Hummus part 1: origins

Hummus means chickpeas in Arabic.  I like to think hummus also derives from humus, the Latin word for soil, which, rumour has it, is where the word human comes from.  Even if that might be fake news, it would reinforce how essential this little pulse is, its derivative dip constituting the heartbeat of many Middle Eastern national cuisines and identities.

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In their cookbook Jerusalem, the one that first set my own heart alight for all things Middle Eastern, Sami Tamimi and Yotam Ottolenghi include a page dedicated to Hummus wars. It describes the continuing, often painful, debate about the origins of hummus. But ‘when push comes to shove’, they say, ‘nobody seriously challenges the Palestinian hegemony in making hummus, even though both they and the Jews are calling it their own’.  I wonder if there was any disagreement between Tamimi and Ottolenghi, Palestinian and Jewish Israeli, when it came to penning that sentence.

But allow me a moment’s facetiousness. When considering hummus and Israel and Palestine, the first thing that pops into my head is Borat’s (Sacha Baron Cohen aka Ali G’s gay alias) attempt at Middle East conflict mediation. Highly sensitive and politically incorrect, but pretty funny, and surely just as effective as Tony Blair’s. ‘Why are you so anti-Hamas?’ Borat asks the Israeli representative at the table (apparently a former Mossad chief), ‘isn’t pita bread the real enemy?’. Both Israeli and Palestinian representatives agree that hummus is no enemy; it is a healthy, delicious dish they both love.

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The national origins of hummus is not the only fierce debate this humble little dip fuels. Even between best friends divisive passions can flair over who makes and what constitutes the best hummus, according to Tamimi and Ottolenghi. I have experienced that on a minor scale both in Palestine and here in London. When we were starting out as a new team of ecumenical accompaniers in Hebron, our handover from the previous team included an instruction on where the best hummus could be found. We were not disappointed by the smooth, creamy hummus awaiting us at the simple, small hummus bar at the end of a side street in Hebron’s old market.

The range of samples people brought to our London-based tasting test on this year’s international hummus day showed just how varied people’s taste in hummus can be, from the coarsely blended, tahini-free versions, to the zingy, lemony numbers, to the full-tahini-bodied and almost putty-like. I tried the recipes of a couple of authoritative chefs for the occasion, experimented with tinned and dried chickpeas, but still didn’t achieve, in my opinion, hummus perfection. In the end, the unconventional beetroot hummus stole the show.

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As a result, I do not yet feel myself to be an authoritative-enough voice on hummus to write the recipe people have been clamouring for. And, to be frank, there are many other chickpea dishes I have encountered that are more exciting than hummus. The one that follows is for one of the best falafels I have tasted, its generous use of fresh herbs giving the little balls a vibrant green colour and a freshness absent from a lot of their stodgy counterparts. The tarator (tahini, lemon, garlic and yoghurt) dip that accompanies it also trumps the usual garlic yoghurt with its zingy, tangy creaminess.

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Auntie Dunia’s Falafel with Tarator Sauce, from Palestine on a Plate

Ingredients

For the falafel

400g dried chickpeas

2 heaped tsp baking powder

bunch of fresh, flat-leaf, parsley

bunch of fresh coriander

1/2 onion

1 tbsp sea salt

pinch of black pepper

4 garlic cloves, smashed

900ml sunflower or vegetable oil, for frying

2 tbsp sesame seeds

olive oil, for binding

For the tarator sauce:

8 tbsp tahini

3 tbsp Greek yoghurt

juice of 3 lemons

1 tbsp sea salt

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Method:

Soak the chickpeas with half the baking powder for up to 8 hours. When ready, drain the water and tip the chickpeas into a food processor or blender with the remaining baking powder.

Add the rest of the ingredients, except the sunflower oil and sesame seeds, to the food processor or blender with enough olive oil to bind the mixture together. The olive oil helps to make the mixture workable. Start with 50mls and add more as needed – you don’t want the mixture to be too wet. Blitz until you have a paste.

Begin by shaping your falafel into balls, leaving the bottoms flat so they can stand up. Sprinkle them with sesame seeds and press them gently to help them stick.

Heat the sunflower or vegetable oil in a pan over a high heat until very hot. Fry the falafel in batches of 4-5 at a time in the hot oil for 6-8 minutes, until cooked all the way through. Turn the falafel occasionally as they are cooking so that they turn an even chocolate-brown all over.

To make the tahini sauce, mix all the ingredients together and add a little water if necessary, until it is the consistency of liquid honey.

Eat while still warm, drizzle with tarator sauce and accompanied with deep fried aubergine slices and cauliflower florets, and fresh tomato slices.

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Feeling kneady

‘As I wrote Exit West, I found the language changing as the chapters progressed. The sentences grew longer, became more incantatory, like a magic spell. Like a prayer. Which seemed fitting to me. We write what we most need.’ Mohsin Hamid.

These words are compelling, but I wonder about their simplicity, in the doubtless uber-mediated world of modern-day publishing. Mix in the worlds of ‘blogging’ and then ‘food blogging’ and things get trickier. Since I am the sole mediator of this platform, I can write anything. Do I write what I need? Or what you need? Or what I think you need to know? Are you here because you like me? Or are you high-tailing it to the recipe at the end?

Still, Hamid captures something of the mystical element of creating: the creator bringing its object into being, the object taking on a life of its own in response to the creator’s yearning, a yearning that resides both within and beyond the person of the creator, who struggles with and then concedes to the mystery.

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I tap into this mystery when I am making bread. I knead, bearing my body weight down on the dough; it fights back, growing stronger and more agile in response. It demands solitude, hibernating in darkness and warmth; and comes back doubly alive. I knead more; it seems pliant, then springs and bounces under my palm. It rests, and returns a more robust entity: both elastic enough to take shape, and integrated enough to hold itself together. It goes through the fiery furnace and comes out hot, shiny and golden…

Ah, perhaps I am getting carried away. Seriously though, the bad press bread has gotten of late saddens me. Once upon a time we were all happily eating panini; now we are spitting on sandwiches unless they are sourdough. But bread is a fundamental element of most cuisines, the cornerstone of a meal shared in community.

At a friend’s wedding two weeks ago, the vicar gave a lovely eulogy about real love, citing the passage from Captain Corelli’s Mandolin about tree roots becoming entwined, and talking about the idea of companionship. Companion, he reminded us as we greedily guzzled prosecco, comes from the words ‘con pane’, or with bread. Someone we share bread with, that is. We set our prosecco glasses to one side for a moment to break off a bit of the fresh bread he passed around, celebrating our participation in our friends’ vows of enduring companionship.

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I was happy on hearing his words that I had opted for a slightly unusual present for this friend’s wedding: a special matrimony edition of a ‘Jerusalem sesame bagel’ (or kaak). Jerusalem bagels are so-called, according to Reem Kassis, author of the newly published and wonderful cookbook The Palestinian Table, because they taste better in Jerusalem than anywhere else. They are not bagels as you might know them, those round, chewy, dense numbers. These ones are oval and covered in sesame seeds, ideally baked in wood-fire ovens until they are golden and crisp to the bite, but light and fluffy inside. In this article Reem Kassis talks about how they have been dubbed Israeli abroad, despite them being a historic and quintessential  element of  the Palestinian (and Levantine) culinary tradition. Even if unintentional, it still demonstrates the pernicious side-effects of ongoing Palestinian ‘statelessness’.

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My newly married friend and I were both ‘accompaniers’ in Hebron, Palestine, at different times last year, walking alongside and sharing bread with people living under occupation. I don’t know if my friend, like me and my team, often stopped by the breadsellers at the market in the morning, after accompanying children to school. There we hungrily bought fresh bagels, often offered with boiled eggs, za’atar and sumac. A simple but royal breakfast.

I hope, in any case, that my friend and her new husband enjoyed their wedding breakfast bagels, a yeasted homage to enduring love.

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Jerusalem Sesame Bagels 

This is Reem Kassis’ recipe for Jerusalem sesame bagels. Some of the other recipes I’ve seen use sugar rather than grape molasses, so maybe the latter is the secret Jerusalem ingredient.

For the pastry

500 grams of all purpose flour

2 tbsp sugar

2 tsp salt

350 ml whole milk, warm

1 tbsp dry, fast-action yeast

1 tsp baking powder

Olive oil

For the sesame coating

150g hulled sesame seeds

1-2 tbsp grape molasses

Method

Put all the dough ingredients except the olive oil in a bowl and knead until smooth and pliable. If the mixture appears stiff, add more milk. Rub with oil, cover the bowl with a damp dish towel or clingfilm and put in a dark, warm area until doubled in size (about 1 hour).

To prepare the sesame coating combine the sesame seeds and grape molasses with 1 tbsp of water in a wide, shallow dish or bowl. Add more water as necessary until you have a wet mixture that is neither too sticky and thick that it clumps up, nor too thin. Basically you want to something that will stick when you coat the uncooked dough.

Once the dough has risen, gently punch down to release the air bubbles. Divide into 6 equal-sized portions and place on a lightly floured work surface. Roll and stretch each piece into a log about 20-30cm long, then attach the ends together to form a circle. Set aside to rest for 15 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F/230 degrees C/Gas mark 8. Take each dough ring, dip into the sesame mixture until coated all over in sesame seeds, and gently roll and stretch the ring until you have a long oval shape like a stretchy ‘O’. Set aside on a baking sheet to rest a final time, about 10 minutes.

Place the baking sheet(s) into the oven and bake for 15-20 minutes, or until a deep golden colour and cooked through. Set on a wire rack to cool.

Most delicious eaten warm with za’atar, labneh, or just about anything you fancy.

Your author, she writes what she kneads.

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Bitter sweet

I remember a story from my childhood – told to me by my grandmother, perhaps –about Jesus sitting under a palm tree, maybe in Jericho, and tasting his first date. Surprised by its delicious, sweet taste, he uttered an ‘o’; and this is the reason for the small ‘o’ you can see on the stones of dates. I always loved that story, imagining Jesus stopping and taking shelter from the hot sun, and sinking his teeth into a date.

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Palm trees in Jericho. Photo credit: internet.

While many aspects of the Messiah’s life on earth are disputed, this story is perfectly plausible, in my opinion. There is something both regal and other-worldly about the sweetness and soft texture of dates; my foodie flatmate, who waxes wonderfully lyrical about tastes and textures, calls them the food of the gods, and is sure there’ll be bowls upon bowls of them in heaven.

In modern-day Palestine (i.e. the areas of Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem, all now under Israeli control), dates are commonplace in street stalls. They even sell yellow, fresh dates (more likely to be the ones Jesus ate), though I wasn’t there at the right time to try them. Despite their relative abundance, they are still a delicacy and used for celebrations: during Ramadan, soft biscuits called Ma’amoul are filled with sweet date paste.

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Fresh dates on sale in Palestine

But not all dates in Palestine are sweet. Grandparents there tell grandchildren of the date, 100 years ago, when their future was signed away.  On 2 November 1917 the then British foreign secretary, Lord Balfour, wrote a history-altering letter to the representative of British Jews, looking favourably upon the creation of ‘a Jewish homeland’ in Palestine, which was at that time still under Ottoman control. It is seen as paving the way for the establishment of the state of Israel, and ‘marking the beginning of what is today widely considered the world’s most intractable conflict’.

The story is too long and complex to do it justice here, but as articulated in the excellent piece linked above, British motives were mixed, to say the least, promoting a Jewish homeland in Palestine with one hand while restricting Jewish immigration into Britain with the other. Once the British mandate for Palestine began in 1922, the stars aligned, so to speak. Despite Balfour’s letter including the caveat that the ‘civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine’ should not be prejudiced by the establishment of such a homeland, the native Christian and Muslim (and other) communities, representing 90% of the population of Palestine at that time, were never actively consulted.

Palestinians blame Britain for the their ‘Nakba’ or catastrophe in 1948, when Israel was established on more than half the area of British-mandated Palestine, and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians lost their lives or were forced to flee their homes, so far never to return. Israelis praise her for the same reason, and tonight are holding a (low-key) celebratory dinner, which PM Theresa May will attend.  In the interim, of course, the horrific events of the Holocaust rightly prompted compassion for the plight of the European Jews at that time. But it would seem, as Palestinians continue to point out, that it is the Palestinians themselves above all who have had to pay the price for the crimes of others.

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So, here we have a bittersweet story. Mostly bitter, admittedly, but sweet because the land both Palestinians and Israelis want to live freely and safely in holds so much beauty and promise.  The cake recipe that follows is, appropriately, a slightly adapted homage to the chef’s Palestinian grandmother in which the sweet dates win out over the undertones of bitter tahini. In between I added a tahini cream recipe from Israeli chefs, Honey and Co, which adds an extra twist. In art, if not in life, the two sides (bitter and sweet, Israeli and Palestinian) come together well.

Palestinian Date-Tahini Cake

Ingredients

  • 300 grams (1 ¼ Cup) pitted dates
  • hot water *
  • 60 grams (¼ Cup) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 60-120 grams (¼ to ½ Cup) of brown sugar **
  • 2 eggs
  • 100 grams ( <½ Cup) tahini
  • 150 grams (⅝ Cup) flour
  • 10 grams/ 2 tsp baking soda
  • 5 grams/ 1 tsp baking powder
  • Pinch of salt
  • Toasted sesame seeds for decoration

*Depending on the softness of your dates, see step 3

**The softer the dates, typically the sweeter, so adjust your sugar to your liking.

Method

  1. Preheat your oven to 160°C (320°F), and prepare your cake pan by generously greasing it with butter.
  2. First make your date paste. Start by soaking your dates in hot water for 5 minutes or longer and then mashing them. The softer the dates the less water needed to make the paste. Also this is where you can adjust the texture to your liking, leaving either date chunks or creating a smooth paste (I kept adding water and made a thick paste). Set your date paste aside.
  3. Sift your flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt and then set aside.
  4. With a mixer beat your butter and sugar until creamy, then add the eggs. Continue to beat until smooth.
  5. Fold in the tahini and date paste and thoroughly combine (most exciting part!).
  6. Then fold your dry mixture into the wet a 1/3 at a time until fully combined.
  7. Pour the mixture into the prepared pan and coat the top generously with toasted sesame seeds. (I forgot to add the seeds at this point but just scattered them over at the end).
  8. Bake for about 35-45 minutes or until the centre springs back when touched. The cake will be very dark, so don’t gauge by colour too much! (It took 45 for mine).

 

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Tahini Cream

Ingredients

  • 80g tahini paste
  • 100g full fat cream cheese (I think they use Mascarpone, but I used Tesco cream cheese)
  • 100g/ml double cream
  • 50g confectioner’s sugar

Method

Place all the ingredients into the mixing bowl of a stand mixer and mix at very low speed. Alternately, whisk together by hand, being careful not to over-whisk (I whisked by hand). Filling should be smooth, creamy, and stiff enough to hold a shape (mine wasn’t, but it didn’t matter).

When cooled, cut the cake in two horizontally, and fill with tahini cream.

If, like me, you had dates and tahini cream left over, these make a perfectly delicious dessert together as they are.