Why Hummus Is Not Only a Superfood but a Potential Peace Maker

As I was eating my lunch a few Saturdays ago I had something of a revelation. The lunch I was munching on was hummus with a sliced tomato on rice cracker (bear with me). It struck me what a great food hummus was, and the more I thought about it the more convinced I became of its category-defying uniqueness. Here are just some of the reasons why hummus brings people together (with a recipe at the end):

It’s a vegan food without the stereotypes. Unfortunately, defensive carnivores have negatively stereotyped some foods beloved of vegans, associating them with so-called ‘treehuggers’ – think tofu, lentil burgers and alfalfa sprouts (not that there’s anything wrong with these foods, or ‘treehuggers’ for that matter!) Hummus has escaped this negative labelling despite its iconic status among vegans. On the contrary, it’s seen as a gourmet food and is endlessly being reimagined by the chef-erati; Nigella has an eccentric peanut butter version, for instance. Needless to say, hummus also goes beautifully with that other great vegan (and non-stereotyped) food, falafel.

It’s an allergy-friendly food without being associated with a rigid, limited diet. If you can’t eat dairy- and gluten-containing foods (like yours truly), and you bring hummus to a social gathering, no one assumes you’re on a special diet and gives you sympathetic but uncomprehending looks. If you can’t eat citrus, hummus still tastes great without the lemon juice.

Its extremely economical. If you make hummus yourself, it’s a very low-cost food. Cook the chickpeas yourself and keep the tahini in the fridge, where it lasts for ages.

It’s incredibly simple to make, yet has potential for complexity. Hummus has only four basic ingredients, five if you include olive oil. If you’re not much of a cook you can still make great hummus. The only thing that you need to actually cook is the chickpeas, and you can avoid even this by using canned. On the other hand, if you’re a foodie, you can explore the complexities of hummus ad infinitum, deciding whether to get rid of the chickpea skins, which types of chickpeas and tahini provide optimum flavour and texture, whether or not to roast the garlic etc, etc  – you get my drift.

It can be made in a variety of textures. Like peanut butter, hummus is flexible when it comes to texture. It can be smooth, rich and creamy, or crumbly and runny with pieces of whole chickpea in it. For extra creaminess, add olive oil and the water in which you cooked the chickpeas.

It’s eaten in many parts of the world, so it must be good! Hummus is found in countries along the Mediterranean coastline, such as Israel, Syria, Palestine, Lebanon, Turkey, Cyprus and Greece. It’s taken Americans a while to catch on but apparently it’s growing in popularity there. The Brits also love it and Australia’s love affair with Greek and Middle Eastern dips has assured its popularity here for decades.

It has a distinguished but enigmatic history. Chickpeas, the main ingredient of hummus, have been eaten for more than 10 000 years. The chickpea was one of the earliest crops cultivated in Mesopotamia. Chickpeas were eaten in Palestine before 4000 BC and were a common street dish in ancient Rome. A similar recipe to hummus, featuring mashed chickpeas mixed with vinegar and other ingredients, dates back to the thirteenth century. However, the first documented recipe for hummus as we know it comes from the late eighteenth-century modern Syrian capital of Damascus, and the same source suggests that hummus was unknown outside Damascus at the time.

It has the potential to bring different and even warring cultures together. Hummus is much-loved by both Palestinians and Israelis, and the extent of cultural attachments and refinements regarding hummus in Israel puts Melburnians’ attachment to coffee to shame. It’s not just a dish there, but a national obsession; there are hummus restaurants as well as shops. There’s even an Israeli blog dedicated to it. There are accusations by Arabs of cultural appropriation, but hummus also seems to bring Arabs and Israelis together. There’s an intense and more or less friendly rivalry between Israel and Lebanon for the Guinness Book of Records title for world’s largest dish of hummus. In May 2010 the record returned to Lebanon.

It’s extremely nutritious. Hummus is made from cooked and crushed chickpeas, tahini paste, crushed garlic, lemon juice and olive oil. Chickpeas are a good source of zinc, folate, manganese, iron, copper and phosphorous and they’re high in protein and dietary fibre. Tahini, which is made of hulled sesame seeds, is a source of calcium, iron and some B vitamins. The lemon juice in hummus is a good source of vitamin C. Hummus provides complete protein when eaten with bread. It’s also a good source of monsaturated fats, ie healthy fats.

It’s endlessly adaptable. The Vegie Bar in Melbourne makes an incredible hummus with cashews – it’s to die for. I saw a recipe for boiled peanut hummus on my travels but decided to skip that! There’s a commercial variety made with pumpkin at my local supermarket, and hummus is also sometimes made with carrot or beetroot. (While I dislike the idea of reducing the richness of hummus with a watery vegetable, I can see the attraction for commercial purposes – vegetables are cheaper than hummus ingredients.) Hummus can be made with thyme or mint, and sometimes white beans are added to the recipe. For dietary problems with either lemon juice or sesame, you can take out either ingredient and still have a flavoursome dish. Yoghurt is sometimes used in place of tahini.

Hummus is served with different garnishes in different parts of the world. In Israel they serve it with a boiled egg, fava beans, parsley and olive oil. The Palestinians often serve it warm. They place a crater in the middle of the hummus, fill the crater with olive oil and garnish the hummus with paprika, cumin, mint or parsley.

You can make hummus quickly if you’re in a hurry. There’s been much debate about whether or not it is okay to use tinned chickpeas. If you decide to use tinned, you’re better off buying one of the Italian brands that are cooked without added sugar. In Europe you can get jars of cooked chickpeas preserved in water and salt.

If you use tinned chickpeas,  thoroughly drain and rinse the chickpeas. Don’t use the broth to make the paste smoother, and don’t make the hummus without the tahini; I’ve just tried the latter and though it tasted okay, the chickpeas were the wrong colour, giving the hummus a nasty orange tinge.

Recipe for hummus
Here’s a fairly basic recipe for hummus. It doesn’t include cooking the chickpeas; there’s a lot of info on the net about the best way to soak and cook them, and carb soda seems to aid the process. A really good article from the Guardian about creating hummus convinced me that combining the tahini with half the garlic and half the lemon juice before adding them to the chickpeas could produce superior creaminess. Add paprika or cumin to taste.

2 cups cooked chickpeas
1/4 cup tahini
1 clove garlic, minced
6–8 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon olive oil
sea salt to taste

Mash or puree chickpeas with rest of ingredients. Spread on a plate and garnish with parsley and a drizzle of olive oil.

If you have any useful info about hummus, or even a  favourite recipe, please let me know.

Happy hummus eating!