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.
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.
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.
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.
Auntie Dunia’s Falafel with Tarator Sauce, from Palestine on a Plate
For the falafel
400g dried chickpeas
2 heaped tsp baking powder
bunch of fresh, flat-leaf, parsley
bunch of fresh coriander
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
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.