Hummus — The Devil's in the Measurements

This week we bring you two stories about hummus around the globe. Tell us about your favorite hummus in the comments.

“Everyone thinks they make it the best,” is what Abdul Lama said as he stood at the cash register under a portrait of Jordan’s King Abdullah and Queen Rania in his Mediterranean Wraps restaurant on California Avenue in Palo Alto, California. Lama was speaking of hummus, and it appears that his statement is correct — at least from the bit of research I did among the professional authentic hummus makers here in Silicon Valley.

“There’s only one way to make hummus,” Lama’s business partner Abraham Khalil told me emphatically as I sat with him at a table at Mediterranean Wraps’ second location, on busy University Avenue near the gates to Stanford University. The frustrating thing was that he was only willing to go so far in revealing just how he specifically makes his popular hummus.

He told to me that at his restaurant, they make hummus from fresh ingredients twice a day, according to the way his Palestinian-Jordanian mother made it. Khalil explained that slight differences in the dish’s preparation vary family to family, city to city and region to region, rather than from country to country. He made a strong point of saying that real hummus is “Shami [Semitic] food originating only from the Levant — Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine.” To him, Israeli hummus and Egyptian hummus are imposters.

Khalil recalled that during his childhood in rural Saudi Arabia, his mother made hummus at home. But once they moved back to Amman, Jordan, they bought it from one of the neighborhood hummus shops that could be found on almost every corner.

According to the Hummus 101 blog, written by Israelis Shooky Galili and Tal Galili, Palestinians like the Khalil family, are known to eat hummus with every meal, often as the main course, while the Lebanese eat it more as a side dish or appetizer. Israelis usually eat supermarket-bought hummus as a side dish or snack at home, but they frequent hole-in-the wall-type establishments with excellent, fresh hummus if they want it as a meal.

There’s no argument among hummus makers I’ve met either in person or in the blogosphere as to what goes into authentic hummus. It’s high-quality dried garbanzo beans (chickpeas) — soaked, boiled and ground — tahini (the sesame paste is called techina in Hebrew), lemon juice and spices.

Exactly what those spices are and the proportion of the main ingredients is the closely guarded secret of all great hummus makers. Khalil makes his own hummus spice mix, using his knowledge from his family’s spice business back in the Middle East and his taste memory. “The taste is in my brain, so I go back to that taste,” he said.

“If people tell us that there’s not enough garlic in our hummus, then that’s their problem. That’s just what they’re used to,” said Lama about the personal taste factor involved in hummus recipes and traditions.

“No garlic!” Maoz Kashty, general manager and chef of the new Israeli-owned Oren’s Hummus Shop, just a block away from Mediterranean Wraps on University Avenue, almost yelled at me when I ask how much he uses. “Garlic kills hummus, ” he stated. It apparently breaks hummus down too quickly, as does refrigeration. Accordingly, Kashty never puts garlic in his hummus, and he avoids having to refrigerate it as much as possible by making fresh batches three times daily.

Kashty, who studied hummus-making for six months straight (including making two special trips to Israel in search of the best chickpeas and tahini and to consult with famous Israeli hummus makers) has come up with his own signature version of the “simple, yet so delicate, mix.” He, like all successful hummus chefs, will not discuss the ratios of the ingredients he has settled on.

He was willing to divulge that he uses only a single spice in his hummus. Just which one that is, he wouldn’t say. He imports garbanzo beans of the Hadas variety, an Israeli-engineered hybrid grown in Africa. They are the smallest possible beans, which produce a creamy and nutty taste. Kashty uses only stone ground tahini made by Palestinian-Israelis in Nazareth (grinding sesame with metal equipment creates oxygenation, which gives the tahini a bitter taste, he noted).

Kashty’s hummus has a creamier, blander and less salty taste than does Khalil and Lama’s. The chef said this was deliberate, as he aims for a “neutral taste that doesn’t overpower the toppings.” Many of his customers order hummus as an entrée, so he sees it as “setting the stage” for the toppings. Accordingly, “the texture is as important as the flavor.”

Oren’s Hummus Shop offers hummus topped with things like mushrooms and onions, or Moroccan-style beef, which are common ways to eat hummus in Israel. Khalil, on the other hand, sticks to the more traditional toppings like ful (fava beans).

The Israeli chef also serves hummus with ful, and, like his Palestinian-Jordanian counterpart, offers the most basic dish of hummus (Kashty has dubbed it “the classic”) topped with a bit of olive oil and what Kashty calls his “secret sauce.” The sauce contains lemons juice, garlic and chili peppers. What Kashty calls his “secret sauce,” Khalil refers to in Arabic as tatbileh, which he makes with similar ingredients.

As proof of the claim that hummus varies from chef to chef and region to region, Kashty serves tahini on his classic hummus, while Khalil does not. “Tahini on hummus is an Israeli thing,” Khalil said a bit dismissively.

While the hummus wars wage on in the Middle East, there is more than enough good hummus to go around in Silicon Valley for ex-pat Israelis and Arabs hankering for the taste of home. Based on the solid business that these two restaurants are doing, it appears that many others here are also more than willing to give chickpeas a chance.

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Hummus — The Devil's in the Measurements

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