Posted by Beshouy Botros on July 23, 2015 in Blog
For a proper journey through the Middle Eastern dinner table it is best to begin with the basics- hummus may be the single most widely recognizable element of Arab cuisine, with a rich history and occasional controversy.
People have been eating chickpeas for millennia, but legend has it that Saladin, Sultan of Egypt and Syria was the first to prepare hummus in the 12th century. This myth may hold some truth, the first cookbook to document a recipe resembling hummus appears in a medieval 13th century Egyptian cookbook titled, Kitāb al-Wusla ilā l-habīb fī wasf al-tayyibāt wa-l-tīb.
Although hummus is widely recognized as the marriage of tahini, chickpeas, and lemon, subtleties and nuance exist with each national variety. In Turkey, butter is often substituted for olive oil, and in Jordan and Palestine hummus is served warm and for breakfast. Yet, a different kind of regionalism makes itself obvious in hummus’ recent past and present.
Today, the politics of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict present themselves on the plate and in the aisles of grocery stores. Hummus’ Arab and Middle Eastern roots provide fodder for analysis on its more recent and charged history. When Israelis began settling in the late 1940s and 1950s, hummus was not a part of their culinary vocabulary, but today hummus and falafel are signifiers of Israeli national identity. Throughout the twentieth century, as the new Israeli identity was being constructed the metropolitan class sought out the exotic and flavorful foods of the land. Arab food offered a reservoir of such dishes, and thus, eating hummus became part of what it meant to be Israeli.
What is more fascinating is that Israelis maintain that hummus is best when made by Arabs. In an interview Israeli food editor on the BBC program Cooking in the Danger Zone, Israeli food editor Gil Hovav, stated that "even during the intifada years Jews would sneak… into the Muslim quarter just to have a vital, really genuine good hummus.” It is still the case that to argue about the best humusiot, hummus only shop—to know the best hole-in-wall Arab eatery—is to be Israeli.
In the Israeli context this can be viewed as cultural appropriation, coupled with occupation, that recognizes authenticity, and it has resulted in some interesting demonstrations. Most elucidating is the hummus brinksmanship that Lebanon and Israel engaged in – chefs from both countries competed with one another to hold and maintain the Guinness World Record for the largest plate of hummus. While chefs were duking it out for the grand title, Arab countries lost trade to Israel corporations like Sabra, which have become ubiquitous in the market. Unlike the vast majority of Israelis who prefer Arab hummus, the American and European consumers new to hummus do not recognize authenticity or confront occupation. When Israeli corporations appropriate Arab food whilst supporting the occupation, appropriated food becomes as egregious an offense as occupied land.
Last year Wesleyan University removed Sabra products from its shelves and dining halls, after backlash the university restocked. In this matter, conscious consumption is paramount. Hummus is no longer just hummus – then again, it never has been.
Beshouy Botros is an intern with the Arab American Institute