An Ancient Food: Making and Serving Good Hummus

An Ancient Food: Making and Serving Good Hummus  

Hummus bi tahini (or bi tahina) simply means “chickpeas with sesame seed paste” in Arabic. Long a favorite appetizer throughout the Middle East, in recent decades it has become a standard in the West as well. Numerous garnishes are traditional, from drizzled olive oil and chopped parsley, to sumac, to a few whole cooked chickpeas, to pomegranate seeds, to black olives, to pickles, to spiced meat, so as to vary the presentation.

Nutritious, protein and fiber rich, and completely free of meat or dairy, hummus fits within the dietary requirements of all the major religions in the Middle East. Moreover, it’s free of gluten and added sugars. Children, surprising to me, usually like hummus. That’s great, because it’s extraordinarily healthy.

In the Middle East, hummus serves traditionally as a meze (or mezza), a small dish offered as a starter before the main meal, often accompanied by a number of other small dishes. The word “meze” and its spellings (other than Turkish, the languages from Greece around to Egypt, where hummus and other meze are traditionally consumed, do not use the Roman alphabet) derive from the Italian “mezzo,” meaning “half.” Italians, especially Venetians, were active in trade and politics in the eastern Mediterranean for many centuries.

Photo: Maria Dondero; Dish: Marmalade Pottery, Athens GA
Hummus itself goes back many centuries. Early on it would have been pounded with a mortar and pestle; now it’s generally made in a food processor.

Chickpeas, the principal ingredient, are native to Anatolia, in what is now Turkey, and – along with lentils -- are among the most ancient food seeds grown and consumed. They were cultivated in the eastern Mediterranean and Fertile Crescent for over 7 thousand years. Sesame seeds, native to India rather than the Fertile Crescent, are the earliest oil seeds cultivated by humans. Based on historical references and archeological artifacts these seeds reached the Middle East and Egypt at least 4000 years ago, where they were used for oil. References to sesame paste, now called tahini or tahina, go back at least 600 years, when it was mentioned as a component of what we would now call hummus.

Serving hummus traditionally follows several patterns. Shallow crockery bowls of hummus are served on meze tables when assorted other types of meze are served, with a shallow well pressed into the paste like a bird’s nest. For larger group serving, hummus is spread flat on a wide platter, again with a built-up edge. The interior concavity is where the garnishes are distributed, with a minimum of olive oil, but typically with additional items, particularly powdered sumac – that beautiful dark red lemon-scented spice – and chopped parsley for color. Black olives, pomegranate seeds, or a few whole cooked chickpeas add artistic interest, while a thin layer of spiced chopped lamb or beef transform the dish and make it more substantial.  

Hummus is typically accompanied by warmed flat bread, such as pita, for scooping it up. In the US, crudités – cut pieces of raw vegetable – are often also offered for dipping. (For catering, our restaurant is often asked to provide raw vegetable strips in addition to bread pieces to accommodate those avoiding wheat or its calories.)

Here is the way I learned to make hummus from several Turkish chefs I hung out with in Decatur as they were starting their restaurant. It’s close, but not identical, to that served at our restaurant, Donderos’ Kitchen. The best hummus is made with chickpeas cooked from scratch. However canned chickpeas, well drained and rinsed, work reasonably well, and were the way my Turkish friends made theirs.

The recipe serves six; good to make a double batch.

Hummus bi Tahini
1 (14-ounce) can chickpeas, or 1 3/4 cups home-cooked unseasoned chickpeas
1 medium-sized clove of garlic
1/4 cup tahini (sesame seed paste)
1/2 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
1/4 teaspoon oregano, crumbled between the fingers
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
2 tablespoons lemon juice plus more as needed
2 tablespoons olive oil
Olive oil plus chopped parsley and/or sumac, for garnish
Pomegranate seeds or Kalamata olives (optional)

Drain the chickpeas if canned, rinse twice with fresh water and drain. For freshly cooked chickpeas, do not rinse, but just drain with slotted spoon, saving liquid for use as needed. In a food processor, chop the garlic first, then add the chickpeas, tahini (stirred to blend, using some oil and some solids), seasonings, lemon juice and olive oil. Process, pulsing frequently and scraping down the sides of the container with a spatula, until the hummus has a creamy, slightly pasty consistency. To thin it down, add a little cooking liquid (if freshly cooked chickpeas) or water, as needed. Check taste and add lemon juice and/or salt if needed.

If making a larger quantity than one recipe, depending on the size of your food processor the preparation can be done in several batches and the batches mixed together in a bowl. Store in zip-lock plastic bags or plastic-wrapped bowl in fridge. Hummus will keep 4-5 days in the refrigerator*. Before serving, taste and add salt and/or lemon juice if needed.

Accompany with flat bread, such as pita, preferably warmed.

*Note: Hummus freezes well. Thaw overnight in refrigerator.

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