that was made in the last 2 to 3 years. Beyond that, it will begin to taste rancid. If there is no harvest date, look for (and abide by) the "best if used by" date.
Once opened olive should be used within 3-5 months as repeated exposure to oxygen will cause it to degrade in flavor.
Where the olives were grown is also important because soil, climate, and cultivar of olive will affect the flavor profile. Oil produced from Northern Italy olives (Liguria and Lombardia) will be buttery, mellow, soft, and delicate. These are the flavors that will enhance but not overpower the other tastes in your hummus.
Long before garlic was used as a culinary herb, it was used to treat and prevent a number of diseases and conditions. The Greek physician Hippocrates used it to treat respiratory problems, digestive upsets, and to rid one of parasites. Greek athletes were given garlic as a "performance enhancing" agent.
Don't buy a collection of garlic bulbs in a sack. Choose garlic cloves sold in bulk so that you can examine them. Keep in mind that local fresh garlic season runs from mid-summer through early fall. At other times of the year, the garlic in the store is probably coming out of storage. Here's what to look for:
- Select bulbs that don’t have sprouts forming.
- The ideal bulb will be plump and compact with unbroken skin.
- Avoid garlic bulbs with damp or soft spots.
- If the bulb feels light or gives under your fingers, the contents may have dried to dust.
You are cooking your own chickpeas, perhaps making your own tahini, and using fresh garlic and the best olive oil. Why would you use bottled lemon juice? Please don't. Buy a fresh lemon.
The juiciest lemons are always going to be the ones that give a little when you squeeze them. These softer citrus fruits will have less pith, and therefore more juice than their less-giving bin mates. Look for a lemon that has a deep yellow color and feels heavy for its size.
- 1 cup dried chickpeas
- 2 teaspoons baking soda, divided
- 3 garlic cloves
- 6 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 2/3 cup tahini (homemade is best)
- 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil for garnish
- Place the chickpeas and one teaspoon of the baking soda into a large covered saucepan. Add enough water to bring the level of the water 2 inches above the chickpeas. Soak overnight, at least 12 hours. (If your kitchen is warm, store the chickpeas in the refrigerator).
- The next day, rinse and drain the chickpeas. Return them to the saucepan and cover again with water 2 inches above the level of the chickpeas. Stir in the remaining 1 teaspoon of baking soda.
- Bring to a boil then reduce the heat to simmer. Cover and cook until the beans are soft and beginning to fall apart (about 60 minutes). As the beans cook skins will loosen and float to the surface; skim them off and discard.
- When the beans are tender (you want them almost falling apart), allow them to cool in their cooking liquid, stirring them from time to time to loosen the skins; strain off any that float to the top.
- While the chickpeas are cooling, blend the garlic with the lemon juice and salt in a food processor and let sit for 10 minutes.
- Add the tahini and continue blending until smooth, light, and fluffy. If the mixture seems too stiff, add 1 tablespoon of ice water.
- When the chickpeas are cooled, drain them, discarding the skins that separate from the peas, and add them to the food processor. Blend until completely smooth, 3-4 minutes. Taste for seasoning and add a little more salt or lemon juice as necessary.
- Serve with a generous drizzle of olive oil on top.
Did you notice that I mention three times that you should remove the skins from the chickpeas? For the creamiest hummus, you will want to seek out those skins and whisk them away. However, if you are the type of person who enjoys a hummus with a chunky texture you can ignore my pleadings.
Adapted from a recipe by Bon Appétit.
Creative Ways to Use Hummus
Sure you can use hummus as a dip for chips and fresh vegetables, but let's use our imagination. Here are some other ideas:
- Mix 1/2 cup of hummus into one pound of ground beef before forming into hamburger patties.
- Thin hummus with chicken broth, stir in a tablespoon or so of rice vinegar and use to coat cooked rice noodles.
- Make a salad with shredded rotisserie chicken, feta cheese, diced red bell pepper, and hummus in place of the traditional Greek yogurt or mayonnaise.
- Make pizza. Brush pita bread rounds with olive oil and bake in a 400° F. oven until browned and crisp. Remove from oven and spread on hummus. Top with diced tomato, Kalamata olives, cucumber, and fresh arugula tossed with olive oil and a little lemon juice.
Ali makes an easy and healthy hummus-crusted chicken that is a sheet pan meal (everything cooks together). She adds summer squash and zucchini and uses boneless skinless chicken breasts. The chicken is flavored by and kept moist with a thick coating of hummus. Genius.
Questions & Answers
© 2019 Linda Lum