Finding Home at the Bottom of the Hummus Bowl
A bowl of Israeli style hummus at an event hosted by EatWith, a platform for sharing home-cooked meals. / Courtesy of EatWith
I’ve never bought illegal drugs, but I imagine a small-time drug deal to feel a bit like buying hummus underground in Brooklyn. Periodically I receive an email from “Brooklyn Hummus” with the message that the following day there will be either hummus, masabacha (chickpeas swimming in a rich tahini sauce) or both for sale. Orders must be placed before the day is over; the hummus can be procured anywhere along the 2 or 3 subway line from Prospect Heights in Brooklyn to Chelsea in Manhattan the next morning. The email is signed “Noam,” no last name.
Last summer I met Noam Bonnie, a 40-year-old Israeli expat software developer, outside Brooklyn’s Boro Hall. He unzipped a small cooler and handed me a white plastic bag filled with warm Tupperware containers of hummus and masabacha, as well as pita. He instructed me to eat the hummus soon and not to refrigerate it. I paid him in cash — $7 for each container — thanked him and slipped the goods into my canvas bag.
Bonnie has been selling his hummus like this for seven years. “Before I moved here I knew I was going to miss it,” he told me. Anticipating his longing for the dish, he learned to make hummus before he moved to New York, experimenting at home and talking to talented hummus cooks. Once Bonnie arrived in New York, his Israeli colleagues and friends quickly caught on to his skills and asked to purchase the dip. A side business was born.
Local Israelis were grateful for a taste of home. “The first time he arrived at my place, I cried,” Naama Shefi, another Israeli living in New York who works on various culinary projects, told me. Similar underground hummus operations have popped up in Berlin and New Jersey, feeding expats as well as those like me, who once called Israel home.
“In Israel, hummus is a religion,” Bonnie said. More than a bowl of ground chickpeas, it provides expats with a cultural and emotional connection to home. The dish holds a unique place in the Israeli imagination; there is an entire culture of customs, etiquette and traditions that surrounds it. “The experience of eating hummus is the ultimate freedom: You eat it with your hands, outside, and with your friends. It’s very spontaneous. All of these characteristics are so typically Israeli. So it’s not just the flavor that’s so hard to bring to life [outside Israel], but also the experience of eating it,” Shefi said.
In Israel, freshly prepared hummus bears little resemblance to the Sabra-brand spread found at American grocery stores. At the best hummusiahs — shops that specialize in the dish — small chickpeas are boiled and mashed with rich and nutty tahini, garlic, olive oil and lemon. Heaping scoops are slung into shallow bowls and topped with ground meat, fava beans, stewed chickpeas or simply a puddle of fragrant olive oil and a sprinkling of smoky paprika, sour sumac or the spice blend za’atar. The hummus is made early in the morning, and the shops stay open until they sell out, typically in the early afternoon.
These tiny restaurants, many of which consist of just a few plastic tables and chairs, also provide a meeting ground for unlikely dining fellows. Despite the heated debates over who owns hummus (Palestinians, Lebanese and Israelis all claim it as their national dish), hummusiahs are one of the few places in Israel where “Jews and Arabs co-exist and interact on a truly human level,” Shefi said. “You see every slice of culture” in a hummusiah, said Michael Solomonov, an Israeli chef in Philadelphia.
It’s not just the hummus that is hard to replicate outside Israel, but the experience of eating it.
This spring, on a trip to Los Angeles, I witnessed one such shared culinary space at Carnival Restaurant, a Lebanese-owned eatery popular with Israeli expats and Arabs alike. The restaurant welcomes guests in Hebrew, Arabic and English on a green sign that is so old the phone number listed appears without an area code. My dining companion was Batia Beckerman, an Israeli expat who moved to the United States 40 years ago and, like many diners, has made a ritual of coming to Carnival for hummus.
Copyright Devra Ferst
Inside the restaurant, which has murals of Mediterranean cities on the arched walls, the owner and several members of the wait staff stopped by to say hello. With only a glance at the menu, Beckerman ordered us heaping plates of Middle Eastern salads, roasted lamb chops, chicken shwarma and, of course, hummus. The hummus was smooth and intensely lemony — a classic Lebanese preparation. The plate came with thin Lebanese-style pita and a side of olives, peppers and pickled turnips.
Later that evening I went to Hummus Bar and Grill, an Israeli-owned restaurant nearby that draws regular diners from as far as an hour’s drive. Six varieties of hummus — all classics — were listed on a tall, laminated menu in both English and Hebrew. My bowl of hummus was still warm when it reached the table. It was rich and thick with tahini and topped with whole chickpeas and olive oil, as it would be in Israel. Another bowl was topped with stewed fava beans and a boiled egg. Here the hummus is served with freshly made laffa, a flat Iraqi bread popular in Israel.
When I asked my waiter, Amos Hilel, why Israelis love hummus, he told me how it is in Israel: “You wake up, you have hummus; you have lunch with hummus; you sit down to dinner and you have hummus.” Hummus eating extends beyond the hummusiah; tubs of store-bought hummus are a constant on Israeli kitchen tables, used as a condiment or side dish the way kimchi is in Korean cuisine. In the Israeli palate, hummus goes with nearly everything.
This summer, Solomonov, who owns the popular upscale Israeli restaurant Zahav, will open Philadelphia’s first hummusiah, Dizengoff. The shop will operate like those in Israel, selling little more than bowls of freshly made hummus. The toppings will be slightly updated — Solomonov is still working on the menu — but they will be “in the spirit” of tradition, he said.
Copyright Devra Ferst
While Israelis will argue vehemently over the best hummus, most ex-pats will allow for a small variation from what they grew up with, like Solomonov’s gourmet take on a Lebanese recipe at Carnival. The search for a taste of home — for authentic Israeli hummus abroad — is as much about the dip itself as it is about the community. While eating hummus can be a solitary act, it rarely is. Hummus is a dish that is meant to be shared by friends and family, scooped up with fluffy pieces of hand-torn pita from a communal bowl.
Devra Ferst is an associate editor at Eater NY. She is the former food editor of the Forward.