Hummus crosses borders across the Middle East

For those who are not fully versed in local soul food, musabbaha is a variation of hummus popular in this part of the Middle East, predominantly in Syria, Jordan, Israel and Lebanon.

THE ELEMENTAL alimental joy of the chickpea. (photo credit: YARON BRENER)
THE ELEMENTAL alimental joy of the chickpea.
(photo credit: YARON BRENER)
We all have our soft spots, nestling in some recess of our heart, that can fuel serious hankering from afar. In my own case, when I lived in London in the early nineties, the thing I missed most from here was a portion of musabbaha at my then-favorite eatery, Abu Hassan in Jaffa. For those who are not fully versed in local soul food, the said dish is a variation of hummus popular in this part of the Middle East, predominantly in Syria, Jordan, Israel and Lebanon.
Which, seamlessly and tastefully, leads us straight into the thick of On the Hummus Route, a beautifully crafted hefty English-language tome initiated and coproduced by Dan Alexander. Alexander, an Israeli designer who has been domiciled in France for some years, joined forces with Tel Aviv restaurateur Ariel Rosenthal, aka Hakosem (The Magician), and food writer and chef Orly Peli-Bronshtein to devise an end product that is patently, visually and almost tangibly scrumptious.
DAN ALEXANDER, Paris-based Israeli designer and chief editor of ‘On the Hummus Route.’ (Marie Ravitzki)DAN ALEXANDER, Paris-based Israeli designer and chief editor of ‘On the Hummus Route.’ (Marie Ravitzki)
Cookbooks, and any printed material that addresses cuisine, often tend to be much of a muchness. That particularly pertains to the pictorial content. After all, how can you make a plate of soup, or salad, look enticing and salivating-inducing? Even the most cursory of flips through the 400-plus pages of Hummus conveys, in no uncertain terms, that Alexander and his cohorts have managed to come up with a food-centric book that does the aesthetic business.
Living in a part of the world where anything one says or does can be misconstrued as an expression of some political stance or other, surely food is one of the few areas of life here that manage to skirt around that specific minefield. Then again, as Alexander notes, there is always some – generally unmalicious – contention as regards where the best plate of hummus is to be had. And once found, in general, patrons tend to zealously argue the virtues of their chosen chow house.
The thematic and spiritual bedrock of Hummus – the epexegetical subhead reads “A Journey between Cities, People and Dreams” – runs along common denominator and inclusive lines. The titular trail takes us along a, sadly, geopolitically unfeasible path from Cairo, through Gaza, Jaffa, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Nazareth and Acre, to Beirut and Damascus. There may be all kinds of opinions about the way things should run around here, who should live where and so on, but the vast majority of us do share a love of the humble chickpea and dishes that can be created thereof.
GETTING THE hummustahini mix just right in Acre. (Eilon Paz)GETTING THE hummustahini mix just right in Acre. (Eilon Paz)
But Hummus is about so much more than the comestible itself. It takes in a compilation of recipes, stories, memories, essays and odes, as well as fetching illustrations, paintings and street-level photography, contributed by a diverse lineup of chefs, cooks, food writers, photographers, researchers, philosophers, historians and scientists from different nationalities, faiths and backdrops.
You get so much more than a rollout of trumpet-blowing accounts of how, say, Karim, Liora or Mousa adore the hummus or hummus-based offering of their choice. The contributing writers from across the region share with us stories of childhood aromas, their family life and relationships, socioeconomic conditions and even emotional development. And, just in case you thought hummus, musabbaha and falafel more or less exhausted the palatable permutation ambit, the dozens of recipes dotted throughout the book will open up bright new vistas of delectable gastronomic possibilities.
The entertaining nature of this most instructive of books is apparent from the off. Alexander’s anterior slot opens thus: “A Palestinian, a Lebanese and an Israeli walk into a bar...” But any notion that what follows is not be taken seriously is peremptorily scotched. “...this is not the beginning of a joke; this is the story of how Ariel [Rosenthal] and I met Hind, a Palestinian chef, and Karim, a French chef originally from Lebanon, in a Parisian bar that is a renowned institution overlooking the Louvre Museum.”
AVRAHAM TAWASHI supervises his bakery’s long-serving spacious stone oven. (Nimrod Saunders)AVRAHAM TAWASHI supervises his bakery’s long-serving spacious stone oven. (Nimrod Saunders)
The scene is duly set for a meandering magical mystery tour through the wild, woolly and polychromic climes of what makes people tick around here, and what they like to sink their molars into.
Alexander was clearly not looking to follow the tried and tested mainstream route by providing the reader with a decent handle on the elemental cuisine scene across the Middle East. One of the Jerusalem hummus outlets featured in the book is the feted Akramawi, located a hop, skip and jump from Damascus Gate, owned by a genial chap by the name of Abu Adam. The latter’s smiley countenance appears in the book, but I wondered why there was no pictorial reference to the colorful tile-top tables there with the delightful catchphrase “Make hummus, not war.”
It seems that would have been antithetical to the philosophy behind the project, on several levels. “It would have been a bit kitschy,” declares Alexander. There is a deeper line of thought to the Hummus ethos. “I often felt that the slogan says that, OK, let’s all eat some hummus and let’s forget about all our problems, and it ends with that.” Alexander says he was not looking to paper over any political cracks. “I didn’t want to eat my hummus and just merrily carry on with life. The book aims to stop for a moment, and to offer a different perspective on things, on the region, and to consider it all through the hummus prism.”
EAST JERUSALEM restaurateur Hassan alBaghdadi still uses a pestle and mortar to make his hummus. (Eilon Paz)EAST JERUSALEM restaurateur Hassan alBaghdadi still uses a pestle and mortar to make his hummus. (Eilon Paz)
For Alexander and his comrades in penmanship, it is about the people just as much as about hummus, tehina, falafel and all manner of gastronomic combos and offshoots. And he doesn’t airbrush the passion and the political baggage that comes with the geographical-edible territory. “As soon as you mention hummus, there is the matter of cultural expropriation. It has become a very tough symbol in the Middle East and particularly with us [Israelis], you know, things like who invented hummus and what exactly they invented.”
That is one of the many topics addressed in an enticing and engaging manner in the generously proportioned and sumptuously designed publication. Alexander says he was not looking to provide us with some incontrovertible hard facts on the ground as to who brought our beloved and fundamentally nutritious dish into the world. “Discussing that only leads to alienation. It just accentuates polarization. But if there is something that everyone talks about, it must be interesting and loaded with lots of energy. It invites you to examine what it is all about.” Alexander was certainly drawn in. “That’s where this whole thing began, how not to get into all this cultural appropriation.”
Even so, Hummus does get into various versions of the origins of the popular serving, and Alexander himself says he is “very clear” in his own mind in that area. “It is definitely a Palestinian dish, but you have to differentiate between that and the chickpea, which has been around in the Middle East for millennia.”
 SALTED cooked chickpeas – aka arbes or bobbes – are a staple of the ‘shalom zachar,’ welcoming of a male baby, Friday-night gathering among Ashkenazi Jews. (Felipe-Romero Beltran) SALTED cooked chickpeas – aka arbes or bobbes – are a staple of the ‘shalom zachar,’ welcoming of a male baby, Friday-night gathering among Ashkenazi Jews. (Felipe-Romero Beltran)
The long and rich history of the chickpea and its variegated depiction in ancient art and manuscripts are also in the Hummus mix. “We cite all sorts of related anecdotes from ancient Egypt, and also bring papyri from Assyria. That was part of our research work. The chickpea appears in cookbooks, in the Middle East, in the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries.” The aim was always to convey as wide and as immersive a picture of the pureed food and its source as possible. “The idea is to get us to lift up our heads from the dish itself, and then you see that the chickpea is a legume which developed here over the millennia and was used in all sorts of ways. That’s before you get into hummus.”
ABOVE ALL, hummus appears to be a story of human evolution. When, for example, British-Palestinian chef Joudie Kalla talks about all the variations on the chickpea theme she encountered as a child, including the qudsiyeh chickpea and fava beans cocktail, and warm cumin-spiced chickpea balila, you get some idea of just how ingrained hummus is in the Middle Eastern DNA. Then there is Rosenthal’s heartstring-tugging tale of his emotionally and financially challenging childhood and youth, and the sense of home he gets from food and, in particular, from hummus and falafel.
While Alexander was wary of the morass of discord into which he could have unsuspectingly tripped, in the process of bringing On the Hummus Route to corporeal fruition, he encountered no end of logistical challenges along the way, partly fueled by politics and considerations of personal safety. “I searched for writers and photographers for the book,” he explains. Things did not always run smoothly. “In Egypt, for example, I couldn’t find a photographer who was willing to work with me.”
FALAFEL and hummus in a pita make for a healthy, affordable lunch for Gaza schoolchildren. (Mohammed Asad)FALAFEL and hummus in a pita make for a healthy, affordable lunch for Gaza schoolchildren. (Mohammed Asad)
A solution was ultimately found, although from a highly unexpected direction. “Eventually I found a photographer who agreed to take pictures for me, and it transpired that he is a doctor and is the deputy head of one of the main hospitals in Cairo.”
It turned to be a profitable deal all round. “He told me that, thanks to his work on the book, he found falafel made by Syrian refugees in Cairo. Once he tasted their falafel, he couldn’t eat falafel from anywhere else,” Alexander notes, adding that the find allowed him a better informed peek into local dynamics. “You get an inkling of all the machinations of the Middle East that permeate this whole thing.”
Shades of John Lennon’s “Imagine” vision eddy through our conversation, as Alexander expounds on the philosophical-ethical side of the project. He says that, as work on the book progressed, he gained a deeper appreciation of the significance of the mythical trail they mapped out across the region. “We realized that On the Hummus Route is a sort of parallel with ‘On the Silk Road,’ or other routes across the Middle East.” The utopian, apolitical aspect began to make itself apparent. “It begins from Cairo, but there are no countries and no borders involved.”
TEL AVIV is replete with hummus- and falafel-based eateries. (Yaron Brener)TEL AVIV is replete with hummus- and falafel-based eateries. (Yaron Brener)
Not everyone Alexander turned to – some refused point-blank to have anything to do with the project, while others preferred to remain anonymous – embraced the visionary take. “Some immediately raised their flag and their national pride, but I felt we should try and take a utopian trip around the region, in a hot-air balloon or some other means – a trip we all want to go on. We can do that in the book. If we can imagine that, it is interesting to see how many people want to join in. It is a vision that proposes something different.”
Politics or personal gastronomic leanings aside, On the Hummus Route is an aesthetic joy to behold, and an intriguing personal and informative textual treasure to peruse.
For more information: www.daitd.com/the-hummus-route/
A WELL-GUARDED Damascus eatery. (Anonymous)A WELL-GUARDED Damascus eatery. (Anonymous)
JERUSALEM’S OLD City offers an abundance of tasty bites. (Felix Lupa)JERUSALEM’S OLD City offers an abundance of tasty bites. (Felix Lupa)