Hummus, a Palestinian staple

March 31, 2006 Lailie Ibrahim, IMEU

A pot simmers over the stove cooking garbanzo beans that take turns bobbing to the surface. It's the first step to making a dish that is synonymous with Palestinian culture and cuisine.

For some it arouses images of family huddled over the breakfast table on a Sunday morning, their arms extended, snippets of bread in hand as they dip into velvety hummus that is adorned by adjacent dishes like fried eggplant sprinkled with sumac.

For Abla Hadid who lives in Walnut Creek, Calif., hummus is a very big part of her culture and always present in at least one meal in Palestine, the country she calls home.

"In the house or in restaurants if you want to have it with falafel or for breakfast back home, hummus is always there," she said.

These days most garbanzo beans come from the can. However, Hadid's stepmother preferred to make hummus from scratch back in Palestine, where chickpeas are enjoyed green off the vine.

They are also dried then stored for uses like making hummus, in which case, they are soaked overnight before heading into a pot where they are cooked for at least an hour. Whether it's from the can or off the stove, a basic recipe for hummus involves combining the garbanzo beans with lemon juice, salt, and tahini - a paste made from ground sesame - mixed together in a blender. Common ingredients also include garlic and olive oil.

Hossam Kaddoura, owner of Java on Ocean Café in San Francisco, adds plain yogurt to his hummus. 

"It gives it texture and a sour taste," he said. 

He uses hummus on his wraps and sandwiches and it's popular in catering orders. He decorates his dishes with whole garbanzo beans in the center and olive oil and dried mint leaves sprayed on top. 

Kaddoura also sells his hummus in containers sprinkled with paprika and fresh mint leaves so his customers can take a piece of Arab history home with them. He said in the past it was a very practical food for Arabs. 

"It was easily available to the poor people and it's a plentiful food that can feed many people," said Kaddoura.

Hummus is never alone. It is uncharacteristic to find the pasty spread devoid of some type of garnish such as paprika, mint leaves, parsley, cumin and olive oil. Toppings for the pasty mixture run the gamut from savory to spicy. 

Hadid enhances the flavor of her hummus by putting homemade chili made of ground peppers preserved in olive oil and vinegar. 

"Instead of adding paprika which is not spicy we put this, it makes it spicy and adds a nice color," she said.

Hummus is the Arabic word for "chickpea," but for most it's known as the garbanzo bean. Its origins are unknown really, with many cultures claiming it as their own. 

Its history spans the vast regions of the Mediterranean from India to the Arab countries. Regardless of which culture has it on their list of culinary creations, Palestinians have mastered it all around the world. 

That includes Seoul, South Korea, where Yaser Ghanayem, an Australian Palestinian serves up platters of his version of the creamy concoction to his patrons. His restaurant, Petra offers the only authentic Arabic cuisine found in northeast Asia.