If you could serve up the Middle East on a plate, it would look and taste like hummus: flavoursome, a bit messy, loved, hated – and fought over. This is the real hummus: the lemony, garlicky dish that occupies a different food space to the bland dip found in supermarkets across the West.
Hummus was first mentioned in a 13th-century Egyptian cookbook. Since then, everyone in that part of the world has tried to claim it as their own. Israelis see hummus as central to their culinary heritage (via Mizrahi Jews from the Levant and north Africa). As with much else in the Middle East, this territorial claim is divisive. In 2008, some Lebanese businessmen tried – and failed – to make hummus a protected food, like Greek feta cheese. Around the same time, piqued by what they saw as an Israeli hummus-grab, Lebanon pressed its chefs to create the largest hummus dish in the world. And so began a yearly tit-for-tat competition that has become known as “the hummus wars”.
Despite these differences, everyone agrees on a few things: you need quality chickpeas, dry ones are best, soaked overnight, then boiled – with a spot of baking powder – until their shells fall off. Now add the other ingredients: tahini, garlic, oil, salt, pepper, lemon juice and a sprinkle of paprika. Blend together, and the hummus is ready to serve.
From there, you can experiment. The joy of hummus is that each place has its style. Israelis serve it hot with whole chickpeas huddled in the middle, like nesting chicks. In Cairo, roadside stalls mix hummus with foul – mashed fava beans – which adds complexity. Beiruti hummus is probably the most lavish; the dip is piled with delicate minced lamb or beef. And if you do not mind upsetting purists, you could add some pomegranate molasses, like they do at the Azkadenya restaurant in Amman.
And to complement your hummus: pickled peppers like the Levantines or good bread – pita or the thicker Turkish type. Just not carrots; “Westerners use carrots?!” wailed a Palestinian friend. At least the hummus itself was genuine.