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Common Ground

A cool morning wind blustered off the Mediterranean and through Jaffa’s jumble of millennia-old buildings above the sprawl of Tel Aviv. “This is the place,” said Gil Hovav, a leading Israeli food journalist, as he guided me into the restaurant Abu Hassan’s din of clattering plates and chatter. In the Middle East, the land of hummus, the only way to find the best is to ask the local experts.

We sat down at a shared table, and Hovav ordered a plate of the hearty paste of chickpeas, tahini, garlic, and lemon juice. It came presented as a smooth disc drizzled with olive oil, the canvas for dashes of cumin and paprika. A sprinkling of parsley added color to the mound of glistening chickpeas in the center. Nearby sat little dishes of salty pickles, small whole onions, olives, and green titbeeleh (a hot sauce), along with the indispensable plate of fluffy pita bread.

The hummus at Abu Hassan was divine—smooth and light, with a round nuttiness. Hovav and I took turns tearing bits of pita and drawing them through the hummus, mixing in oil and hot sauce along the way.

In a region beset by bitter struggles over land and culture, hummus seems to be common ground. Jewish Israelis embrace it with gusto and freely acknowledge it as an Arab contribution to Israeli culture.

“Hummus is what you eat when you’re young, when you’re in the army,” Hovav told me. “It’s what you eat when you don’t have money for anything else, what you eat when you need something fast.”

A few days later, to continue my survey, I went to Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority, to eat hummus with Nasser Abdulhadi, who owns several restaurants there. We were at Al Qana’ah, a sunny, unassuming joint with formica tables and plastic chairs, at the top of the hill in the center of the city, where it has stood for half a century. The table was crowded with small plates of hummus, pita, msabbaha (a deconstructed hummus in which the chickpeas are whole and heated, and bathed in a warm tahini sauce), foul (mashed fava beans), baba ghanoush, and crispy falafel.

“Hummus is traditionally part of a Palestinian breakfast,” Abdulhadi explained. “Any Palestinian will tell you he eats it three or four times a week.”

In this part of the Middle East, nearly everyone is boisterously partisan about where the best version comes from. Nablus hummus is known for its garlic bite. In Gaza the cooks add hot chilies; in Beirut, parsley. Israeli Jews use less tahini and more lemon. Even the way people wield pita to eat hummus betrays their home turf. There’s the sweeping Tel Aviv flourish, the two-handed method from the West Bank refugee camps, and the Jerusalem straight pull.

On the advice of Shooky Galili, who blogs at hummus101.com, I went to Jerusalem’s Old City and found the famed Abu Shukri restaurant hidden in a vaulted grotto near the Fifth Station of the Cross. “During the intifada, when it was really dangerous to get into the Old City,” Hovav had told me, “Jewish hummus addicts would sneak in just to have a bite of Abu Shukri’s hummus.”

I was thinking about that as I scooped into an airy mound of hummus surrounded by a moat of deep-green olive oil and topped with jewel-like chickpeas. Outside the door, a parade of humanity shuffled across the flagstones: Christian pilgrims carrying a wooden cross; Palestinian women in hijabs going shopping; Israeli police cradling rifles; children running and laughing, their sandals slapping the stone.

Hummus eaters all.

Based on a recipe by Gil Hovav

1 cup dried chickpeas
1 tsp baking soda
Small wedge of peeled white onion
2 peeled garlic cloves
1/3 cup tahini
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1/2 tsp cumin
1/2 to 1 tsp salt
Extra virgin olive oil
Hot paprika
Chopped parsley
Titbeeleh or another chili sauce
8 fresh pita rounds

1. Soak the chickpeas in water for at least six hours.
2. Drain and rinse.
3. In a large pot, cover the chickpeas with water, add the baking soda and onion. Bring to a boil, lower to a simmer, and cook until the chickpeas are soft but not mushy. Skim and discard any foam that rises to the surface during cooking.
4. Remove the chickpeas from the heat and drain, setting aside about one cup of cooking liquid.
5. After the chickpeas have cooled, chop the garlic in a food processor, then add the chickpeas with the onion and purée the mixture, slowly adding as much cooking liquid as needed to form a smooth paste. (Hummus is traditionally made using a special mortar and a pestle. Today many shops use electric blenders.)
6. Add the tahini, lemon juice, cumin, and salt, and process again. (It’s all a matter of taste, so play with the proportions to find the balance you like.)
7. Transfer the hummus to a serving plate. Drizzle olive oil over the top and sprinkle with hot paprika, cumin, and chopped parsley. If you like, add a little dollop of hot sauce—titbeeleh or shata if you can find it, or harissa if you can’t.
8. Serve immediately, accompanied by fresh pita bread.

NOTE: Despite the ubiquity of the prepackaged, refrigerated version in supermarkets, hummus is meant to be eaten freshly made. If it is refrigerated, the starches in the chickpeas stiffen and the hummus loses its delicate complexity.

Photos by Elinor Carucci. This appeared in the October 2012 issue.