Sunday, July 31, 2005

Humus and Hummus and Hoummous

Humus, or hummus, or hoummous, is a passion among Israelis. Falafel may get more press Stateside, but it doesn't inspire the same kind of arguments and allegiances here in the Holy Land that humus does. Two weeks ago, Tel Aviv hosted a giant humus-off, wherein restaurants and stands from all over the country competed for top honors. I heard about it too late, at a meeting of the "Momo Humus Club," my uncle Momo’s half-serious, unscheduled, invitation-only, Friday afternoon snacking event. While I missed the Tel Aviv fandango, I have to say with some pride that my uncle’s product is better than almost any chick-pea paste I've ever had, in terms of flavor, texture, spices, and presentation.

The humus fanaticism here is very chowhound, very like the kind of aimless yet earnest discussions my friends in L.A. have about pizza or Manhattans. And it's the only fanaticism in Israel I can support. Best of all, it crosses the major divide: My center-rightist uncle finds some of his favorite humus in Arab restaurants.

Last week, my cousin Zadok, who’s visiting from the US, went to a hotly tipped humus spot in Jerusalem. Hotly tipped by Momo, the family expert. Zadok shared a table with a British ex-pat who's lived here for 2 or 3 years and says he knows where to find the best humus and falafel all over Israel. Later, Momo visibly bristled when Zadok said he had a list of the ex-pat’s favorite spots. “Yes? What are they?,” Momo challenged. He had to agree that most of the guy's choices were sound. I'm trying to get Zadok to set up a dinner or lunch meeting so I can interview the guy for an article about humus. Apparently he says the best in Jerusalem is on the Via Dolorosa in the Old City. Yes, that Via Dolorosa, right on the way to the holiest of holy places in Christianity, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

Yet humus is not a recent trend. My dad and his brother have been debating the merits of different humus spots for decades now. Maybe they were just ahead of the curve. Whenever I came here in my 20s and 30s they couldn’t wait to take me to the newest humus place. Just like nightclubs, the humus hotspots change every few months. I’d be unpacking, still unshowered after 25 hours in transit, and my father would lope into the room. “Let’s go for some humus!”

“Now? I just got here. Well … I am kind of hungry,” I’d say, listening keenly for a growl in the vicinity of my stomach. “What about dinner?”

“Dinner’s later,” dad would say. “It’s just humus.”

Just humus. Anybody who’s had humus knows it’s as close to cement as food gets. For me, an afternoon humus dalliance is like a mob hit on my dinner appetite. But given the quality of much of the other food here, I’m always happy for a humus sit-down. Play your cards right and you can get "other salads" in the mix: four kinds of eggplant, tomatoes and cucumbers, beets, etc. But a serious humus place doesn’t waste time on such fripperies. Get in, get your fix, get out. Come back tomorrow.

So typically I’d rinse my face, change my shirt, and sleepily join my dad for the newest in the humus arts. And we’d get to the humus mecca, and it would be closed. The humus artisan is a delicate flower who may close up at a moment’s notice. Our confection of hunger and excitement would deflate, and we’d stand before the shut eatery moping and willing it to reopen. Or thinking up alternatives. But mine were always out of date.

“What about the Elvis place?” I’d say, remembering fondly the hole in the wall whose interior was plastered with Elvis posters and photos.

“Eh, he’s no good any more,” my father would say. Then, brightening, “But come. We have a new one in Makhne Yehuda that’s even better.”

“What about Ta’ami?” I’d ask, already salivating. “It’s just up the street and we won’t have to drive.”

“Weeeell, he’s OK,” my father would allow, searching for a reason not to have to settle for passe humus. “But I think he’s putting too much soda in the humus these days. Come, we’ll go to, to ... em, what’s his name? I don’t know, he doesn’t have a sign, but the humus is the best in Jerusalem!”

“Wait. I thought this place was the best in Jerusalem.”

“They both are, but I've been hearing very good things about the Arab in Makhne Yehuda. He makes the humus fresh every two hours. And the pitot are right off the fire. Nu, let’s go. Yalla!” (Yalla is what people say to donkeys and children and anybody else whom they wish to motivate into action. It’s an Arabic word that’s been fully absorbed into the Hebrew vocabulary.)

And we’d get to the gifted Arab’s fluorescent alcove in Makhne Yehuda, and we’d stand in line with the other devotees, impatient for our portion and pointedly ignoring the clock’s inevitable ticking to the dinner hour. And when we would finally sit down, we would get our steaming pitot and humus within minutes and we would apply the one to the other and eat it warm and creamy and seasoned perfectly and we would sit back chewing happily and it would be very very good. It would be amazing.

How is humus served? Many, many ways. The classic style is spread out on a six-inch circular plate, with the edges spackled up to almost an inch in height and then tapered down to almost flat but raised again a little in the very center, the circular trough or moat drizzled with olive oil and perhaps a few bits of parsley and/or dashes of paprika. Popular variations on this theme include:

All of the above with a small lagoon of tahina in the center moat
All of the above with a few dozen stewed chick peas in the moat
The humus, as described above, with stewed mushrooms in the moat
The humus, as described above, with stewed ful or fava beans, either mashed or intact, in the moat
The humus, as described above, with any of the preceding adornments surmounted by a hard-boiled egg.

And let’s not forget the must-have humus accessory: the pita. Shall I compare thee, Israeli pita, to your American namesake? No. Hoss ve halleela, which translates roughly from Arabic to “heaven forbid.” The pitot here are light and fluffy and chewy and have an incredible fresh bread flavor. Only old or store-bought pitot are leathery and dull like the falafel gloves we’ve gotten used to in the States.

And the slightly less de rigueur humus accessory is the skhug, a fiery chimichurri-like mix of chili peppers, garlic, cilantro, salt, and olive oil. This element is key for me. There's a story in skhug too. Next time.

Why is humus a major topic now? That’s a good question. Perhaps people are just happy to focus on something trivial that spans racial and political divides at a time when larger, more dangerous and intractable issues are inescapable.


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