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The Hummus Debate

Hummus from scratchHummus is a highly politicized food these days, a situation most eaters outside Lebanon, and at a guess, most inside as well, consider slightly ridiculous. “Owning” hummus has become a point of national pride for a few higher-ups in Lebanon, which has in the past year or two followed Greece’s feta-labeling strategy and tried to appropriate sole credit for authentic hummus. At its more light-hearted, this struggle for hummus supremacy takes the form of an annual stunt in which chefs produce a hummus bowl almost the size of an Olympic swimming pool (or at least an Olympic-sized wading pool) and the triumphal photo makes the international news. But those who really take the Lebanese official origin issue seriously and grimace whenever hummus is served somewhere else are, as far as I can see, only hurting themselves.

The trouble with demanding official status is that both feta and hummus long predate the borders of the countries trying to claim them. Both are simple enough to make and so consistent from batch to batch that they don’t really exhibit much in the way of “terroir” the way aged cheeses, wines, vinegars and so on might. Feta–equally good, equally real, equally part of the native fare–is made in a lot of places neighboring modern-day Greece. Places like Bulgaria, which don’t have as much political clout in either the EU or the Slow Food organizations, and which don’t get half the international tourism. Also places further away, notably Denmark and France, which still have reasonably large sheep’s milk production. Greece may actually have succeeded for the moment in the food labeling tug-of-war, but it’s made the country look somewhat silly and petulant, unwilling to face the fact that they’ve closed the barn door at least a century after the sheep got out. Will they profit from the exclusive labeling? doubtful–and it might have been better ambassadorship to claim credit for spreading feta’s popularity and offer more recipes and products made with it.

Much to the chagrin of whoever decided in the past couple of years that hummus should be exclusively Lebanese, this simple spread is made and eaten in lots of other countries. In Egypt, it’s made with a half-and-half mixture of favas and chickpeas. And Israel, which is probably the “other country” being targeted most directly by the Lebanese hummus campaign, has eaten, breathed, and slept a more or less chickpeas-only version of hummus as an essential food (along with felafel) for longer than the state has been independent.

Unlike the partisanry in Lebanon (not that Israel has no partisanry of its own), when it comes to food, everyone in Israel–Jewish, Muslim, Christian or Druse–gives credit with a certain degree of pride that hummus is Arab food, especially if they’ve made it themselves rather than trotting down to the corner grocery to buy the bland ready-made version from a vat in the deli at the back.

That’s because everyone likes to eat it. It’s also because being a good host is really important and something of a formal habit and a chance to show off just a little–actually, I think that’s still true all throughout the Middle East. Everyone expects friends and neighbors and friends-of-friends to drop by at a moment’s notice, without invitation, especially on the weekend. The least you can do is have a bag of roasted sunflower or pumpkin seeds and a pot of hideously sweet mint tea to bring out if they show up to schmooze after supper, but in the afternoon, better if you can bring out a platter of pita, vegetables, and a bowl of hummus.

Hummus is simple Arab fare at its best–humble, nutritious, appetizing, and (now that we have food processors) easy to make a lot of so you can bring out a wide platter of it for your guests and drizzle a little olive oil and some za’atar or sumac or cumin or paprika over it for the finishing touch–right before everyone tears pita and dips in. The ceremonial thing is what makes it good hosting and is part of the fun.

Here in the US, most people buy their hummus in little plastic containers at the supermarket–not elegant at all, and a lot of money for what you get. Kind of depressing, even. Look at the ingredient list and it’s as long and discouraging as any other processed food–that’s so it can be shipped nationally and stored for a week or two in case it doesn’t all sell out the first day. Look at the nutrition label and you see highish salt, lowish protein and fiber. It’s been fluffed out with canola oil to stretch the expensive ingredient, tehina (sesame paste), and there’s not so much in the way of chickpeas even though they’re supposed to be the base.

While I’m not so much against the fluffy smooth stuff (it tastes ok, if all you’re expecting is a spoonful or two of party dip), I prefer homemade because it’s denser and more nutritious, with more iron and protein from the chickpeas, something you could eat packed in half a pita for lunch and not be starving within an hour.

You can use canned chickpeas for hummus that your friends will like–the chickpeas in cans are convenient and so thoroughly cooked they make a very unctuous and smooth-textured spread. I did this for the first time in years last weekend for a big kiddush (lunch buffet after services) on Shabbat, because there were going to be about 75 people and even I didn’t want to try and spend hours cooking up two or three pounds of dried chickpeas.

I had to admit the hummus was a lot smoother than what I usually produce at home. It was professional, and it was very quick. It was exactly what most Americans expect.

But it had been so long since I’d eaten canned chickpeas that I could now taste the difference. It wasn’t just the salt factor (400+ mg/serving according to the can labels). Even after I rinsed them well in cold water, I could taste the lack of freshness compared with ones that you cook up from scratch.

The trouble with making fully homemade hummus is that the chickpeas have to be VERY SOFT or the hummus will be grainy. This means a lot of cooking, and something I don’t really like to do the conventional way if I can help it, especially in summer. Mostly because I tend to forget the pot is on the stove when I go off and read something and forget to top up the water…three hours later, I have well-roasted crunchy chickpea briquettes and a pot with a singed hole in the bottom of it.

But microwaving gives you only moderately soft chickpeas even after a couple of rounds of microwaving. How can you possibly make decent hummus without spending hours, owning a pressure cooker (which I don’t) or resorting to cans? After this weekend’s experience with the cans, I went back and tried out a homemade hummus with dried chickpeas and used a few tricks from other bean dishes to improve my usual methods.

So here are a few microwave working tips that have helped a lot in my quest for cheaper, fresher hummus without excessive labor and burned pots.

Soaking the chickpeas:

Heat a pyrex bowl of water covered for 5-7 minutes on HIGH, until steaming to boiling. While it’s heating, sort and rinse a pound of dried chickpeas very well in a colander. When the water’s heated, scoop the cleaned chickpeas into it and cover again. Let it sit half an hour to an hour in the closed microwave or on the countertop. The chickpeas should swell to double their size.

Cooking in the microwave:

With the lid on the bowl and at least an inch of the hot water covering the soaked chickpeas, microwave on HIGH 7 minutes. Leave 20-30 minutes, test for doneness, and (most likely) microwave another 7 minutes and leave again for 20 minutes. Test again. Done means the chickpeas have lost all their raw-bean taste and they’ve softened enough for you. For hummus, though, you want them really soft through and through, and the microwave may not get you there. So…

Finishing up by stovetop:

This isn’t my microwave-only ideal, but it seems to work and it still gets you fully-cooked beans in under 2 hours total without the use of a pressure cooker. If the chickpeas are most of the way done (the flavor’s right) but still not really tender-to-mushy, carefully pour the chickpeas and hot cooking liquid into a large saucepan, and simmer conventionally on the stove top with a lid partway on for half an hour more, being careful to keep the water topped up and the flame just high enough to simmer without boiling over.

AND/OR Grind the chickpeas and re-nuke:

But wait! There’s more! (my daughter’s been watching too much commercial tv this week)

When you make the hummus, if the texture is still grainy even after boiling the beans, you can do one more thing and it seems to be pretty effective. I borrowed this strategy from my microwave split pea soup recipe. Grind the chickpeas in the food processor with a very little bit of water, just enough to break them down most of the way, then add a bit more water and grind harder, pour the paste back into a pyrex bowl, stir in enough water to make it a little looser than you want the final hummus to be, cover the bowl and microwave it a couple of minutes (3-4 min). The ground chickpeas have more surface area exposed to absorb the water and the paste thickens up again. One or two rounds of watering and microwaving should do it. Then scrape it back into the food processor with the tehina, garlic, lemon juice and spices and you’ve got it.

Hummus b’Tehina

  • Chickpeas cooked up from a 1-lb bag
  • 1/2 c. tehina (sesame paste)
  • juice of 1-2 lemons
  • 1-2 fat cloves of garlic, grated/minced/mashed
  • 1/4 t. salt, optional
  • 1/2+ t. cumin (start with 1/2 t, add more to taste)
  • 1/4 t. coriander if you have it
  • 1/4 t. ground caraway if you have it
  • several sprigs cilantro optional
  • shake of Aleppo pepper or hot pepper flakes, optional
  • just enough water as needed to blend the paste uniformly to the thickness you want

Grind the chickpeas as finely as you can in the food processor. If you need to microwave them with some water as above to soften them further, do it at this point. When they’re the right texture, put them back in the food processor with the tehina, lemon juice and garlic and blend as smoothly as possible. Stop and stir up the mixture from the bottom if you need to, and/or add a drizzle of water to help the paste move and get blended more thoroughly. Add the spices and cilantro and reblend, and if the paste is too thick for you, thin it out with a little water until the texture is how you like it.

For guests, spread the hummus in a wide-mouthed bowl, drizzle a little good olive oil on top in a spiral, and sprinkle on a pinch of cumin, paprika, sumac, za’atar, thyme or oregano. Serve with pita (obviously), raw vegetables, and a little dish of of z’khug or harissa (with a very small spoon) for anyone who likes hot stuff to dab onto their hummus.

One Response

  1. wow… you should really consider getting a pressure cooker… Italians have been making slow food, even faster than microwaving, for years!
    (excerpted by SFF)

    DebbieN: Hi and welcome to SlowFoodFast!.

    I know, I know, pressure cookers are probably the absolute fastest way to cook beans from their dried form, and if they work for you, I can only congratulate you with deep envy in my heart. But really. I have: 1. severe lack of shelf space 2. a school-age child 3. an unkitchen-savvy husband 4. a klutzy self and finally and most importantly, 5. total impatience and inability to watch a boiling pot for more than five minutes at a time without wishing I were somewhere reading a book. So would you trust me to use anything that requires both stove top boiling AND attention to the pressure gauges and locks so it doesn’t explode? Me either.

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