I first became acquainted, but honestly not enamored, with hummus during my college years. Always from among the store-bought options, I tried many different flavors and brands. It wasn't until I began traveling to the Middle East, though, that I TRULY developed an appreciation and love of hummus. There, I tasted hummus as I have NEVER tasted it BEFORE! It was warm, creamy, and had the rich nutty flavor of tehina, whereas the store-bought varieties tasted flat, cold, acidic, and vastly uninteresting in comparison. Since my frequent visits to the Middle East, I have tried to replicate their results through my observations, discussions, food tour tips, instructions from both Arabic and Israeli cookbooks, Syrian friends' recommendations, and lots of trial and error.
Hummus is ubiquitous throughout the Middle East. Frankly, it is not clear EXACTLY where hummus originated. It is so yummy that many countries want to take credit for it and claim it as their own, like Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine, Israel, and Turkey, to name a few. Suffice it to say that you will be WOWED by hummus you consume in ANY of those countries. There, hummusiyas, exist that sell only hummus, accompanied by fresh pita or taboon bread, raw onions, a few pickles, olives, and perhaps an Israeli or Arabic salad. Hummusiyas open in the morning, already offering hummus for breakfast, and stay open only until the freshly-made warm hummus runs out, usually by the very early afternoon. Both Abu Shukri in the Old City of Jerusalem and Abu Hassan in historic Jaffa are hummusiyas with prominent reputations. The word 'hummus' is Arabic for chickpeas. The BASIC dip or spread that WE have come to call 'hummus' is actually a combination of chickpeas blended primarily with tehina, but also some garlic, lemon juice, cumin, and a little salt. This is generously drizzled with olive oil and then garnished with paprika, pine nuts, or parsley. Variations in flavorings and garnishings certainly exist, such as topping it with stewed fava beans, shredded braised lamb, mushrooms, spiced ground beef with pine nuts, or whole chickpeas, as shown in the picture below.
Before getting to the recipe, however, let's briefly discuss the two key ingredients ... chickpeas and tehina. Chickpeas, also known as garbanzo beans, are legumes and are high in protein and fiber. They have been found at sites in Turkey, the Levant, and Jericho dating back to 8000 BC. So they have been around for a very long time! With time they expanded throughout the Fertile Crescent, to the Mediterranean region, and then to India by 3000 BC. Dried chickpeas are typically soaked in water overnight, then boiled for a short time and finally simmered for 40-60 minutes until they become tender. Canned organic garbanzo beans can also be substituted for convenience or time. Tehina is a sesame seed paste, made from toasted hulled sesame seeds which are subsequently ground. The earliest mention of sesame is in a cuneiform document dating to 4000 BC from Mesopotamia that describes the custom of serving sesame wine to the gods. Today sesame pods are primarily grown in the Ethiopian highlands which provide ideal sunshine, irrigation and altitude. Both white and black sesame seeds are grown, but it is the white seeds that are placed into the large roasters and then ground against the stone wheels to yield the rich, creamy, nutty, oily sesame paste. Tehina is mixed with chickpeas to produce hummus, as we know it. It can also be mixed with smoked eggplant to make baba ghanoush, combined with sugar to create the sweet halva, or can be used straight-up as a condiment topping for many foods like falafels, shawarma, meats or seafood. It is important to research and purchase great quality tehina. Be sure to look at the ingredient label and check that the ONLY ingredient in the jar of tehina is 100% pure, ground sesame seeds. No other ingredients! A jar of great quality, fresh tehina shouldn't separate into a greasy slick on top and thick sludge at the bottom. Rather, it should present as a rich, smooth and homogeneous sesame paste.
I have tried several different hummus recipes and the one that I enjoy the most and which reminds ME most of the hummus that I love in the Middle East is Michael Solomonov's hummus recipe, detailed in his Israeli cookbook called 'Zahav, A World of Israeli Cooking.' I like his recipe for a couple of reasons. He creates his hummus by first making a Basic Tehina Sauce which I think is practical, in that the sauce can then be mixed with cooked chickpeas or smoked eggplant to easily create various spreads. I also believe that Solomonov's recommendation of allowing time for the puréed garlic and lemon juice to sit for 10 minutes prior to combining it with the tehina, results in a tehina sauce (and ultimately hummus or baba ghanoush) that is less aggressive and sour. I feel that the wait time to stabilize the garlic yields a tastier, mellower result. I have made batches of hummus without taking this step and feel that the resulting hummus tasted harsher.
Basic Tehina Sauce recipe
Ingredients: (Makes about 4 cups)
1 head of garlic
3/4 cup lemon juice (about 3 lemons)
1 1/2 tsp kosher salt
2 cups tehina
1/2 tsp ground cumin
Ice-cold water, as much as needed
Break the head of garlic into cloves. Place the unpeeled cloves into a blender or food processor. Add the lemon juice and 1/2 tsp of salt. Blend on high for a few seconds to form a coarse purée. Let this puréed mixture sit for 10 minutes to allow it time to mellow.
Pour the mixture through a fine-mesh sieve over a bowl, pressing the solids against the sieve to extract as much juice as possible. Discard the solids. Transfer the garlic-lemon juice to a food processor. Add the tehina to the garlic-lemon juice, along with the cumin and one tsp of salt.
Turn the food processor on low. This emulsion will likely begin to seize up as the oily tehina combines with the watery lemon juice. No problem! Just add ice cold water a little at a time, bit by bit, to the food processor until you have a smooth, creamy thick sauce.
Taste and adjust with additional salt or cumin, if you desire. This Basic Tehina Sauce can be used immediately, stored in the refrigerator for a week or in the freezer for a month.
1 cup dried chickpeas
2 tsp baking soda
1 1/2 cups Basic Tehina Sauce (from above)
1 tsp kosher salt
1/4 tsp ground cumin
olive oil, for drizzling
Place the chickpeas in a large bowl with one tsp of baking soda. Cover with ample water and let them soak overnight. The dried chickpeas should double in volume, so use more water than you may think. The next day, drain the chickpeas and rinse with cold water.
Place the chickpeas into a pot. add remaining tsp of baking soda. Fill with cold water to cover chickpeas by about 4". Bring chickpeas to boil over high heat. Skim off any scum that rises to the surface. Adjust heat to low, cover the pot and continue to simmer for about 40-60 minutes or until chickpeas are tender. Drain.
Combine the drained chickpeas, the Basic Tehina Sauce, salt, and the cumin in the food processor. Purée the hummus for several minutes, until very creamy ... and then purée it some more!
When ready to serve, spread the hummus in a shallow bowl, drizzle with olive oil, dust with paprika and top with some fresh pine nuts.
While this is a simple recipe with few ingredients, it does require some trials to adjust the flavor to your satisfaction. More or less salt, garlic, and cumin obviously affect the flavor. More importantly, however, is obtaining and using QUALITY tehina and chickpeas. Fresh, warm and creamy hummus is the goal. This can be achieved by cooking the chickpeas and then puréing the hummus for a longer time ... perhaps up to 5 minutes. If you are only familiar with store-bought hummus, then I definitely encourage you to give this recipe a try. In my opinion, and that of many others, there is NO COMPARISON!!!