Chef Mike explains that real hummus should be warm and cozy
Hummus is one of the world’s oldest known prepared foods—yet it is a mystery to an astounding number of Americans. Those who have encountered this smooth and savory culinary multi-tasker, probably did so while slipping past the “healthy” section of the office party snack table, or while trying to find something to drag a sad piece of carrot or broccoli through other than the runny ranch dressing lurking amidst the crudité.
That is a tragedy that doesn’t have to continue. Hummus is so much more than the cold “dip” you absentmindedly pick at with triangles of pita bread while you wait for the real food to arrive.
Good hummus is creamy, slightly nutty and almost meaty in flavor, which makes sense since its main ingredients, chickpeas and tahini, have more protein than Richie Incognito’s bro shake. Hummus simply means “chickpea” in Arabic. What we Westerners call “hummus” is actually hummus bi tahini, referring to pureed chickpeas mixed with tahini (tahini is sesame-seed paste; think peanut butter with no sugar).
Historically, hummus bi tahini is part of Levantine cuisine that first appeared in a 13th-century medieval cookbook called Kitab Wasf al-Atima al-Mutada ( ‘The Description of Familiar Food’). However, this early dish had no lemon or garlic as we find in modern versions that began to appear in 18th-century cookbooks in Damascus.
Now, in modern-day Israeli and Arab restaurants throughout that region, hummus is eaten as a single dish within a larger meal, as a stand-alone main course accompanied by a fresh vegetable salad and bread or as a spread for sandwiches and wraps. But don’t expect to find Western mutant spawn flavor combinations like beets and chocolate or avocado lavender on Arab or Israeli tables. They like their hummus traditional, just like god intended.
Hummus is also traditionally eaten warm, not cold. Although mass production practices have made refrigerated packages of processed hummus more and more popular, the processed, chilled versions are an inferior substitute for fresh, homemade hummus. Processed, cold hummus tastes like a big scoop of Sartre’s nothingness.
Refrigeration mutes the deep flavors of the chickpea. At least let it come to room temperature before you dig in, but if you want those flavors to really develop, heat it up. Warm hummus is reassuring and comforting, like a sleeping bag full of kittens or Mrs. Garrett’s bosomy embrace.
The secret to getting the best hummus is to make it yourself. It’s surprisingly easy—just focus on getting really good ingredients and treating them with the respect they deserve. Swing by a good ethnic market like International Food Market in Eastgate Town Center and pick up some small, dry chickpeas, an imported, high-quality tahini (like Alwadi brand), some fresh lemons, a decent olive oil and whip up a batch today.
Here’s a basic recipe to get you started.
[makes 4 servings]
- 1 cup dried chickpeas (the smallest you can find)
- 1/2 cup tahini
- juice from 1 squeezed lemon
- 1-2 garlic cloves
- 1/2 teaspoon cumin
- 1 tablespoon + 1/8-1/4 teaspoon baking soda
- olive oil
1. Sort and wash the chickpeas repeatedly, until the water runs clear. Soak them in clean water overnight with 1 tablespoon of baking soda. The next morning, rinse and soak again in tap water for a few more hours. The chickpeas should absorb most of the water and almost double in volume.
2. Wash the chickpeas one last time and put them in a large pot. Cover them with water and add the rest of the baking soda (no salt yet). Cook over medium heat until you can easily smash the chickpeas between two fingers. This should take around 1-to-1.5 hours. About halfway through the cooking process, drain the water and refill, removing the peels and foam that float to the surface during cooking.
3. When the chickpeas are cooked, drain them, but keep the cooking water.
4. Put the chickpeas into a mortar and pestle and grind until smooth. If you are lazy or don’t have a mortar and pestle, you can cheat and use a food processor, just don’t let jeddah (Arab for grandmother) see you.
5. Add everything except the parsley and olive oil and continue to mix until smooth. If the hummus is too thick, add some of the reserved cooking water until you get the texture you want.
Serve warm with a drizzle of high-quality olive oil and chopped parsley.
Longtime food writer and professional chef Mike McJunkin is a native Chattanoogan who has trained chefs, owned and operated restaurants, and singlehandedly increased Chattanooga’s meat consumption statistics for three consecutive years. Join him on Facebook at facebook.com/SushiAndBiscuits