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Friday, April 6, 2012

Really, what is hummus?

Greek-Style Hummus

Really, what is hummus?
by Victoria Challancin

The English teacher part of me will always be drawn to etymology.  And nowhere is it more true than in the food world.  I am fascinated by the way the meanings of words morph with time, culture, travel, use, and exposure.  Take the word hummus (spellings vary greatly), for example.  Once the Western culinary world embraced the dish most of us know as "hummus," there the fun begins.  

The word hummus simply means chickpea in Arabic.  That's all.  Chickpea.  Yet I can easily find countless recipes for Green Pea Hummus, Beet Hummus, Fava Bean Hummus, Black Bean Hummus, Carrot Hummus, Pumpkin Hummus, Artichoke Hummus and more with not a trace of chickpeas in them.  Often these are just garlicky, lemony spreads--delicious, no doubt, but clearly not hummus.  How has this come about?

The West embraced hummus, that is how.  Logically, experimentation and reinvention teamed up with savvy marketing, and a new food industry was born.

Hummus may be the Arabic word for chickpeas or garbanzos, in Spanish, but it also denotes a dip of creamy, garlic-rich, lemon-spiked mashed chickpeas now found throughout the world.  When it includes tahini, or sesame seed paste, it becomes Hummus bi Tahina, the dish many of us have come to love and crave.  The modern Western marketing machine has plummeted hummus with tahini into our world, on our shelves, and, dare I say, into our hearts.  Countless varieties appear on our grocery shelves:  Red Pepper Hummus, Roasted Garlic Hummus, Hummus with Garlic, Hummus with Feta, Hazlenut Hummus, Sun-Dried Tomato Hummus, Hummus with Yogurt, Hummus with Pine Nuts, Tofu Hummus, Spinach Hummus, Kalamata Olive Hummus, Cranberry Hummus, and on, and on.  And most of these actually include chickpeas, the "real" hummus.

Hummus:  A Little History

There is such a thing as The Great Hummus Wars, in which both Lebanon and Israel argue over the "ownership" of the name hummus.  The real history of hummus, of course, is lost in time as chickpeas have been cultivated in the Middle East for over 7000 years.  Although they were eaten in many forms, such as stews and other hot dishes for millennia, the earliest know recipes form the cold version with tahini which is similar to what we know today, didn't appear until the 13th century in Egypt.  

Whatever the origin of hummus be tahina, we do know that it is beloved by Arabs, Christians, and Jews throughout the Middle East and beyond.  As a part of a meze, it is often served as an appetizer and dip, served with flatbread.  It is also a common accompaniment to falafel, kibbe, grilled chicken, fish, or eggplant.  Seasonings and garnishes can vary the flavor of the basic chickpea-lemon-garlic-tahini mixture:  chopped tomato, cumin, mint, cilantro, parsley, caramelized onions, hard-cooked eggs, sumac, olives, pickles, pinenuts, and a splash of olive olive oil are commonly found.  No wonder it has been called a true culinary chameleon.

Nutritional Value of Hummus

A perfect food for the hot, arid climates of the Middle East, hummus can fill nutritional needs as it provides a flavor-packed dish of almost addictive goodness.  Containing high amounts of fiber and proteins, it is also rich in minerals and vitamins.

  • Chickpeas themselves are rich in fiber and protein and have been said to help maintain healthy blood sugar levels.  Chickpeas also contain molybdenum, a trace mineral that helps the body detoxify sulfites.  Iron and Manganese are found in significant amounts in chickpeas.
  • Tahini, while it is high in unsaturated fat and calories, is also rich in protein and is a great source of calcium.  Tahini also contains manganese, copper, and sodium with some calcium, iron, magnesium and zing.  It is relatively rich in Vitamin C and 6 and contains Vitamins E, K, Folate, and Thiamin
  • Olive oil has long been considered a healthy fat which may help regulate cholesterol and protect the heart.  
  • The antioxidants found in both garlic and lemon juice are an added bonus for the immune system as well as in the fight against bacteria and viruses. 
  • I have also read that hummus contains about 20 essential Amino Acids, including large dosages of tryptophan, phenylalanine, and tyrosine, a combination that makes it effective in treating minor mood disorders, such as depression and anxiety.  See?  I just knew in my heart that hummus made me feel better!
A platter of Greek-Style Hummus ready for dipping

Hummus was not new to me when I first moved to Abu Dhabi in the mid-seventies, but it was there that I truly came to love it.  Later, when I taught at university in Bahrain, I ate it, along with baba ghanouj and fattoush or a chickpea salad, almost daily in the university's cafeteria.  It became something I craved--and still do.  Usually, I just make a Lebanese-style hummus with no added embellishments.  Chickpeas, lemon juice, lots of garlic, and tahini pureed together and drizzled with olive oil and perhaps a sprinkle of cumin.  That's it.  Simple.  But when I saw this Greek-style version on, I just knew I had to make it. And I thought laying it out Cobb Salad-style, would be nice.  And it is.  We made it in class this week with Za'atar-Spiced Homemade Pita Bread.

Greek-Style Hummus
(Recipe from, slightly adapted)

Two 15-oz cans of chickpeas, rinsed, and drained
3 heaping tablespoons of tahini
Juice of one lemon, seeds removed
3 cloves of garlic, minced or pressed
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil plus 2 tablespoons for drizzling on top
1/2 cup Kalamata olives, pitted and coarsely chopped
1 cup European-style cucumber, cubed
3/4 cup sun-dried tomatoes in oil, coarsely chopped
3 tablespoons fresh dill, finely chopped
1 cup feta cheese, crumbled

Combine chickpeas, tahini, lemon juice, garlic, olive oil, and 2 tablespoons dill in a blender or food processor and blend until smooth.  If too dry, add hot water or the cooking liquid from freshly cooked dried chickpeas by the tablespoon until it reaches the desired consistency.  Taste and adjust seasoning.  Spread the hummus on half of a serving platter; swirl the top with a spoon to make a circular indentation and drizzle more olive oil into the indentation, if desired.  Layer the olives, cucumber, tomatoes, and feta in rows alongside the hummus.  Sprinkle with the remaining tablespoon of fresh dill.  Serve with pita bread or pita chips.


Greek-Style Hummus with Dill and Homemade Pita Bread with Za'atar

Possible Uses for Hummus
Not only is hummus delicious as the dip we have come to know and love, it has countless other uses as well:

  • Serve with pita bread or pita chips (or corn chips or any other healthy chip you like)
  • Serve with any fresh vegetable
  • Use it as a spread for panini or wraps or as a mayonnaise substitute
  • Spread it on slices of pear or apple
  • Combine it with chicken or vegetable broth and use as a pasta sauce
  • Serve it with roasted vegetables
  • Stuff cherry tomatoes with hummus
  • Top it with cooked, spiced ground meat to make Hummus be Tahina ma'a Lahm 
  • Add it to tuna or egg salad--it's terrific in deviled eggs
  • Use it as a topping for baked potato
  • Spread hummus on pizza dough and sprinkle with cheese before baking
  • Add a spoonful of hummus to your scrambled eggs
  • Eat it on toasted bagels
  • Add it to mashed potatoes
  • Thin hummus with more lemon juice or vinegar and olive oil to make a salad dressing
  • Mix in some mango chutney as a spread for crackers

Olives on display in the Marrakech souk

This is my entry in Nancy of Spice Foodie's monthly YBR (Your Best Recipe) event.  Thank you for hosting, Nancy.

©Victoria Challancin.  All Rights Reserved.  Please share the recipe, but ask permission before using photos or text.  Thanks!


Ben said...

I DO love hummus! Thanks for another informative post about this delicious... hmmm chickpea? Hehe, whatever the name means and wherever it comes from, I'm glad it made it even to Mexico.

Hotly Spiced said...

What a beautiful looking platter Victoria. Stunning with all those colours. I would love to attack it as an appetiser! I love hummus and all the things you've put with it xx

FOODalogue said...

Great post. So informative and beautifully illustrated. I love Mid-Eastern treats like this (and your university lunches). I would happily pull a seat up to that platter and feast away.

Happy Easter Victoria.

Rachel said...

Oh dear,I think I started to drool. I just want to grab a spoon and start eating. Your pictures are sinful and I am now educated on the history. Thank you. I have been to Israel, Turkey and Greece myself and you are right - the different kinds of hummus are incredible. I will try your recipe. I cannot wait to get back to the flavors.

Eha said...

First of all, what beautiful photos! Well, I kind'of fell in love with it when I realized it was a hugely addictive alternative to all other spreads and that was a long time ago! So long I oft had to spell it three ways on the phone for a grocery delivery!!! I do try to make my own but sometimes buy it under at least three spellings and my fridge would loudly complain if this was not part of its contents!

Kirsten Lindquist said...

Fantastic photographs! Both the platter and the market! thanks for the inspiration and sharing!

tania@mykitchenstories said...

This platter looks really fantastic. I never thought of adding hommus to potato or soup great ideas, thank you. You inspired me with you Chimichurri post last week . Im going to use it in my cooking demos this week thanks X

Karen (Back Road Journal) said...

Victoria, your photos are always great but todays are outstanding. Love your presentation for hummus.

Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

I must admit I was guilty of making a three bean hummus without any chickpeas not knowing that the word meant chickpea (well not until a reader pointed it out). Your platter looks mouth watering and delicious Victoria! :D

Lorraine @ Not Quite Nigella said...

I must admit I was guilty of making a three bean hummus without any chickpeas not knowing that the word meant chickpea (well not until a reader pointed it out). Your platter looks mouth watering and delicious Victoria! :D

LunaCafe said...

Informative post and gorgeous photos!you have made me so hungry. :-) ...Susan

Angie's Recipes said...

What hummus is...well, I believe there's another name for's DELICIOUS. said...

I love hummus too and thank you for this post. I will pass it on to others that have disagreed with me when i tell them that hummus is chickpeas....

Nancy said...

Hi Victoria,

I love, love your article. I'm also always curious of the history and evolution of the foods I eat. Your hummus plate looks so scrumptious. Thanks for being a part of the YBR:)