Let's Eat

Why hummus is more than just a food

Writers of a new book about chickpeas, Hummus Route, hope it will help Middle Eastern understanding


Each day, Ariel Rosenthal makes hummus and falafel for 1600 Tel Avivians. The 44 year old chef and owner of Hakosem prepares a lot of chickpeas. “I make my falafel mix 16 times a day and fresh hummus nine times a day — all by hand” he says. 

For him it is more than a food. He credits the tiny pulse with turning his life around. Born in Israel, his parents separated when he was two months old. He saw little of his restaurateur father, of whom he has vivid memories of delicious flavours and aromas. His mother had little interest in food and struggled to look after Rosenthal and his brother. “She was not healthy in spirit” he explains. His childhood left him “tattooed with memories of feeling both physically hungry and emotionally starving. I was hungry for a father, for a home and a nourishing plate — any plate — to feed  me.”  

After years of a nomadic existence, moving from place to place in Israel and Europe and a stint with foster parents on a kibbutz, 15 year old Rosenthal, by then living on the street, found employment as a waiter. “I had to work to eat, and waiting was the best money you could make. One day I was asked to help in the kitchen and I loved it.” 

He trained as a chef but at 26 decided to study to be social worker. “I wanted to turn my early years into a positive.” In order to pay the rent and support his studies, he opened a small falafel restaurant. He says he was drawn towards hummus and falafel rather than a more refined menu — “It was an intuition that pulled me there, something I couldn’t explain then.” 

Four years into his studies he decided he could reach people with the food he was producing equally as well as he could via social work, so he decided to focus on Hakosem. “The chickpea allowed me to build my own safe place, enabled me to fulfil the spiritual desire I so craved in my childhood and to invite others to share it with me.”

Three years ago, he decided he wanted produce a book about chickpeas. On the Hummus Route is a tribute to the food that’s a staple for both Arabs and Israelis. 

Rosenthal could see its popularity had travelled. “People all over the world eat hummus — in the UK, Germany, Japan and Russia. Tourists come and eat it in Israel and love it. It’s vegan, vegetarian and a superfood. It needed the stage it deserved” says Rosenthal. 

He says that when he came up with the idea for the book, he approached two Israelis — food writer Orly Peli-Bronshtein and award-winning editor and France-based designer, Dan Alexander — to help him bring the project to fruition. 

“Orly and I were at Tadmor culinary school together 24 years ago, and she has published 11 cookery books. We approached Dan as we wanted to take the book in a different direction than an ordinary cook book. He had edited cookery books, but is also expert in art and design.” 

It was Alexander who hit upon the idea of a collection of recipes, images and photographs from a range of cities. His inspiration had been what he describes as the “layers of mythology” surrounding the golden legume and also to the Middle Eastern conflict over who first invented both hummus and falafel.

“That’s what inspired the idea of a ‘hummus route’. We discovered that ta’amiya, a version of falafel made from fava beans, was first eaten in Cairo a few hundred years ago. We tracked the ‘hummus capitals’ where it is popular from there.” They were Cairo, Gaza, Jaffa, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Nazareth, Acre, Beirut and Damascus.

“We started making a map and added stories, recipes and articles on it from each city. We chose the best stories, whether related to healthy eating, a food memory or the teller’s own history” explains Rosenthal, who includes his own narrative in the book.

Other contributors including food writer Claudia Roden (Cairo), restaurateur Sami Tamimi (Jerusalem) and food writer Joudie Kalla (Jaffa), all share their chickpea related memories. 

The book brings Israelis and Arabs together, some anonymously. “Contributors from Lebanon could end up in jail if they were seen to be working with Israelis” explains Alexander. He says he wanted to the book to express a message of equality and that they had a utopian fantasy of how all the Middle Eastern countries might live together — coming together over hummus and falafel, their shared stories and similarities. 

Rosenthal’s food is so popular that since opening a tiny 26 metre square unit in 2001, he has twice taken over adjoining units, successfully elevating the street foods to a finer experience. Industrial-sized wall fans keep customers cool and banging tunes pound from the speakers while chefs in pristine whites glide around, calmly doling out hot, crunchy falafel; plates of creamy hummus smothered in chickpeas, paprika, golden olive oil and bright green parsley; bowls of rice topped with lentils and sweet caramelised onions and warm, pillowy pita bread. The restaurant is a favourite with Michelin-starred chefs and Israel celebs and has brought Rosenthal local fame. It’s all a long way from where he started. 

He is proud of that and of the book that he, Alexander and Peli-Bronshtein have produced. It’s packed with drool-worthy photographs and recipes alongside the various stories. Reading it for the interview left me craving falafel sufficiently to immediately use Rosenthal’s recipe to make my own. They were delicious.  

“Slowly, slowly we started this amazing journey. I’d like to think this book is a wake-up call to live together happily” says Alexander. Whether the book has the power to achieve Alexanders’s dreams remains to be seen, but it’s a fitting tribute to the Middle East’s favourite food.

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