Region: Arab Levant
Category: Antipasto, Meze, Tapas, and Hors d'Oeuvres
In the twelfth century, the poverty and lack of good health of Egyptians was noted by 'Abd al- Latif al-Baghdadi, a physician from Baghdad, who tells us that children in Egypt were thin, deformed, and stunted and that putrid and phlegmatic diseases affected the population of the Nile. The Florentine Lionardo Frescobaldi made the observation in 1384 that the Egyptians were very feeble (and their bread was very white, meaning it was missing the nutritious bran). Chickpeas were part of the staple Egyptian diet, and the most famous of chickpea preparations from the Levant and Egypt are now firmly ensconced on the American table.
This world-famous puree, obligatory on every Arab meze table, is loved throughout the Arab world and is now found ubiquitously in the United States. The word hummus means "chickpea" in Arabic. The tahini is the sesame seed paste that one stirs into the mashed chickpeas. The convenience of prepared hummus is perfect for our harried lifestyles, but unfortunately most prepared hummus is sub-standard. In the Arab world, every family has their own recipe for hummus, so that the prepared dish does not have such a standardized reputation as it does in this country. For example, in Syria some families make hummus with olive oil, cumin, and allspice instead of tahini and lemon juice. This recipe will give you a more flavorful and personal rendition, that I think you will enjoy, but feel free to experiment. For instance, you may want to make a smoother hummus, in which case push the cooked chickpeas through a food mill. No matter how you make hummus, it is important to peel and discard the thin white skins of the chickpeas. Tahini is found in nearly all supermarkets and certainly in Middle Eastern markets. Sumac, a deep red-colored spice made from the dried berries of the sumac bush, on the other hand can only be found in Middle Eastern markets. I almost always use canned chickpeas, too, these days because they are excellent and easy.
[photo: Clifford A. Wright]
Yield: Makes 6 servings
Preparation Time: 30 minutes or 3:30 hours
1. Drain the chickpeas and place in a pot of lightly salted water to cover by 2-inches. Bring the water to a boil over a high heat until it foams, about 5 to 10 minutes. Remove the foam with a skimmer and continue boiling, partially covered, until tender, about 3 hours, so keep checking. Add boiling water to the pot to keep the chickpeas continuously covered. Drain and save 1 1/2 cups of the cooking water. Return the cooked chickpeas to the same pot filled with some cold water so you can rub the skins off the chickpeas with your fingers (many of them will rise to the surface).
2. Process the chick-peas with 1/2 cup of the olive oil and 1 cup of the reserved chickpea cooking water in a food processor until creamy.
3. In a mortar, pound the garlic with 1 tablespoon salt until it is a creamy mush. In a small bowl, beat the tahini and lemon juice together slowly. If it is too thick, add water--never more lemon juice. Stir the tahini-and-lemon juice mixture into the garlic and salt. Stir this mixture into the chickpea puree, adjust the salt, and season with pepper. Check the consistency; if it is too thick, like an oatmeal, then add some of the remaining reserved chick-pea cooking water until it is smoother, like a Cream of Wheat. Check the taste and adjust the seasoning if necessary. If you do need to adjust the taste, the process must be repeated--in other words, mash some more garlic with salt or mix a tablespoon of tahini with a tablespoon of lemon juice.
4. In a small skillet, cook the pine nuts in 1 tablespoon of the olive oil over medium heat until light brown, stirring, about 4 minutes. Remove and set aside.
5. Spoon the hummus onto a large round serving platter, not a bowl. Warm the remaining 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil. Make spiral or fan-shaped furrows in the hummus and fill with the warm olive oil. Sprinkle the reserved pine nuts around. Garnish the edges with mint leaves and sprinkle the chopped mint on top. Sprinkle the sumac over and serve. Serve with warm Arabic flatbread or pita bread.
Note: Other garnishes used are whole cooked chickpeas, black olives, pomegranate seeds, cayenne pepper, red Aleppo pepper, paprika, or ground cumin.