Hummus in the Headlines

Hummus and Pita Chips

Hummus is a Middle Eastern food composed of cooked and mashed chickpeas, oil, lemon, garlic and tahini. It is high in iron and vitamin C, and also contains significant amounts of folate and vitamin B6. It is known to support lower cholesterol and to prevent blood sugar levels from rising too rapidly after a meal. Hummus is also a kosher and vegan friendly dish that contains no MSG or saturated fat. These qualities, in conjunction with the dish’s flavor and versatility, have continued to boost hummus’ attractiveness, especially in a world increasingly concerned with making health conscious choices. Traditional hummus, although still a popular choice, is often  altered to include such bold flavors as chipotle, red pepper, scallion, dill, jalapeno, sun-dried tomato, and basil, to name a few. This dish can be used as a dip, a spread for sandwiches and wraps, and a topping for fish, chicken, or baked potatoes. This flexibility has encouraged hummus’ integration into a wide variety of cultures and cuisines throughout the world. For these reasons, hummus has been steadily increasing in popularity since the onslaught of its worldwide mass production in the 1980’s. In the U.S. alone, the hummus market is worth over $250 million annually and grows exponentially each year.

Hummus, pronounced hum-es, is actually the Arabic word for chickpea. Other commonly used words for chickpeas are garbanzo in Spanish, ceci in Italian and gram in Indian. The authentic terminology for what has been shortened to simply hummus is actually hummus di tahini. This dish lacks any definitive history, but several stories have emerged concerning the birth of hummus. The details known about the chickpea are far more reliable than the vague and flimsy history associated with hummus. It is commonly believed that chickpeas were cultivated 7,000 years ago in the Mediterranean Basin. Chickpeas were also a frequently used food item in Mesopotamia and Rome, but there are no surviving hummus recipes from this or any previous era. In addition, records of such modest, everyday foods tend to be very scarce.

It has been rumored that Sultan Saladin, a warrior from the 2nd Crusade famous for conquering Jerusalem, was the first to prepare hummus. Others credit the origins of hummus to the whole of Bilad al Sham, the old Arabic term for the Levant: the area including Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and historic Palestine. According to Charles Perry, author of Medieval Arab Cookery and Medieval Cuisine of the Islamic World, “the ingredients of [hummus] strongly suggest[s] that [hummus] originated in the Mediterranean coastal region of Syria or Lebanon, which implies that [its] home is probably Beirut.” Regardless, the history of hummus is largely based on similar assumptions and rumors, with little existing proof relating to its true origins.

Until October 2008, the history of hummus was nothing more than a bit of foodie trivia or a creative way to goad a dinner discussion.  Now, because of Lebanon’s increasingly tense relationship with Israel, it has become a lawsuit that is already making headlines around the world.  The Lebanese Industrialists Association has seemingly initiated a “food fight,” with Israel. Fadi Abboud, President of the LIA claims that dishes such as hummus, tabbouleh and baba ghanouj are intrinsically Arab and that Israel’s adoption of these dishes is causing Lebanon to lose millions of dollars in trade. Following in the footsteps of the 2002 “feta lawsuit” that gave Greece the exclusive right to use the name “feta” in the European Union, Abboud has registered local specialties as Lebanese in order to obtain property rights.  Abboud says his group wants to establish a Lebanese branding for hummus, tabbouleh, and baba ghanouj making it exclusive to Lebanese cuisine.

In order for Lebanon to gain the right to use a geographical indicator, a sign showing that a food is officially from a particular region, it has to demonstrate that the methods of production are local and traditional and that certain attributes and characteristics of hummus are essentially Lebanese in nature. This may prove to be a very difficult task for Lebanon, but it is a case Abboud is determined to see through to the end.  Although Abboud is scornful of the Brazilian versions of tabbouleh and the style of hummus marketed as Greek, his outright resentment is strictly reserved for the Israeli companies marketing hummus as an Israeli dish. Israel is not the only Middle Eastern country claiming hummus as its own; Palestinians also believe they can rightfully declare hummus to be their native dish. Although Abboud admits that the right to hummus may be a debatable and difficult case to win, he would not feel defeated if Palestine won.

The history of hummus may be something you barely think of or something you care very little about, but in the Middle East it has become a hot topic. As if tensions in this increasingly troubled area were not high enough, Fadi Abboud and the Lebanese Industrialists Association have added a new dimension to the feud. So, now as you sit in your favorite Middle Eastern restaurant and enjoy a plate of hummus, be sure to spend a moment thinking of how important this outwardly simple dish is to Middle Eastern culture.

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