My Story: London snobbery

With disdain I now survey the shelves, occasionally buying their humous out of necessity and then announcing to anyone lucky enough to eat it with me that it is not actually humous.

humous feat 88 (photo credit: )
humous feat 88
(photo credit: )
Make no mistake: England is a humous-friendly country. No picnic is complete without it, no sandwich shelf in Starbucks lacks a humous and veggie wrap and major supermarkets devote large areas to the stuff, stocking it in several flavors, a reduced-fat version and in mini snack-packs for dieters. Throughout my school and university career here, I ate it almost daily - in sandwiches, with carrots, on toast, with potato chips. Everyone loves humous - a convenient, cheap taste-paste with the added bonus of being "healthy" and often "organic." So on my first visit to Israel as a sentient adult two years ago (rather than as an eight-year-old dragged around kibbutzim and historical sights by her parents), I was shocked. The "humous" I'd taken for real, that trusty refrigerated friend, was nothing like the real thing. The real thing was better than I could believe. But then, it kind of had to be; my host in Tel Aviv had spent five days preparing me for "the best" humous, which I would have at Abu Adham on Rehov Carlebach on my last day. I realized that Israelis' relationship to humous is like ours to pubs; we have our all-time favorites, our favorite locals and passable ones we go to for social convenience. Then there are the abominations. Abu Adham was a dingy, no-frills, no-windows place with plastic furniture. Elad, my humous guru and mentor, muttered something to the waitress. Two minutes later, to my impatient delight, there were chilies, onions, warm pita and a jug of lemonade with mint floating in it. Then it appeared: a shallow bowl with two pale orbs and lots of color. On the outside was the creme de la humous, one could say. The smoothest blend with no added flavors; just chickpeas and tehina doing their thing, united in something the consistency of whipped cream. Within this exalted circle was a churning, nuttier blend of rougher tehina, studded with warm whole chickpeas and sloshed with oil and sprinkled with some herb or other. After we ate, I needed a lie-down to recover. My mind, mouth and gut had been overawed, then dulled into oblivion. BACK IN London, I have become a snob. With disdain I now survey the shelves of Waitrose and Marks & Spencers, the so-called premium supermarkets, occasionally buying their humous out of necessity and then announcing to anyone lucky enough to eat it with me that it is not actually humous. Real humous, I say, can only be found in humous restaurants, freshly made. "Come now," my friends say. "A whole restaurant for what is essentially a picnic dip? You must be joking." This attitude has led to acceptance of a dire lack of choice in the UK humous market, which is dominated by a single manufacturer, an Icelandic company called Bakkavor with outlets in London and Birmingham. Every pot for sale - be it lemon and coriander, pesto-topped, piquillo or roasted red pepper flavor, from mid-range Sainsbury's to low-brow Asda to people's giant Tesco, contains a measly 12 percent-14% tehina (Waitrose splurges with 14% for its 'supreme' humous). The other ingredients are the requisite chickpeas (43%), lemon juice from concentrate, vegetable oil, garlic and salt. Reduced-fat humous contains modified corn starch and maltodextrin, another starchy additive. Reasonable ingredients, sure, but days of sitting in plastic packaging and chilling makes it all taste a bit stale. And the texture is never smooth or rich enough, though some, like my Irish flatmate Helen, adore the mealy texture and slightly bitter taste. So why do we get it so wrong? I felt that the only person in London who could really tell me was Ronen Givon, co-founder of Humous Brothers, a glintingly modern humous restaurant with no known rivals in the UK. Givon, an Israeli graduate of Cambridge and former investment banker, says his aim is to "bridge the gap between humous as a dip and humous as a whole meal." I track him down at his brand-new City branch (the other HB is in Soho, an area crawling with London's media elite and late-night partyers). "The main problem with humous in the UK is that the tehina is extremely inferior," Givon explains. "It is runny, watery and tastes bitter - some combination of lower-quality sesame seeds and the fact that they aren't roasted enough." Givon is adamant that taking short cuts never led to a good humous. Tehina is the most important element of humous, but it is also the most expensive. "Chickpeas cost nothing," he says. "But to make tehina, you have to get good sesame seeds, peel them, roast them and grind them into a paste with expensive machinery - it's a real process." Rather than set up a whole tehina factory, Ronen imports it from Israel (he won't divulge the name of his supplier, suffice it to say he is particular). We commiserate together about the unavailability of pure tehina - good or bad - in England. "Some of the Lebanese places on Edgware Road have it, but the flavor's just not right," he laments. Tehina aside, Givon returns to the topic of seasoning - in particular, the heavy presence of garlic. Such an addition merely detracts from the voluptuous blandness of pure humous and - if the basic ingredients of chickpeas, tehina, lemon and oil are there - should not be necessary. "The manufacturers pump it with garlic, so it tastes nothing like Israeli humous - more like a Turkish dip maybe," he says. "Also, real lemon juice disappears after a few days, so they have to add preservatives to keep the flavor. The result is that bitter, artificial lemon taste." The Humous Brothers menu offers bowls of humous with pita, then various toppings including fava beans, chick peas with boiled egg and chicken. A "small" bowl costs 3 and a "regular" is 4 - this is cheap for a whole meal in London. Ronen says he and his partner Christian have no immediate plans to open a third branch, but I doubt this will last. They are onto something too good - surely it is only a matter of time before Britons wake up to what they've been missing. As for me, it's a good thing I don't live or work near either Humous Brothers. I'd eat nothing else and so be forced to admit the one downside to gorging on humous: getting fat.