Plato was partial to it, as was Socrates. The Phoenicians plied the seas and the Egyptians fed slaves on it. It is arguably Western civilisation’s first superfood, and no self-respecting Israeli, Greek, Turkish or Middle Eastern restaurant would be seen dead without it on the menu. It is, of course, hummus. The precise origins of this mélange of chickpeas, tahini, lemon and garlic are lost in the proverbial mists of time. But one thing is certain: nowadays it is as likely to be served in Jewish homes as chicken soup or chopped liver.
So it may come as no surprise that this weekend sees Britain’s — and possibly the world’s — first festival of hummus, hosted by the JCC at Hampstead Town Hall on Sunday. Participants can enter a hummus-making competition (ingredients will be supplied by the organisers). The winner will see their hummus formula included in a special dish for a week at Hummus Bros in Soho, who will be donating £1 per portion to a charity of the winner’s choice.
The Hummus Bros (who are not in fact brothers) will be among the judges, along with the JC’s own Silvia Nacamulli, and restaurant critic Victoria Prever. Says Nacamulli, who lived in Israel for several years, “I will surely look for a hummus that is whisker-licking good and that reminds me of the simple pleasure of the Levant, and Israel in particular.” “I’ll be looking for something creative, but not too creative,” says Prever.
“Chocolate-chip hummus is just too weird for me.” For such an ancient and highly-esteemed food, hummus has taken a surprisingly long time to make its way into the limelight. The nutritious little legume on which it is based has been cultivated for some seven millennia: they have actually dug up a 7,500-year-old chickpea in Turkey, though whether it was destined for a plate of hummus we shall never know. Until 10 or 15 years ago, however, hummus in Britain was largely the province of Sephardim and vegetarians, although I do recall seeing cans in the Jewish deli when I was little. Then suddenly, like croissants and fresh pasta, hummus was “discovered”. Inevitably, supermarket product developers soon felt the urge to push the envelope.
Twenty-first century hummus is now likely to be “enhanced” with the likes of caramelised onion, slow-roasted tomato, or avocado and jalapeno. And that’s nothing. In America, popular hummus varieties include spicy chipotle and chunky kalamata. I have even come across pineapple and curry flavoured hummus over there.
Hummus is now big business. Its reputation as a healthy, low-fat food has helped boost sales of supermarket hummus in America tenfold in the last three years, and despite recent salmonella scares, the UK market seems equally buoyant. So who first thought of this antique superfood? Some say it was the Arabs, although the Greeks would beg to disagree. Supposedly, however it was Saladin — by all accounts a great cook — who, under the guidance of his court physician, Moses Maimonides, took hummus to a whole new level by adding a judicious combination of spices. His signature “40-spice mix” was said to enhance virility.
This may explain why to this day, traditionally religious families in the Middle East are renowned for the high garlic content of their hummus, which apparently originated as a way to keep young men and women separated. Hummusfest competitors with nubile daughters, take note.
For more information on the JCC Hummusfest, phone 020 7431 9866 or visit jcclondon.org.uk/Food.html