The great thing about street food in Israel is that it’s pretty healthy. You can’t go wrong with pita chock-full of hummus and salads, or sabich—an Iraqi sandwich consisting of eggplant, hard-boiled overnight eggs, chopped salad, cabbage, hummus of course, and preferably oozing with amba—a pickled mango delicacy. Or how about the always pleasing sambusak—a baked pocket of dough stuffed with, you guessed it, more hummus, meat, or cheese. My favorite is sambusak with Bulgarian cheese and za’atar. Me’orav Yerushalmi—the Jerusalem Mix is a combination of chicken giblets with lamb, not my cup-of-tea, but it’s another staple of the Israeli street-food-scene.
When it comes to hummus though, people will always volunteer the best place to find it and seldom will you hear of the same location twice. Everyone has their own idea of which hummus is the best. It’s considered one of Israel’s national cuisines even though some Israelis would repudiate this statement, and take offense to the very idea because Israeli food is representative of so much more. In this case, both sides win but when one can identify hummus in ancient Hebrew writings where it appears as himtza or hamitz, specifically when Boaz offered Ruth to “. . . eat of the bread, and dip thy morsel in the vinegar . . .,” there’s more credibility and faith in a food that has gripped people’s palates from a time long ago, and continues to do so in the modern era notwithstanding all of the new and improved cuisines.
When I hear some of my American friends say they love hummus, I fear they’ve not even tasted the real deal. In Israel, making hummus is considered an art-form, and eating it is tantamount to a religious experience. You don’t spoon portions of hummus onto a plate but rather wipe a plate of hummus. There’s quite a bit of ceremony involved in specific wiping techniques and styles. The pros will do so in short, circular movements using a little piece of pita clutched between their thumb and the tips of their fingers to create the most efficient hummus wipe. The rest will dip a torn piece of pita in hummus, without much thought, or eat it the lazy way, spread inside the pita. There are restaurants that specialize in hummus-making and nothing else, while practically every other restaurant in Israel offers hummus as one of a myriad of mezze salads.
During one of our many visits to Israel, my sister and I were invited to have dinner at Galit and Benny’s home. Both husband and wife are tremendous cooks, especially Benny whose Tripolitan-influenced cuisine is a direct result of a talented mother who imparted onto him recipes and secrets you’ll never find in a cookbook. On this particular visit we decided to fast until dinner time so we could better enjoy the food instead of feeling satiated after the first two appetizers. Refusing food would be deemed strange in the company we were keeping, and guaranteed to draw a few stares and remarks for being lightweights in terms of eating. Also, we were well-versed with feelings of lament from past dinners when we couldn’t eat as much as we had hoped, and on the way home all we could think about was the food we left behind.
This time we were determined to do things differently; we would have our fair share of food, enough to satisfy our hosts, and our own big eyes. How surprised we were that on this occasion our hosts treated us to a takeout dinner instead of the Tripolitan treat that we had expected, and that we dreamed of tasting all day long, even longer if you count the days leading up to the dinner. However, when dealing with people who appreciate food, even a takeout shouldn’t be a source of disappointment; in this instance, they ordered food from a famous Chinese restaurant belonging to Yisrael Aharoni. Before our hosts began dishing out the food, we watched in disbelief as a large tub of hummus slowly made its way down the table, passing from hand to hand after everyone had taken a helping for themselves. When their son Liran handed me the tub of hummus, I could no longer hold my tongue: “Are you kidding me, hummus?” I asked in pure awe. He looked surprised as though he couldn’t fully comprehend the purpose of my question. “Of course hummus, why not?” he replied smiling, and then proceeded to wipe his hummus with supple warm pita bread bought right before dinner time from a local bakery.
When Israelis and Palestinians make peace one day, it won’t take long for a new conflict to arise and occupy everyone’s mind. I predict that the Hummus War will be the most drawn-out struggle involving Israel and all of its Arab neighbors, and will revolve around the question of hummus proprietorship, and with whom the recipe originated. People on both sides have been very passionate about their hummus-making abilities, and the reason there are so many hummus aficionados and self-proclaimed hummus kings in the region. Israelis claim that it’s an ancient Jewish food, even mentioned in the Bible; Arabs maintain that Jews have claimed proprietorship of hummus in the same way that they’ve made claims over falafel, and this goes on and on. The truth is that nobody has the right to claim anything, most foods that we enjoy today are the result of many influences—people settling in a new region and sharing their culinary influences with locals, or just passing through and slowly adapting their way of cooking to suit a new climate, different produce, and dietary laws. On a trip to Khirbet Qeiyafa, a Judean city that overlooks the Elah Valley, and dates back to the early 10th century B.C.E., our lecturer explained that one of many things to distinguish that particular excavation was the absence of pork bones that one would normally find in Canaanite and Philistine cities etc. This indicates that those people were already distinguishing themselves from other cultures that inhabited the region. Right there you have a prime example of how religious beliefs influenced cooking. In Moshe David’s book The Disappearing Flavors of Southern Yemen, he explains the transformation of jichnun into Jewish-Yemenite food. Originally, a Turkish recipe for rolled dough stuffed with meat and potatoes, but since the recipe included ghee Jews eliminated the meat and potatoes in order to adhere to their dietary customs. They added an overnight cooked egg to accompany this delicacy.
Galit says that there are only three places where they purchase their hummus; one of those is Abu Hassan’s, located in Herzliya’s industrial park, which is otherwise recognized as the Israeli Silicon Valley. But in Israel, highly industrial areas have been known to house a profusion of little eateries and bakeries as well as high-class restaurants. So when hi-tech shuts down for the night, restaurants continue to thrive and parking remains a challenge. Their second favorite hummus is at Roni Ful’s restaurant, between Tel Aviv and Jaffa. The journey they make to their hummus place on a Friday—having to sit in traffic and drive through narrow streets brimming with people shopping for the Sabbath—is a testament to their absolute devotion to good hummus. Their third favorite is Abu Kasam’s Hummus and Ful Center in Faradis, it’s become a permanent stop before traveling to the northern regions of Israel. I had the pleasure of eating at Kasam’s during my last trip, and that specific hummus became legendary in my books as well.
When we arrived at the restaurant it was mid-day, the traffic was terrible and there was no parking in sight. We were dropped off in front of the restaurant, while Benny went looking for parking. We stood in an island waiting to cross the busy street and all I could hear was the loud honking of impatient drivers, and as I lifted my head up to get a better view of my surroundings all I noticed were houses that were stacked one on top of the other, and ugly electrical cables crisscrossing the skyline—nothing to indicate that a very special restaurant awaited us in the corner. From the outside, the restaurant looked like a dive, and inside there were no more than four tables. Quite surprising for a place with such a reputation, but I was quick to learn that patrons were not expected to remain seated after their last bite of hummus. It’s like an unspoken rule, you order, you eat, and then you get the hell out of there so others can enjoy the food as well.
At the entrance there was a large platter of chickpeas resting in the open, as though giving us a glimpse of the “simple” ingredient that would soon turn into an off-white, unassuming pasty mush that has earned a coveted spot on the palate. The platter was actually taking up a whole table that would otherwise seat four more people, but that didn’t seem to bother anyone because nobody dared to complain. The owner was happy to pose with me for a few photos and answer a couple of questions; I never really learned anything from his answers, but I smiled anyway. I ordered the plate of hummus with ful and egg, and it was indeed worth a journey of thousands of miles by air from Las Vegas to Israel, and the bumper-to-bumper traffic from Herzliya to Faradis. I only wish that I didn’t have to eat under pressure, it was hard to ignore the other families standing by the entrance, smacking their lips in eager anticipation for their turn while staring at our food with wide, gaping eyes. I wanted this experience to last a bit longer, I wasn’t prepared to swallow my food without the usual exclamations of delight, but just like the people before us, we got up as soon as we took our last bite of food. However, I did manage to observe some of my surroundings, and as I watched the mix of Jews and Arabs dining together I realized that both Jews and Arabs alike, despite their conflicts, have been oblivious to the fact that there’s a culinary common ground in both camps. No politician would ever think of this as a catalyst for peace, I’d probably be ridiculed for my simplified observation of a decades-long problem, but it’s certainly worth placing emphasis on such an obvious, positive aspect in an otherwise bleak situation. Whether in Israel or abroad, I’ve experienced eating in Arab and Israeli restaurants where the crowd of diners has been a healthy mix of Jews and Arabs, all of whom had a similar taste for these regional flavors, especially for hummus. In this instance, food always prevails over politics so it makes complete sense that perhaps the next peace talks should take place over a plate of hummus, with ful and egg.
Another place worth mentioning was introduced to us by my friend Eial who, lucky for me, also happens to be a tour guide. He took us to his local favorite hummus place, the one he referred to as the best in Israel. The sign outside the restaurant read “Abu Shaker—you’ve arrived to your mother’s hummus place.” The waiters all wore black T-shirts with “Hummus Junky” printed across the front. After a long day of sightseeing, I think that my brother-in-law was expecting to sink his teeth into something else other than hummus, and when he noticed that hummus was pretty much the only item on the menu, his face turned grim. Oh well, you can’t please all of the people all of the time. I also loved the hummus at Badra’s Kitchen, just a short walk from my granny’s place in Rehovot; I was immediately drawn to their organic approach to cooking ethnic food and the hummus became another favorite.
It was so frustrating to fly back home with incredible food experiences, but absolutely nothing new in terms of how to prepare hummus. The internet is flooded with recipes, and they’re all the same, and one can easily find hummus in every supermarket these days, but absolutely nothing compares to the hummus that you eat in Israel. I’d say it’s like tasting two completely different foods. That summer, I was on a mission to learn a thing or two about preparing great hummus but nobody, as friendly as they were, shared an inkling of how to improve my hummus recipe.
Presently, I’m editing my cookbook, again, it’s a long process, and hopefully by the time I’ve completed the project I’ll be able to proudly include hummus as well. I’m off to the kitchen to tend to a large pot of hummus that’s been cooking for a couple of hours on a small flame; the chickpeas have to be very soft and easily smooshed between two fingers before the next step—the one I’m still trying to figure out. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been making hummus for decades, and it’s tasty, but I have yet to master the texture and flavor I pine for when Israel’s on my mind and taste buds.